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Virginia Organizing: Taking issues to action

You’re mad as hell, and you’re not going to take it anymore. What makes America America is how we take our frustrations to action.

“The role that we play is helping citizens be able to know enough about what bothers them to be able to verbalize that to the power-brokers,” said Janice “Jay” Johnson, the chair of the Charlottesville-based Virginia Organizing, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this month.

“Citizenship is an active role, not a passive role. We’re here to support people being active in their communities,” said Johnson, who got involved in Virginia Organizing in Newport News 10 years ago because she was “looking for a way to get involved” and wanted to do more than sit around and talk and drink coffee and call that being involved.

The civic awareness and sense of civic duty that the Founders had as the cornerstones of their American experiment compete in our modern American life with work and careers and family and recreation and entertainment.

Just keeping up with the daily news can be tough, and being able to do more than yell at the TV when elected leaders do something dumb is a challenge.

“What happens is we elect people to represent us at the state and national levels and then tell them to go do their thing. But their thing isn’t necessarily the citizens’ thing,” Johnson said. “Citizens elect these people, and then they give them power. We give the power to them, and then we’re afraid to talk to them about what we really need. So then citizens feel helpless. They feel powerless to do anything. Unless they’re able to say what it is that is bothering them and they think needs to change, then they aren’t going to be listened to.”

Virginia Organizing provides people with the tools they need to empower themselves to action.

“A lot of people have things that bother them or affect them in terms of the communities they live in, but they don’t know the background of the issue or the history or what the possibility of change and what things would look like if there was change. What we do is talk with people about what they see are the issues and help them set priorities for what it is they really want to work at getting to happen and strategies for effecting change,” Johnson said.

An important part of what Virginia Organizing does is help people “find the people who can make that change,” Johnson said.

“It can be school boards, it can be state elected officials, it could be the local housing authority, it could be local businesspeople. You have to find out who your allies are,” Johnson said.

Efforts are ongoing on issues including health-care reform, financial reform and predatory lending, to name just a few of the topics that have Virginia Organizing’s attention.

Anniversaries are good times to think about what has been done to date and what will be done in the future. The future of Virginia Organizing, Johnson said, “is doing more of what we’re doing now.”

“The work never really stops,” Johnson said. “There’s always something going on that needs to change. The way the state looks at its revenue situation needs to change. We have an administration that’s looking at getting rid of revenue-producers instead of looking at ways to produce more revenue otherwise. We have to look at the perspectives and priorities of the administration of the state and whether it’s doing what is in the best interests of its citizens and where people are with that and the concerns that they have.”

Story by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at