What is Community Organizing?
The Ontario Project for Inter-Clinic Community Organizing strives to educate legal clinic staff and the people we serve and work with about the use of community organizing to achieve social justice in our communities.
There are many recognized approaches to community organizing.
The Midwest Academy, a training institute for community organizers based in the United States, identifies key principles for community organizing:
1. People directly affected by an issue come together and act in their shared self-interest.
2. A core goal is to generate durable power for a community group to win improvements in peoples’ lives and influence decision-makers on issues important to the community.
3. The long-term goal is to change the balance of power in the community, empowering marginalized and oppressed people.
Why Should Legal Clinics Commit to Community Organizing and Community Development?
1. It’s Mandated: Under s. 14(1) of the Legal Aid Services Act and s. 3(f) of the Memorandum of Understanding guiding clinics’ work, the definition of clinic services includes community development and organizing. Because community legal clinics are mandated to do this work, they do not have to worry, as many other community organizations do, that their funding will be cut.
2. Community and Neighbourhood Networks: Legal clinics work closely with low-income people every day so they know the common issues that affect their neighbourhoods and can see the impact of particular government rules and legislative changes in people’s lives. In the course of their casework, clinic staff also get to know many of the key leaders, organizations and groups in their neighbourhoods so are able to bring people together when struggles emerge or they are approached by community organizers for help.
3. Respect and Trust: Because many clinic staff stay with the same clinic for years and are able to help many low-income people with difficulties in their lives, they are often very respected in the communities where they work. So when people want to organize collectively around issues that are affecting their neighbourhoods, legal clinics are often who they approach for help.
4. Stable Funding: Community legal clinics are one of the few community organizations in Ontario with flexible and stable enough funding to be able to do community organizing as part of their work. Other community organizations have to spend much of their time searching for funding and then depend on a patchwork of programming dollars to survive. Many are afraid that funders will cut them off if they speak out against the government. Or they focus on providing frontline services, since it is much easier to get funding for this kind of work. Clinics, on the other hand, have the flexibility to be able to dedicate staff time to community organizing and offer assistance such as meeting space, tokens, access to the internet and photocopying, faxing and teleconferencing costs.
5. Dedicated Staff: Community organizing is part of the work that community legal workers have done historically and lawyers and support staff are also encouraged to do this work in many clinics. Few other community organizations have staff dedicated to community organizing in the same way. Without dedicated staff, community organizing is extremely difficult given the length of time it often takes before significant gains are made for the community.
6. Permanent Staff: Unlike many community agencies, which rely on programming staff with short-term contracts, most legal clinic positions are permanent. So legal clinics are able to plan for and engage in community organizing over the long-term without the added stress of constantly searching for funding or having to train new staff every year.
7. Information and Experience: Over the years, clinic staff have developed a highly specialized and detailed knowledge of the legislation and policies that affect low income people, as well as the advocacy and presentation skills needed to win their cases. These skills are essential in community organizing, making clinic staff important and key resources for anti-poverty groups and community agencies. Clinic staff regularly assist community groups by doing research and preparing briefs, reports and fact sheets and then helping the community to use them to organize.
8. Political and Policy Networks: Legal clinics challenge the law and government policies in their work every day and, over the years, have built extensive networks with politicians and government ministries, officials and local workers. So they are well-positioned to help anti-poverty groups in their neighbourhoods get the kinds of meetings they need to get heard in political and policy circles.
9. Legitimacy: Because low-income people are frequently marginalized by politicians and workers, the involvement of legal clinics can give them more legitimacy in the eyes of those with the power to bring about change.
10. Treadmills are no fun! It is far more cost effective to help a group of people change the law or a bad policy than it is to represent them individually, especially if the law isn’t on your side! It’s also much more rewarding to see low-income people realize they’re not alone and develop the skills to advocate for themselves.