HUNTER COLLEGE COMMUNITY ORGANIZING

and DEVELOPMENT (C.O.D.) PROGRAM

c/o Hunter College School of Social  Work 129 E. 79th Street, New York, NY 10065

phone: 212-452-7112, fax: 212-452-7150, e-mail: tmizrahi@hunter.cuny.edu

 

 

 

EDUCATING FOR SOCIAL CHANGE:

THE IMPACT OF AN INNOVATIVE INTERDISCIPLINARY
COMMUNITY ORGANIZING COURSE ON HUNTER

STUDENTS' CAREER AND CIVIC PURSUITS

Authors: Terry Mizrahi, Ph.D.
Andrea Case, M.S.W.
June 1998

 

This paper presents an analysis of the impact of a course on students' career direction and community involvement. It was initiated as part of the planning and implementation of an interdisciplinary Community Organizing and Development (C.O.D.) Program at Hunter College at the undergraduate level.[1]  There are very few documented formal education programs aimed at developing community organizing as a professional career (O’Donnell, 1995; York & Havassy, 1997); the few articles that exist on community organizing training focus on programs outside academia (Robinson & Hanna, 1994; Hanna, 1998; Mizrahi & Rosenthal, forthcoming).

 

BACKGROUND, METHODS AND SUMMARY

 

The paper focuses on the impact on Hunter students of two new interdisciplinary courses, concentrating on the innovative one semester, three credit course: Introduction To Community Organizing and an separate supervised 100 hour internship. The course provides the knowledge, skill and value base underpinning community organizing, planning, development and change. It emphasizes the myriad roles, goals, and strategies used by community organizers in effecting social change. A 20 hour volunteer field placement is required to expose students to an actual organizing setting. Innovative pedagogical methodologies modeling and utilizing community organizing skills and strategies were used by the faculty along with presentations and discussions with experienced organizers from the community (see attached syllabus). The same faculty member taught the course all four times.

 

An anonymous questionnaire was mailed to 90 "alumni" who took the C.O. Course in one of four semester between Fall 1995 and Spring 1997 (see attachment). Almost 60% of the alumni responded (N=53). There were open and closed-ended questions about the value of the course one to three years after it was taken. Eleven of the respondents had also completed an additional 3 credit, 100 hour supervised internship. A similar before and after course questionnaire was completed by an additional two cohorts of students who took the course in Fall 1997 and Spring l998.

 

Analysis of both the qualitative and quantitative data indicates extremely positive impacts of the course on their lives and on their avocational, vocational and advanced educational pursuits. These former students reported on the extensive knowledge and skills acquired and their increased interest in using community organizing in their personal and professional lives. Unquestionably, the course shaped the career direction for many students and for almost all of them, the course had a broad influence on the students' civic lives and community activities. Given the schism that has existed traditionally between academia and the organizing world, this C.O.D. program is a model of effective collaboration that bridges traditionally disparate communities.  

 


FINDINGS

 

Background on the Course "Alumni"

 

Forty-four percent of those who took the course had already graduated from Hunter College. Twelve percent had taken a leave of absence and about 50% were still enrolled at Hunter. Ten percent were in graduate school and 82% were currently working. Six percent were pursuing additional organizer training at this time.

 

Seventy-four percent of those responding were female. The cohort was mixed racially and ethnically with slightly more than 1/4 were Caucasian, another 1/4 were African American, 1/5 were Latino, and 1/10 were Asian). About 1/3 were in their early 20's, 2/3 in their late 20's and almost 1/3 were over 30 years. (Seven percent identified themselves as homosexual; however almost 50% left the optional "sexual identity" category blank.)

 

The breakdown of those responding is reflective of the total population of the 90 course participants with respect to age, gender and racial or ethnic identity.

 

Alumni's evaluation of the Introduction to Community Organizing course was overwhelmingly positive (see Table 1). Eighty-four percent stated that they learned a considerable or a great amount from the one semester course. This extremely affirmative response was surpassed by the number of alumni that felt that they learned more in this course than in other courses (94%). As Table I indicates, students not only valued the course, but would also recommend it highly to their peers. Perhaps even more importantly, for almost two-thirds of the alumni, the course substantially influenced their job and career direction, as well as their volunteer and community work.

 

With respect to what they remembered about the course content, more than three-quarters of alumni reported that they learned a great deal or a considerable amount from almost all of the course topics ranging from organizing roles, to understanding values, power and resources (see Table II). Likewise, these former students valued both the traditional and non-traditional methods used in teaching the content (see Table III). Two-thirds valued the experiential learning attached to volunteering at a community organization while almost al1 appreciated both the participatory and lecture formats.

