Community Organizing

I tend to function somewhat independently and I’ve never been a community organizer by any stretch of the word. However one incident a couple years ago did give me reason to wonder about the mechanics of such undertakings.

This event took place in the late spring when I was signing my daughter up for a summer school program. In our little town this is a very popular program and the course offerings are filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Therefore, on the Saturday of the sign up there was a considerable line awaiting the nine A.M. opening of the town office. The line was almost exclusively parents – the children were in the area, but
tended to be running around the park that borders the building. A small table was set up with coffee and donuts, offered for sale at very reasonable prices.

By the time we arrived the line stretched across the parking lot and ended, at that point, directly in the sun. I assumed my place and began considering the mathematical certainty of my discomfort. This I determined by multiplying unblinking sunlight times the amount of time I suspected I was going to be standing in that one place.

Seeing that the line curved to the right, but could just as easily curve to the left, thereby moving it under the comforting spread of large maple tree, I opened my mouth and spoke without pause. “Why don’t we curve the line this way, under the tree?” I said it to no one in particular, but to all of those in attendance there in the far reaches of the line. Remarkably, some unseen force of unity had everyone move, en masse and without direction, so that the line reconfigured the angle of its curve and ended under the tree.

Is community organizing that easy? Are people just waiting for helpful suggestions? Were my fellow townspeople simply humoring me? Were any of them disappointed to have traded in squinting for shade? Were they interested in the solution, or just moving to the sound of a suggestion? Were they more prone to follow my lead because it was early on a Saturday morning – a time at which many of them would still be home, pondering whether or not they should get our of bed yet? Do I have powers of leadership, or only a clear voice conveying easy-to-understand ideas? I curiously await my next moment in the sun.

– David Greenberger

(aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, 29 December 1997)