Together we can: how your organization can foster hope and change today
submitted by Sandhya Jha, director of the Oakland Peace Center, re-written by Virginia White, OPC intern. NOTE: For a list of organizations who tabled, please follow this link.
As organizers, activists, advocates and community leaders, these post-election days can feel daunting. Those of us who have been in the movement for justice, peace, Black Lives, the environment, LGBQT+ rights and more for a while may feel that we have been dealt a blow that will reverse progress or make our lives that much more difficult. Adding something else to our plate, might seem overwhelming.
But last weekend, I started getting calls from people who have not been actively involved in the movement saying that they were ready now. Their reasons varied. Some were afraid, and didn’t want to stay that way. Some wanted to rage or burn things down, but knew that they also wanted to get involved in something constructive and positive. Some felt that this election was a wake-up call, that what they believed in was at stake, and they no longer could only passively hold onto their values; they felt they had to act now.
Whatever their reasons, they wanted to get involved and they wanted to know how.
As someone who has been doing the work of peace building for a while, I was encouraged.
So with the help of a PHENOMENALLY gifted intern, the Oakland Peace Center created a resource fair. The goal was simple: to help people feeling a sense of urgency discover that they have a power to make a POSITIVE contribution in their community and to create a space for leaders who have been in this work for the long-haul to connect with new constituents and allies.
And it worked. Within four days, we had thirty organizations agree to table and four hundred people attend (And the rain!!!). Check it out!
What this tells me is that people are hungry for positivity, people are hungry for a sense that they are not alone, and people are hungry to get involved.
I bet this is true in your neighborhood, too. If you’d like to organize a similar resource fair within your community here’s a glimpse at how we did it:
Networking and organizing: the Oakland Peace Center is made up of forty organizations who are working to create equity as the means of creating peace, so we had a good baseline. But our partners are mostly small, scrappy organizations working to help people at a local level. We wanted folks to connect with them, but we also wanted to provide resources for people looking to get engaged in work we didn’t have covered: advocacy with Muslims, health care access, learning how to intervene when someone is being assaulted (verbally or otherwise), women’s rights, environmental justice. So we needed to reach new organizations as well as new people. We asked our friends in the movement who they knew, we searched online, and we put out calls on Facebook. And people responded. We connected with around 20 new organizations this way.
We listened and we checked in: On the Friday and Saturday after the election I got several messages from people saying “what do I do to engage in protecting people’s healthcare?” or “a lot of people are asking me what they can do to protect immigrants’ (or refugees’ or LGBTQ people’s or Muslims’) rights. Where do I point them?” Then a facebook friend shared an event happening in LA that weekend and asked if anything like that was happening in Oakland. I said no, but it might help me field the questions I was getting. We began to sense that people were hungry for the opportunity to do something pro-active. Youth were walking out of school; people who had never marched were marching; people were wearing safety pins so they could express their solidarity. We had a sense that this could be meaningful and helpful to the community. In our community, we felt a need to capture the energy of the present moment, so we moved quickly (four days!!!! whew!), but we might do another one in January or February. We also listened during the fair: we thought our next event would be a training, but what we heard was people wanted another resource fair so that their friends could come and so other organizations could be in the room. So we’re shifting focus from what we thought was best to what the community has told us would be best.
Our message was positive: In both our email blast, our flyers and our facebook messaging, we didn’t focus on hostility or negativity or anxiety. Truthfully, many of us feel those things, and they are valid. But at the Oakland Peace Center we believe that what we are building is even more important than what we are tearing down, even though there are things that need to be torn down in order to build. Our facebook message read “If you feel a drive to do something about the environment, immigrants’ rights, healthcare, Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights, reducing bullying, increasing a culture of peace and inclusion, or any other issues to make this community better, please come to this gathering and learn about the ways you can participate! Whether you are a long time activist or have never attended a rally in your life, your contributions matter!” My sense is that right now, people are feeling negative, powerless and isolated. So our message was positive, it reminded people of their power, and that we are not alone. And the event reinforced those messages.
