Deedee Jacobsohn, co-chair of JUFJ’s Montgomery County Housing and Renters’ Rights workgroup, wrote the following reflection on her experience in Don’t Kvetch, Organize! (DKO).
I did not sign up for “Don’t Kvetch, Organize” with the intention of becoming an organizer. My goal was simply to become a better advocate.
I had been working with the JUFJ Montgomery County Housing Team for less than a year, participating in campaigns for more affordable housing, legal protections for renters, and eviction prevention. I was learning a lot, but felt like I could be a stronger partner in the work. I just wasn’t sure what that meant!
The DKO participants came from all areas of Maryland and DC, ranged in age from college students to retirees, and had just as much of a variety in experience with organizing. The 10-week course explored each step in the cycle of organizing: choosing a specific target, building relationships, developing a common mission, taking action, and then reflecting.
Here are some of the key lessons I learned about what is important.
Self-interest, or what our stake is in an issue, is at the heart of advocacy work. I struggled to define my self-interest in issues that did not directly affect me. But self-interest can also be based on values, like a sense of justice. My self-interest in the work of the housing team, for example, is the desire to live in a place where no one lacks a home, and people are not evicted because they can’t pay their rent. Finding ways to connect my self-interest to that of JUFJ’s partners, including those who are directly impacted by homelessness and evictions, is at the heart of organizing.
We spent a lot of time exploring a basic yet critical step in targeting a specific issue: identifying who has the power to make the change you want to see, and how you can get the reaction from them that you want. I have seen how the relationships between JUFJ and County Councilmembers resulted in stronger legislation, such as on the bill to “Ban the Box ” on rental housing applications. Yet I have felt the frustration when there seems to be no path to the person with power. For example, JUFJ has signed onto letters to Governor Hogan imploring him to extend protections to renters. There was no response.
Power comes from relationships – whether cultivating relationships with those who already have power, forging relationships with impacted people to generate power from numbers, or creating meaningful relationships with other like-minded individuals to develop a strategy together.
This is at the heart of what JUFJ does: connecting with other organizations so that we can work as allies together. I saw the success of this strategy when the County Council was pushing a bill touted as a housing bill that did not mention housing at all; by focusing our advocacy with our allies, we were able to get the bill amended to include minimum requirements for affordable housing.
Structural change won’t happen overnight. We approach big problems by breaking them down into issues with achievable goals. Every small victory moves you one step closer to a more equitable and just society. Even in defeat you are building the relationships that will carry you on to your next victory. It is important to remember to celebrate achievements because advocacy work can be frustrating.
After DKO, I am still not sure I can call myself an organizer. However, the more I advocate with JUFJ, build relationships with allies, and recruit others to the work, the more I am building my organizing skills and the greater impact I can have to make meaningful change in my community.