 

Contributions of the Community Organizing Course to Learning: Theory, Community Awareness and Skills

 

One quote summarizes the dominant theme of what alumni learned from the C.O.D. course: "The concept of c. o. and the use of collective power for social change.”  Alumni felt that they gained an understanding of what c.o. is, how it is done, and its importance to society. Not only did they learn about c.o. models, but they also learned how to use various c.o. strategies and tactics:

 

            [The most important thing I learned from the course was] the different strategies for approaching social change - and how the models have been put into effect in the past (3)


 

            [The most important things I learned from the course was the] History of social change movements; importance of assessing and understanding the community and/or constituents/members; importance of cultivating allies; making links. (22)

 

            [The most important things I learned from the course was the] The role of the organizer vies a vie the group being organized. How to build a group and help keep it going. (9)

 

Different skills, such as how to run meetings and how to develop leadership were mentioned as critical additions to their knowledge base:

 

            [The most important thing I learned from the course was] Leadership qualities, agenda planning, organizing groups, making changes, networking and problem solving. (21)

 

             [The most important things I learned from the course was] Running meetings in an organized way, being able to stay on track when personality conflicts arise in meetings. (49)

 

            [The most important things I learned from the course was] Community Organizing. Lobbying strategies. Learning the difference between issues and problems. Leadership development. (14)

 

An awareness about how to create social change using community, and how to give voice to the voiceless were also mentioned. As one alumnus stated, one of the important things that he learned was, "The significance of community as a unifying and powerful tool for waging social change movements. " (2) Another stated, "I gained a more clear knowledge of power structures (city government, large institutions) and an understanding of strategies to use so t.he "less powerful" voice can be heard."(36)

 

The Impact of the C.O.D. on Alumni's Lives: Changes in Consciousness, Personal Empowerment, Values, and Roles

 

Almost all of the alumni said that the course influenced their lives in some way. On the whole, it made them more conscious of c.o. as a discipune and as a career. For some, the class helped to solidify an already existing interest in the field. Another cohort were stimulated to consider c.o as a career. Others found themselves becoming more involved in their communities or volunteering to support various causes. To them, the class highlighted the importance of civic involvement. Additiona'Hy, alumni involved in careers other than c.o. were able to make the link between their disciplines and community organizing. For example, one alumna stated "Community organizing influenced my career goal - I now see the role of journalism and c.o. "

 

Another stated,

 

            "I learned that community organizing is not something that I wanted to pursue professionally, but the course did have a drastic effect on howIfeel about my impact on my community. The course made me realize thatI did need to contribute to causes that I felt were worthy, - and that my input to these causes did matter. " (13)

 


It is clear that the course's effect on alumni were varied but nevertheless seemingly profound.

 

The course also raised consciousness and changed perceptions about the world and about themselves. The majority of alumni commented on c.o.'s power to change society. The idea that c.o. does make an impact on the world was a revelation to some, and a comfort to others. Note what these alumni had to say:

 

            This course made me realize this world functions because of what we all do. We all make a difference influencing change which can benefit everyone. " (38)

 

            Organizing is germane to any field because there will always exist issues of power and struggles. (30)

 

            I realized that even in a city like New York where everyone seems highly self­centered and driven to achieve individual success, people can and are pulling together through community work. Participating in the process was a truly uplifting experience. (36)

 

The changes in perception range from the intellectual, "There are a number of important issues in the world, " to the personal, "I can make a difference." Changes in perception also led to increases in alumni's sense of personal power. As some alumni revealed:

 

             I f eel like an active participant now more than before. I know that one voice combined with other individual voices carry volume. (49)

 

            I got involved instead of complaining. I think of myself as a leader.

 

            The course made me realize that I can make a difference in someone's life. (16)

 

The increase in alumni's personal power is most evident when examining the effects of the CO Course on alumni values. Several noted personal change:

 

            I f eel less the victim, more of the agent of change. I'm more active. (10)

 

            My values have been affected by what I learned in the course, by not waiting on people to make changes for me, but to make the first step toward making a change. (20)

 

            Learning to listen is essential in organizing. Just listening to people it means more than what you could possibly say. "I've learned to value people's opinions (32)

 

             I appreciate all things on this earth . I used to say I hate people. I don't hate people. I hate what they stand for. " (29)



Some alumni indicated that their values did not change, but for others, their values were strengthened. As one alumna stated "My values are the same before as they are after taking this course, with the exception that they are a little more finely tuned. " Several alumni noted that they were more appreciative of community efforts, community organizers, and uniting to struggle for causes.