We Honored Multiple Ways of Creating Positive Change: The other beautiful thing that emerged out of who the Oakland Peace Center is (and which I believe neighborhood groups, non-profits, and community centers can foster) was that we had multiple dimensions to how people could be engaged. “Get In Where You Fit In” was a slogan our intern Virginia used, and it was true: we had organizations working on national and local policy issues; we had organizations engaged in community service work (who were not afraid of the organizations doing policy work); and we had organizations connecting people to inner peace so that they can take care of themselves in order to take care of others. The OPC is committed to creating peace-filled communities. To achieve this goal, we need different policies, we need people engaged in service and solidarity with each other, and we need people who are able to heal from trauma and find peace within themselves. All of those resources were available—some even were taught right there during the fair, through assault-intervention trainings, basic HeartMath trainings and anti-bullying techniques.
We made sure that as many of the communities potentially impacted by upcoming policy changes were in the room as possible: we reached out to Muslim organizations, disability rights organizations, environmental groups, women’s groups, LGBTQ+ groups, organizations supporting the Movement for Black Lives, immigration rights, and so on. Usually there are organizations doing both advocacy and social service around these communities in every state in the nation as well as in most major cities.
We created an air of celebration: People who came wanted to experience hope. And part of how hope gets crushed is by replacing joy with fear. So we created a festival atmosphere: popcorn and high energy music, and a kids’ table with children’s books representing both themes of inclusion and justice (which we promoted in advance so people knew it was a family-friendly event). Joy is an underutilized tool of creating justice! We even had a woman who creates justice-oriented children’s coloring resources volunteer at the kids’ table! (Here are some of the pages we provided the children.)
We didn’t create anything new: With any issue, there are folks doing really good work who are underresourced. This is a moment to connect, not necessarily re-invent the wheel.
We created spaces for people to cast vision, share their commitments and offer words of hope: We had poster board where people wrote what they were committing themselves to and what their hopes were. We didn’t create a physical space for grief, although one restorative justice partner gathered people who wanted to really let their feelings out and feel heard, and that was beautiful. One of the organizations, Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, invited people to cast a vision for a moral economy when people visited their table:
We learned some really inspiring things:
- People were so excited about this that even without asking for them, we ended up with phenomenal volunteers!
- There were a lot of young people who came because they want to become activists. But there were also senior citizens who felt that they could no longer stay uninformed or unengaged. In this historical moment, I believe this is true of many people: as OPC intern, Virginia White, reflected after the event, “people care about these issues, but they haven’t known how to engage, or didn’t think they should, until now. This resource fair was not about convincing people to do something new, it was about showing them how.” This is who our fair was for, and they came in the rain by the hundreds.
- Some people were puzzled by why we would do something like this until we explained that part of the mission of the OPC is to connect people to one another and to each other’s work. In a culture where competition is the name of the game, some were surprised that a nonprofit would be interested in connecting people to other nonprofits. But it is clear that we are truly stronger together, and we cannot do all that needs to be done alone. The fair was a time for these connections to be built, for organizations to cross-pollinate and to build solidarity and strength for our shared goals. The fair helped us all realize that no organization is alone, no matter how specific their mission. What a teachable moment.
- This event created hope. Let me say again: at a time when people are experiencing fear, we created a space of hope. Participants thanked us, and so did the organizations, some of whom have been in this work for decades and were feeling a little out of hope themselves. At our best, isn’t that what our work as activists, organizers, and advocates is about? Building hope to conquer despair, hope by creating change, not just in the abstract, but in concrete ways.
- Over and over, people said the fair gave them a sense that there really is a community dedicated to supporting each other. During my introductory announcement, I reminded people that “we need us. We need to have each other’s backs. In the coming days we will need to be able to trust each other, and that happens when we really show up for each other.” So I told them to talk to all of the tablers but also to talk to each other, because we have each other’s backs best when we know each other, and that can start here. And people did.
- Overall, pulling the resource fair off took a lot of time and effort (it was my and the OPC’s intern’s main focus for about four days), but it was not difficult logistically to manage. Once our facebook numbers started looking good, some of the organizations that had never heard of us before suddenly thought this would be a great opportunity.
Does this sound like something your community needs? If so, give it a try. We really can do it together.