HUNTER COLLEGE COMMUNITY ORGANIZING
AND DEVELOPMENT (C.O.D.) PROGRAM


C/O SCHOOL OF SOCIAL WORK

129 EAST 79TH STREET NEW YORK, NY 10065

(212)52-7112; e-mail: tmizrahi@hunter.cuny.edu  

 

 

AN INNOVATIVE MODEL FOR TEACHING A COMMUNITY

ORGANIZING COURSE AT HUNTER COLLEGE

                                      

Authors:  Terry Mizrahi, Ph.D.
Christina Danguilan, M.P.H.
June 1998

By Terry Mizrahi, Ph.D. Professor, Hunter College School of Social Work and Coordinator, Community Organizing and Development Program (C.O.D.) and Christina Danguilan, M.P.H.

 

This paper presents an overview on the teaching methods used in a special course designed to introduce students to community organizing [1] . Begun in 1995, Introduction to Community Organizing is an interdisciplinary undergraduate course offered in collaboration with the Anthropology, Community Health, Sociology, Political Science and Urban Planning Departments (see syllabus attached). It was initiated by a Hunter College faculty collaborative as part of a new 12 credit Community Organizing and Development minor. The course was taught by Terry Mizrahi, professor in the School of Social Work from 1995 to 1997, by Jan Poppendieck, Sociology Professor in Fall 1997, and in the Spring 1996 semester, by Professor Beth Richie of the Community Health Program in the School of Health Sciences. Chris Danguilan served as Dr. Richie's graduate teaching assistant. [2]

 

COURSE DESCRIPTION

 

The purpose of the course is to provide an introduction to community organizing; specifically, 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. It examines the history of organizing as a context of analyzing contemporary issues and organizations in the country and in New York City. Models of community organizing including mass mobilization, social action, grass roots empowerment, leadership development and advocacy, as well as newer community building approaches are assessed for effectiveness in the current conservative climate. Special attention is paid to issues of gender, class, race and ethnicity and sexual orientation in organizing. A field-related/ 20 hour volunteer experience is included to expose students to an actual organizing environment.

 

COURSE FORMAT AND ASSIGNMENTS

 

Much of the content, structure and process for the course (and an accompanying separate 100 hour field internship) were suggested at a series of meetings with faculty and with two focus groups of community organizers from the area. It has been revised with input from students who took the course and the three faculty who have taught it. Guest lecturers have included members of the faculty and experienced organizers working in NYC. Many of their organizations also serve as sites for the volunteer field assignment.

 


The course was designed to be experiential and to provide opportunities for students to synthesize theory and practice through application of readings, lectures, media presentations, and reflection on their field experience. Almost every session provided some structured opportunity for small group work and or simulation exercises. The field experience was made a required course component at the suggestion of students who opted to do some field work the first time the course was offered. [3]

 

Participation in a Volunteer Field Experience

 

Students selected an organization, agency or group with which to volunteer during the semester for a minimum of 20 hours. A list of possible community organization sites has been developed by the collective faculty with the assistant of a graduate student assistant and updated each semester.

 

The purpose of this assignment is to provide a direct experience observing and participating in (to the extent possible) the organizing work of the group. Students are expected to negotiate their entry and assignment with the organization's leaders and/or staff. The organization is expected to permit students access to meetings, minutes and other materials of the organization, and to arrange for interviews with leaders and members. In exchange for access and experience, the students' responsibility was to contribute to the work of the organization. This could include furthering the group's agenda, assisting in carrying out a project or event, and providing feedback to staff or leaders on their observations.

 

As the semesters went on and class size increased, faculty had to rely on graduate student assistance to reach out to and orient potential field sites. Introductory material was prepared for the field and course syllabi were shared with field contacts. It was emphasized to both students and organizational staff, that the students would not be able to actually carry out an organizing project in 20 hours. Hopefully, their appetite would be whetted to do more, their or elsewhere in the future.

 

Additionally, because so many grassroots, community-based organizations wanted student volunteers for even the 20 hours, an innovation was implemented in Spring 1998 to facilitate the placement process. All potential field supervisors were invited to a class session to recruit students. Organizations prepared materials and made brief presentations. Students seemed to feel valued and needed by the organizing community. This session had the secondary benefit to students of exposing them to the wealth of organizing going on in New York City. They were able to reflect on the variety of models, issues, goals and strategies articulated by field people.

