By Alexis Conavay, OFA Training Manager
This month, nearly 200 new, fully-trained change-makers are graduating from OFA’s Spring Community Engagement Fellowship with the knowledge and skills to start making an impact in their local communities. We surveyed the latest graduating class for their key takeaways from the fellowship. Here’s a sample of the kinds of responses we saw:
“I think my biggest takeaway was how similar to each other Americans truly are — it’s often easy to forget what unites us due to [all the] focus on what divides us.” Herndon, VA
“Feeling this large population of people tackling problems all over the country is wildly empowering. It also makes me feel that my little contributions in my little community are one square in a large quilt. It makes me want to work harder to make sure my little square is done very well.” Douglas, MI
All our work begins with our mission to create a more accessible and participatory democracy. The OFA fellowships serve as an entry point for new and more experienced organizers to chip in meaningfully toward that goal. They invite anyone looking to turn their passion (or frustration) into action to make an impact on the local issues affecting their own communities. By developing leadership and tangible organizing skills, the goal of this fellowship is to prepare anyone who feels called to take action and to help them feel more confident to do so. It is truly my honor to facilitate this journey (I mean, it’s seriously incredible to witness passionate individuals as they begin seeing themselves as the leaders they truly are!).
At the core of it, OFA’s Community Engagement Fellowship has one big belief: Impactful change happens when people take the time to identify what their community needs are and then show up to organize to address them.
“I view my city differently, I’m cultivating more pride in it. And I have a new outlook on my role as a leader in my community.” Atascadero, CA
By the end of the program, more than 80% of graduating fellows agreed with the statements “I am a community organizer” and “I see myself as a leader.” Those are people who are ready to step up — not sit back — and tackle problems that aren’t easy to fix, but need to be. It makes my organizer heart swell.
But in order for people to feel ready, there’s a kind of self transformation that needs to take place. As one fellow put it: “Whereas before I did not see myself as a leader, I can see now that the very fabric that makes up my character points to leadership.”
Our communities need these champions, but that transformation isn’t always easy. How do we get more people to see their true capacity for leadership? For organizers, it first starts with learning how to identify some of the root challenges facing our communities, developing proactive strategies to address them, and growing into leadership throughout the process.
2018 is an incredibly important year, not just for holding our elected officials accountable, but also for creating a more accessible and participatory democracy. And OFA Spring Fellows already have their eyes on the prize. This year, they’ll be focusing on economic issues, like affordable housing and job readiness; they’ll be working on OFA’s Fair Democracy campaign, helping those in their areas get themselves registered to vote; and they’ll be working on projects to get more young people involved in the democratic process.
So if you’re ever feeling discouraged (as can often happen in our current political climate), keep this takeaway from a fellow from Astoria, NY in your back pocket: “We are the right people, in the right place, at the right time.”
You can try out a fellowship exercise right now! Ask yourself:
- How would you define a healthy community?
- What’s one root problem that is affecting the health of your community?
- What leadership values will you bring to organizing around a potential solution?
Wrestling with these questions is a critical first step toward making progress. If you’d like do more than this exercise and actually get to work, OFA is launching the Community Engagement Fellowship one more time before November — sign up here to be notified when applications open.