Community organizers highlight activism, grassroots mobilization

The departments of history and black and Africana studies cosponsored “Building Leadership for Transformative Community Change”––a lecture to acquaint students with the mechanics of activism and organizing and working toward transformative mobilization, in Newton Lecture Hall on Friday Sept. 29.

Community organizers Betty Garman Robinson and Dominic Moulden hosted the presentation, during which both speakers addressed their experiences with different activist groups. Robinson spent her early activism career during the Civil Rights Movement organizing in the Deep South as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Moulden’s work has catalyzed a push for affordable housing development. 

Robinson began the event by gauging the audience’s previous exposure to organizing. Experiences ranged from involvement with the Occupy movement to Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. 

Understanding what problems need addressing demands careful observation and comprehension of the situation, according to Robinson.

While attending Skidmore College, Robinson received an introduction to activism from the media coverage of student driven sit-ins that surfaced throughout the South in 1960. 

“I didn’t believe this was my country,” Robinson said. “It was not in my consciousness that black students couldn’t sit at the lunch counters.”

At Skidmore, Robinson joined a coalition of student activists who mobilized a demonstration leading from campus to downtown Saratoga Springs at Woolworth’s Department Store. This referenced the previous sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. After her experiences at college, Robinson soon sought further involvement with SNCC.

“I was learning that this so-called wonderful country I lived in—some of the myths that had been poured into me—just weren’t true,” she said. 

Robinson framed her approach to activism with the critical questions of what kind of country she wanted to establish and what means would successfully achieve that end goal. She emphasized that, as an SNCC member, she approached organizing in the South with limited goals: black enfranchisement, establishment of respect and elimination of violent threats against the lives of black people exercising their political and constitutional freedoms. 

“We thought we were fixing the country, that we were making the changes that needed to be made,” Robinson said. 

For aspiring organizers, Robinson defined the current political climate as a time for a new social movement and reiterated the importance of taking risks, even at the expense of outside expectations. Modern organizers have an advantage in their unprecedented access to a huge breadth of scholarship from diverse perspectives, as well as new organizing vehicles on social media platforms, according to Robinson. 

“History sends unexpected curves,” she said. “I think we’re in a time when history has sent us an unexpected curve … the key is that this is a time for transformative change.” 

Moulden echoed Robinson in his assertion that everyone has the capacity to lead and the potential to actualize change. As a resource organizer, Moulden facilitates political education for Organizing Neighborhood Equity D.C., an affordable housing activism coalition. 

Moulden highlighted the mobilization of a movement that requires the world to respect black lives—not on the predication of conformity to mainstream values and standards, but born from acknowledgment of inherent dignity despite differences. Achieving this respect requires challenging the myths of United States’ history perpetuated in the public-school system, such as that racism disappeared with emancipation, according to Moulden. 

“Charlottesville is the watershed that asks us what we really believe,” Moulden said. “What do we want to teach our kids and what do we need to reteach adults?”

Moulden’s idea of organizing prioritized transformative leadership—to establish a newly restructured system—and an intersectional approach. This intersectional philosophy calls for marginalized groups to form a coalition, rather than fighting to determine who faces the most oppression. 

“We’re not competing in oppression Olympics,” he said. 

Personal connections between activists cultivate strong organizational ties, which allows for unification behind a common cause, according to Moulden. 

Both presenters urged audience members to maintain open minds and accept the validity of different realities. Mobilizing students calls for an acknowledgement of privilege and effective use of the educational and tangible resources available on campus.u