 

 

At the end of the semester, students presented their field experiences orally in class. Minimum written expectations included students keeping a log of their observations and submitting a brief paper at the end of the semester, answering the following questions: 1) What model or approach to organizing is being used the organization?; 2) What are both the strengths and limitations of the group's effort?; 3) What opposition and allies does it have?; 4) What roles do the organizers and leaders play?; 5) What has been accomplished? Were there any disappointments, failures or defeats?; 6) What lessons did you learn? They were also asked to refer to relevant course readings and class discussion in their paper and presentation.

 

To conclude the field assignment, at the end of the semester, field supervisors were asked to write a one page "letter of recommendation" for their student. These letters served several purposes: to document the completion of the assignment, identify any contribution the student made to the organization, and provide the student with a ready made reference letter for use by potential employers or graduate schools (see samples attached).

 

Class Session Recording

 

Once during the semester, small groups of students are asked to take notes on a class session, compare them, and together, prepare in writing a single summary and synthesis of major themes. This exercise at "minute taking," provides an opportunity to improve observational, negotiation and analytical skills of the participants and to understand that record keeping is a political and professional (not a clerical) function. The composite document ("minutes") is duplicated and given to fellow students and faculty as a resource for their review and comment. Students are then also freed of having to take notes for all but one week.

 

Additionally, these minutes are briefly reviewed by the entire class to ascertain whether the highlights provided by the minute-takers were reflective of a previous class session. During these discussions, students have the opportunity to examine the interaction between what is heard, what is remembered, what is deemed important, etc., and to reflect on how the culture and purpose of the "organization" together with the skill and goals of the recorders, affect the prepared minutes. It also demonstrates how powerful the minute taker's role is.

 

Structured Small Group Facilitation

 

For both philosophical and pragmatic reasons, in Spring 1998, all the class sessions were structured so that equal time was devoted to traditional lecture and small group discussion.

 

Lecture/Presentation. The lectures focus on the content of the syllabus and assigned readings. The syllabus is organized to examine contemporary community organizing campaigns. Lecture topics are arranged to mirror the progression of a campaign, where each week a new phase or issue of campaign building would be explored. Campaign building concepts include (but were not limited to) race, class, and gender issues, roles of the organizer, community diagnosis, organizational development, and coalition building. Guest lecturers, mainly organizers from the field, have been invited to complement course material.


Students evaluate the style as well as the content of the presentations, thereby, obtaining experience in analyzing the components of public speaking. The lectures provide the formal instructional element of the course. At times lectures are supplemented with videos that document both popular and grass roots organizing campaigns.

 

Small Group Format. After each lecture, students disseminate into small groups for the remainder of the class. The small group sessions serve several purposes. The first purpose is to allow students the opportunity to analyze and discuss, the community organizing concepts presented in the lecture and readings. The discussion is initiated with an exercise or series of questions relative to the day's syllabus topic (see attached sample discussion sheet). Initially, it is the faculty and graduate assistant who develop the topical questions. Later on, students are given the opportunity of producing their own question based on assigned readings. (They also turn these in to the instructor along with an attendance list.)

 

The second purpose is to initiate students into actual community organizing experiences by assuming the roles of group facilitator and recorder at least once during the semester. The purpose of the group facilitator role Is to give the students the opportunity to learn and exercise the skills of a community organizing group's leader. The responsibility of the facilitator is to bring his or her group members through the steps of the week's exercise and to analyze the process and their performance.

 

The purpose of the group recorder role is to encourage students to learn minute-taking skills, as well as to witness group process dynamics in action. The group recorder's responsibility is to submit a one page synopsis of his or her group's experience and success with the exercise the following week.

 

Some of the small group sessions discussed aspects of the students' volunteer work and other course assignments including their neighborhood assessment. Small group discussion gave students the opportunity to share their rich and diverse histories regarding their organizational and community experience with each other as part of the learning process. Engaging the students w ith one another afforded them with the opportunity to exchange community organizing strategies. In addition, an understanding of each other's community's conditions helped build a more cohesive Hunter student community.

 

The role playing aspects of group offers students the chance to build organizing skills in a supportive environment. The roles of facilitator and recorder require that each student become actively involved with the group's activity rather than wait for these roles to evolve out of group process. Often, initial experience with these roles is enough to bolster the confidence of some students who might otherwise not engage in discussion. Assignment of these roles in part ensures that every student's contribution is captured by the group, a fundamental of community organizing.

 

Another course goal was reinforced by this small group format: the chance to actively participate in their own learning and to value the contribution of peers as well as teachers. There was also a pragmatic reason for this division of class time. Unlike most undergraduate courses, this course

met once a week for three hours. The class size has increased substantially for a number of reasons. In the spring 1998 semester, there were close to 50 students enrolled. Clearly, a continuous lecture or even lecture with large group discussion was not feasible.