 

When asked if they made any changes in the roles they played as citizens/residents, clients/consumers, parents, friends, neighbors or colleagues, many responded affirmatively:

 

            Yes, [I am] much more of a critical thinker as my role in my community and work and personal life. All of which are intimately linked, which is a perspective that this course fosters and nurtures through practical experience. (37)

 

             Yes, I believe before all I looked for was to finish school and move out of my community, but now I have an interest to stay and make it better for those behind me. (32)

 

             I have gained a better sense of myself and have increased confidence in my relations with others- particularly those ins seats of power. (31)

 

             I am less bitter towards people. (29)

 

Volunteerism and Activism

 

Over half of the respondents said that they did volunteer work prior to taking the C.O. course. Volunteer experiences ranged from serving on councils at schools to belonging to neighborhood tenants' associations, with the majority of alumni volunteering in religious settings, school organizations, and tenant associations. While the number of alumni that did volunteer work after taking the C.O. course slightly declined, many more were also now working full time. Most continued to volunteer at the same site with increased determination and skill.

 

As noted in Table IV, the alumni were much more active after having taken the C.O. Course. In almost all of the 11 community and political activities listed, the percentages of those indicating that they had taken part increased significantly. Notable among the large increases was participation in electoral and issue politics --ranging from financially contributing to a campaign to working on one. Also, there were substantial gains in areas ranging from lobbying a governmental body to organizing a community event.

 

Recommending the Course to Others: Alumni Speak

 

Virtually all the alumni stated that they would recommend this class to other Hunter students. Responses such as "with enthusiasm" and "absolutely" were common. While some would recommend it only to those in certain disciplines such as social work, human service studies, political science, and women's studies, most would recommend it to everyone. A substantial majority felt the skills and knowledge they acquired would be helpful to everyone, regardless of one's major or career path:

 


            whether someone is interested in pursuing a career in organizing or not., many valuable skills were taught in this class which can be used in many other work situations and environments. (31)

 

            I feel organizing skills can be applied in any area of work. I think it's an essential class

 that students should have the advantage to take. (32)

 

            It is extremely valuable to learn methods and techniques of organizing, regardless of what

 you use your skills for. (8)

 

One factor influencing their course recommendation was the unique nature and structure of this

course. As alumni stated:

 

            It is a great experience to have hands on experience and share it with a class and instructor to help you grow. (17)

 

            The courses were much more interesting and engaging that most of my classes. They moved

beyond academics and theory to practice. There was interaction between students that rarely existed in other classes. " (22)

 

Impact of Course on C.O. Career Direction: Many Opportunities, Many Obstacles

 

One-fifth of the respondents now have a job in the c.o. field. Respondents cited several opportunities in pursuing a career in c.o. The opportunities to learn about c.o. in this course, in addition to the opportunity to volunteer through school, were presented as having practical consequences. As one alumna states, "...my volunteer activities have given me a lot of experience that I could apply to a job. " (22)

 

However, many cited obstacles already known to promoters of social change. Obstacles to pursuing a c.o. career varied from lack of skills to lack of experience, in spite of having taken the course. The hours required in the c.o. field, as well as the perception that there are limited numbers of c.o. jobs out there, were also identified as barriers. However the biggest challenge alumni identified in pursuing a career in c.o. is salary! Time and time again, salary was listed as an impediment to entering and advancing in the field:

 

            There are not many jobs in organizing/activism!!! And the ones that exist often don't pay enough to survive on.! (22)

 

             There are many opportunities for me to pursue such a career, however, one major potential obstacle is that of compensation - wages are still quite low in the organizing field. (47)

 

Nevertheless, those alumni who chose not to enter the c.o. field because of salary often incorporated c.o. into other aspects of their lives:

 


            For many years I considered pursing a career in c.o. However, I realized that it is extremely difficult to support a family on such salaries. If eel I have struck a balance by choosing to do my organizing on a volunteer basis. (31)

 

This alumnus' view represent the adjustments people were willing to make in order to include c.o. in their lives. However it is clear that in order to attract new workers, salaries need to increase in order to attract these educated. committed and skilled individuals.

 

THE "BEFORE" AND "AFTER" COURSE ASSESSMENT

 

The course was taught by two different faculty members in Fall 1997 and Spring 1998 from the one who taught it in all previous semesters. Analysis of the following data assures that the instructor was not the significant factor in the reported positive outcomes.

