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Cynthia Torres Headshot

Pushing the Needle

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I was just minding my own business, reading about other people's business in the news on-line. I was sipping my morning coffee and savoring my homemade pumpkin scones, enjoying my relaxing morning. Then there it was. "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities." I was stunned. I am a community organizer who does have actual responsibilities. Was she talking about me?

I tried to get back into the calm groove of breakfast. I tried to continue reading the article, but was distracted by the notebooks that lined the back of my desk. I began pulling them out one by one, searching for validation that I had real responsibilities. Their tattered spiral covers showed the wear and tear of being stuffed into book bags, hauled from one meeting to the next in search of people and organizations willing to work together to support our local farms and make fresh, fair food available for everyone. Each notebook had a different format, which evolved in detail as my organizational skills developed over the years. My very first notebook didn't even have a name. I bought it at Target, a Back to School special, 5 for 50 cents. This is where my first notes were taken in my career as a community organizer. And it serves as the beginning of a roadmap of working to bring people together to make positive change.

The role of a community organizer is often underestimated by local governments, folks disengaged from Democracy and of course, by Sarah Palin. Perhaps that notion has worked to many organizers advantage. In Wasilla, I doubt that Mrs. Palin had the opportunity to witness fervent organizing to incite social change. Real change begins with opportunities to consider the possibilities, the "what ifs." As a community organizer, I have learned how to maneuver through the regulations, paperwork, and rigid operational procedures that are all a part of working with state and local government. It's not exactly an atmosphere conducive to thinking outside the box. Things are done simply because that's the way they've always been done. An energized community organizer has the opportunity to push the needle from where it comfortably sits in the threads of tradition, towards a future landscape weaved together by community values.

Armed with the reality of how slowly change comes sometimes, and the ability to organize people and organizations, community organizers get to bring new perspectives to problems and offer non-traditional solutions. My notebooks were filled with references to communities that were making grass-root changes to help their farmers and feed hungry people. It's filled with names and numbers of people who, contrary to some pundits, are not trying to beat the system. They are hard working folks who want to change the system to create alternatives and self-reliance, that is less reliant on the slow moving bureaucracy. As I look back at those notebooks, I can see where I noted my many frustrations in the margins. It hasn't been easy to get elected policy makers to recognize the validity of ordinary people creating their own paths to public policy and change.

Looking back through the pages reminded me of days I thought nothing I did mattered. Somehow I remained motivated and continued to pursue change not because it was my civic duty, but because I wanted to see my values and hopes for my community reflected in and supported by our local policy. My notebooks didn't begin with a list of responsibilities (like a notebook perhaps of an elected official). Mine began with opportunities, which I believe has made all the difference. The pages were worn thin by multiple entries, scribbles, names, numbers, dates and times - reminders of the responsibilities that come with acting on opportunities. I have been thinking a lot about the lives of the community organizers that have inspired me -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony. I wondered if Mrs. Palin had forgotten the heroism these individuals had displayed and the responsibilities they had, not just to a small desolate town, but to humanity and the possibility for change.