 

LIMITATIONS OF THE EXPERIENTIAL ASPECTS OF THE COURSE

 

Small Group Format. The limitations of the participatory experiential model include the enormous amount of class preparation and logistics given the size of the class. The small group settings require much physical space (this class utilized three small classrooms with two groups in each). Splitting up the groups into different classrooms minimize supervision, often making instructor observation and participation efforts hectic. Groups going too long without supervision had the potential of straying from the day's assignment into general conversation. Degeneration of a group's discussion could limit a student's capacity to fulfill the role of recorder or facilitator.

 

Another common experience with the groups was the absence of the day's assigned facilitator or recorder. Although groups were not responsible for the absent recorder, an absent facilitator required that the group "waste" time selecting a substitute facilitator. To minimize this occurrence, unless the facilitator's absence was arranged for within the group, or he/she had a legitimate excuse, the student would not receive credit for this course requirement. The positive learning of this "crisis" for the real world of organizing is to anticipate the absence of leaders and other key players when planning for meetings and events.

 

The Volunteer Field Experience. The 20 hour volunteer assignment although imperative to the course goals, bewildered some students. In spite of the structuring of the process over time, on occasion, a few students voiced that they either had trouble choosing an organization or felt uncommitted to the site they eventually chose. Some students felt their volunteer sites failed to appreciate the academic aspect of the commitment, neglecting to provide students with background materials relevant to their assignments (e.g. mission statements).

 

The most difficult aspect of implementing a successful experience however, continues to be the lack of  flexibility in the students' schedules. Most students were working all or part time in addition to attending classes, and in many instances, caring for family members. Nevertheless, most students still highly valued the assignment, and many volunteered more than the required number of hours. Their written and oral work was a testimony to their progress and achievement.

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

 

The following suggestions were made by the graduate assistant to further improve the quality of the course: I ) Allow students to apply the volunteer hours toward their field internship; 2) limit course enrollment to 30 students (although 20 students is an ideal size); 3) Minimize the number of reserve readings or make them more accessible; 4) Incorporate a graduate teaching assistant as an ongoing practice.

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

As can be seen in Table II attached, three quarters of the students learned a lot from all the various course formats. A majority of students also indicated that they had invested more in this course than others and learned a lot (see accompanying paper noted in footnote 2). The vast increase in knowledge and skill they felt they had acquired seemed to make the investment worth it. They were willing to do a lot of work and take responsibility, in exchange for being challenged and empowered. Many were interested in taking additional community organizing courses and the 100 hour internship (if their schedule permitted).

 

The course has been given overwhelmingly positive evaluations by students all six semesters, eliminating the possibility of undue influence of a particular faculty's style. Nevertheless, faculty need to learn and be comfortable with a participatory format and many more, albeit shorter, papers to grade. From a faculty standpoint, the success of the course and accompanying internship are stepping stones toward the institutionalization of the community organizing and development program at Hunter College.


SAMPLE DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (3/10/98)

 

As students, you are members of the Hunter College Community, however, there are many examples of the ways that your status does not afford you the power to determine responses to the problems that you face. Using your experience as Hunter College Students, consider a Direct Action Campaign following the strategy outlined on Bobo, Chapter 2.

 

1. What improvement would you identify as important? Why?

 

2. How would you help other students develop their sense of power?

 

3. How could the overall relation of power be altered?

 

4. What barriers to your campaign would you anticipate?

 

5. What moral/ethical grounds would you argue your point on?

 

6. What alliances or coal lions would you attempt to create?

 

7. On what terms would you evaluate your success (remembering the three goals of organizing)?


INTRODUCTION TO COMMUNITY ORGANIZING

 

COURSE DESCRIPTION

 

The purpose of this course is to provide an introduction to community organizing; specifically, the knowledge, skill and value base underpinning community organizing, planning, development and change. It will emphasize the myriad roles, goals, and strategies used by community organizers in effecting social change. It will examine the history of organizing as a context of analyzing contemporary issues and organizations in the country and in New York City. Models of community organizing including mass mobilization, social action, grass roots empowerment, leadership development and advocacy, as well as newer community building approaches will assessed for effectiveness in the current conservative climate. Special attention will be paid to issues of gender, class, race and ethnicity and sexual orientation in organizing. Field-related experience is included to expose students to an actual organizing environment.

 

COURSE OBJECTIVES

 

KNOWLEDGE


- to understand the various concepts of community and their application to community organizing;

-to understand the different types of organizing goals, roles and organizing strategies;

-to recognize the value, power and resource differences that impede community organizing and

  development.