 

Knowledge of C.O. Topics (see Table V). The students demonstrated tremendous areas of growth in knowledge related to 12 community organizing topics. Before taking the course, fewer than a majority of students knew a great deal or a considerable amount about the knowledge and skill base of c.o.(ranging from 8% to 495%). Upon completion, small and large majorities knew a lot (ranging from 66% to 82%).

 

Learning from Course Components (see Table VI). The students were pretty accurate with respect to their predictions about the formats for acquiring the c.o. content. Most anticipated learning a great deal or considerable amount from all five identified components and indeed, they indicated that this had actually occurred.

 

Community and Political Activism (see Table VII). One goal of the C.O. Course and the eventual C.O.D. minor is to produce more informed and active residents regardless of their vocation. It is the C.O.D. Program's belief that a citizenry equipped with the knowledge, skill, and values to participate in civic life would contribute to a more empowered and dynamic community.

 

We examined whether this diverse group of students were already active and, by inference, whether as a result of taking the course, they would anticipate strengthening or expanding their areas of public participation. The results are stunning. In all 11 identified areas of community or political participation, there were significant increases in the percentage indicating they would become active. Especially noteworthy was the fact that at least 2/3 of the cohort anticipated playing a leadership role in community affairs and working on electoral, political or issue campaigns. Also interesting is the fact that almost half would engage in more activist social protest activities including civil disobedience and joining a picket line. Clearly, the course had a critical impact on their expectations of activism, and will indeed come to fruition it they follow the outcomes the direction taken by those who took the course in earlier semesters.

 

Interest in Community Organizing (see Table VIII). One puzzling finding was the fact that the percentage of students interested in pursuing a career in c.o. dropped somewhat as did their apparent interest in taking an internship the following semester. Two factors may account for much of the difference between these and the alumni who indicated a greater c.o. career interest afterwards.


First, the time of the course shifted (by design) from evening to daytime. It attracted a somewhat younger cohort of day students, many more of whom indicated they were taking it for credit toward a major or minor. Polling them at the end of the course revealed that there was much more interest in both the minor and the internship, but they could not fit the 100 hour field internship in their next semester's schedule. Some were already seniors needing additional credits toward their declared major or minor. Others had paid job responsibilities in addition to family and school which did not leave them with enough hours in a week to fulfill all their obligations.

 

CONCLUSION

 

            "The most important aspect of this course for me, was the ability to apply theory to practice, not only in work, but personal life and other activities in the community. " (37)

 

Without question the C.O. course significantly increased the students' knowledge and skill. However, perhaps more importantly, it also influenced their consciousness about the role of community in effecting change, and strengthened their roles in their own communities.

 

In essence, the respondents revealed that the true value of the C.O. course for them was the application of c.o. theory to their lives. As one can see, the course has influenced many aspects of their lives, from their values, to their roles as citizens and activists. The impact of the course was way beyond what its originators envisioned. The course increased students' interest and movement towards a in c.o. as a career. Most importantly, it has built their knowledge and skill base and changed their perspective on how to create change. This course is an invaluable step in creating a committed and competent core of citizen and paid change agents.

 

While the C.O. Course was modified somewhat in its format, content, and structure by virtue of  different instructors, the basic syllabus and teaching methodology remained in tact over six semesters. The six cohorts who took the course were extremely positive about it, learned a lot, and identified anticipated and actual impacts on their personal, career and civic lives. This outcome is extremely rewarding to the interdisciplinary collaborative who designed and implemented components of the C.O.D. program which we anticipate will be institutionalized by the Hunter College administration.

 


REFERENCES

 

Hanna, M. Tracking and Training: Two keys to commitment in community organizing. Paper presented at ACOSA Symposium, March 1998.

 

Mizrahi, T. & Rosenthal, B. (forthcoming). 'A whole lot of organizing going on': The status and needs of organizers in community-based organizations. Journal of Community Practice.

 

O'Donnell, S.M. (1995). Is community organizing 'the greatest job' one could have? Findings from a survey of Chicago organizers. Journal of Community Practice. 2 (1), 1-15.

 

Robinson, B. & Hanna, M.G. (1994) Lessons for academics from grassroots community organizing: A case study of the Industrial Areas Foundation. Journal of Community Practice. 1 (4).

 

York, A.S. & Havassay, H. (1997). Can community activists be taught their job? Journal of Community Practice. 14 (3), 77-87.

 

 

Civic pursuits

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[1] This research was funded in 1997 by the President’s Research and Teaching Initiative (Hunter College).