 

SKILLS

-to begin to assess the assets (strengths) and deficits (problems) of geographic (neighborhood)

  and functional (interest) communities;

-to begin to apply models of organizing to specific social change endeavors;

-to acquire beginning skill in specific organizing tools and techniques such as running meetings

  and public speaking, and use of media.

-to acquire ability to critically analyze situations and problem-solve.

 

VALUES

-to appreciate the complexity of and competence needed for the organizer role.

-to value citizen, community and client/consumer participation and empowerment.

-to value to struggles and conflicts inherent in organizing for social and economic justice within

 an historical context and democratic framework.

 


COURSE ASSIGNMENTS

 


I. Log of Selected Readings

 

Each week, select one article or chapter in a book to highlight from the readings. In no more than one page include: 1) brief summary; 2) your opinion about it; 3) the most interesting point; 4) a reason why you think it is an important article; 5) its relevance for community organizing. A total of 12 logs are required including two from outside or non-required readings. No more than 3 chapters from any one book or guide.

 

At the end of the semester, present in writing an outline or essay on the major themes and learning points from the readings you have done for the course. What do they have in common? Are there any differences in their perspective? (2-3 pages).

 


II. Neighborhood Observation and Beginning Assessment

 

Take a walk around a geographic area in which you live or work. As one of the tools for community assessment, you should use your five senses (and your sixth sense!) to begin to understand that neighborhood. (Guidelines for the observation will be given out in class). Come prepared to discuss your observations and preliminary analysis. In class, we will compare and contrast experiences. (It would be ideal if two or more students chose the same area to observe independently and then compare observations). Submit in writing a three-four page paper, answering the following questions: What does it look, feel, smell, sound and “taste” like? From your observations, what strengths does the area have? What problems are visible? Is this an area/neighborhood which is stable? in transition? improving? deteriorating? What additional questions are raised from your observations that need further fact-finding and assessment? Most importantly, what are the potential organizing issues that emerge from your preliminary assessment (eg., need for programs, resources, campaigns to improve something, etc.) You can supplement with photos, drawings, maps, etc.


III.  Meeting Analysis

 

Attend a meeting of a community organization or some local government meeting (eg. community planning board), civic body or neighborhood organization (eg. block association, tenant association, women’s group) concerned with a neighborhood or issue, preferably an organization which is working to improve conditions, policies or services. Describe the meeting in detail and then analyze it according to written guidelines to be distributed in class. Preferably, the meeting you attend should be connected to your volunteer field experience.


IV. Class Recording.

 

Once during the semester, small groups of students will be asked to take notes on a class session, compare them and together prepare and distribute to the whole class, a summary and synthesis of major themes. This provides an opportunity to improve observational, negotiational and analytical skills and to understand how minute-taking is a political and professional (not a clerical) function. The composite document is duplicated and given to fellow students to serve as a resource for them. Selected sessions are reviewed by the class to ascertain whether the highlights are reflective of previous week's session.

 

V. Participation in a Community Organizing Project

 

Select an organization, agency or group with which to volunteer during the semester for a Minimum of 20 hours. A list of possible community organizations will be provided by the instructor. Alternatively, you can locate one on your own with permission of the instructor. The purpose of this assignment is to give you first hand experience observing and participating (to the extent possible) in the organizing work of the group. You will need to negotiate entry and assignment with the organization leaders and/or staff. At the very least, you should have access to meetings, minutes and other materials of the organization, and be able to interview leaders and members. In exchange, the group may ask you to participate in furthering the group's agenda, help them carry out a project or event, and/or provide feedback on your observations to them. This effort can be done individually or with other students.

 

Students will present their experiences orally in class at the end of the semester. Minimum written expectations are to keep a log of your observations and submit at the end of the semester a paper (4-5 pages), answering the following questions: 1) What model or approach to organizing is being used?; 2) What are both the strengths and limitations of the group's effort?; 3) What opposition and allies does it have?; 4) What roles do the organizers and leaders play?; 5) What has been accomplished? Were there any disappointments, failures or defeats?; 6) What lessons did you learn? Refer to relevant course readings and class discussion.

 

 

Innovative model

7/01



[1] See paper on “Educating for Social Change: The Impact of a Community Organizing Course on Students’ Career and Civic Pursuits,” which presents an evaluation of the course by 6 student cohorts.

[2] A grant from the President’s Research and Teaching Initiative funded a student assistant to help implement and evaluate the course and assist in course administration.

[3] This list of field sites was also used for the 100 hour Community Organizing Internship which the students could also enroll in for 3 credits concurrent with or in the semester following this course. Materials developed for the supervised internship are available.