“OFA helped me see myself as a leader.”
By Christina A.C., 2018 OFA Spring Fellow
Like so many others, I struggle with feeling disconnected from my neighbors. With everyone in my area living in our separate suburban spaces, it seems more and more difficult to build and maintain a true sense of community — something almost all human beings need.
My name is Christina, and I live in Atascadero, a small city on the central coast of California. Despite growing up here, I’ve struggled to find community. I’m not from a big family, I’m not part of any faith-based group, and I don’t have a magnetic personality. I’ve tried joining online groups of like-minded people. I’ve tried attending the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship — which is lovely but too far from my home. I’ve joined political groups, and, although I remain active, they’re rarely designed to welcome the whole family.
So earlier this year, when a friend introduced me to OFA and recommended I apply for the Community Organizing Fellowship, I jumped at the opportunity.
My fellowship training began in Spring 2018, and in one of the first sessions, we were asked to identify an issue that is affecting the health of our community. This ended up being exactly the type of focused guidance I needed. At first, I came up with issues like mental health care and affordable housing. And while these are critical issues, after speaking with some experts in my city, I realized they are too big for me to even scratch the surface of by myself.
But as the fellowship progressed and I made my way through the coursework, I kept coming back to the underlying idea of building community. Was the lack of a sense of community holding us back from tackling some of these big issues? Was the feeling of being isolated from our neighbors preventing us from believing that we could address them? My goal began to come into focus.
If I wanted to feel more confident in my community’s ability to tackle some of these major issues, I’d have to start by helping to build a stronger sense of community. I decided to focus on Gen Xers and Millennials. The people in these generations are not only my peers, but they’re also some of the voices that I feel are consistently under represented in today’s national dialogue around important issues like climate change, health care, and gun violence. They’re part of a demographic that — if they decided to get more involved — would dramatically alter the future of this country.
And so that became my goal — getting Gen Xers and Millennials in my community more involved in civic engagement. If we could find a way to feel more connected and to cultivate a sense of investment in each other, I believe we’d feel more confident in our ability to work together to make a real, lasting difference in our neighborhoods. Having a focused goal was a good start, but the fellowship also taught me the importance of building out a strategy with specific tactics to help me get there.
Getting these particular groups more involved in community activism, however, presents a few challenges. Most of us work full-time. Many of us have kids. We’re busy! We generally won’t take precious time away from our families to attend city council meetings or action-planning sessions. We want to effect change, but we need to know our effort will make a real difference, and we want to see the results of that action right away.
So I started Atascadero Helpers, a non-partisan group for families who want to do volunteer work together. The primary mission of the group is to make a difference in our city through community service. I started small, recruiting close friends and family, making social media accounts, and sharing our project wherever we could. For our first project, we chose to do something that offered multiple channels for others to get involved. We hosted a Food & Necessities Drive for a local food pantry. We met in a nearby park and invited other families to join, drop off their donations, and provided an easy craft activity: decorating reusable shopping bags. Many families couldn’t stay, but the beauty of this project was everyone could participate no matter their availability. It was a beautiful day, a lot of fun, and we collected more than 125 pounds of donations for the pantry. We also proved to ourselves that there is real passion for this idea.
While our work is primarily geared towards young families with kids, Atascadero Helpers is focused on being inclusive. I like to say that anyone is welcome to volunteer as long as they’re comfortable with the family-oriented focus of the group. We do kid-friendly projects at a kid-pace. If empathetic college students or senior citizens understand our mission and want to contribute, we welcome them enthusiastically. I’ve come across a lot of groups that are specifically for moms (excluding dads and grandparents) and others that focus on stay-at-home parents, excluding working people by scheduling get-togethers at times when most folks are at work. We aim to host most of our events on weekends and evenings — days and times that make it possible for our working membership to attend.
I’m a progressive, and many of my friends in the group are progressive, but we are committed to welcoming people of all political stripes. And because Atascadero Helpers is non-partisan, our friends who need to stay neutral because of their jobs can also participate. This is a huge need I never considered — involvement that maintains neutrality.
Like in many volunteer groups, my hope is that the people involved will begin to build trust in one another. The vision that Atascadero Helpers is working towards is to build community — not only will the parents bond with their kids, but the kids will make friends with each other, and the parents start to build relationships as well. We’ll work in different areas of the city and with different groups so we can get better acquainted with our own community. While working with these organizations, our members will be able to meet the veteran volunteers who have been working on these projects for years to make a difference. We’ll learn from them as we help contribute to their cause. And finally, I want Gen Xers and Millennials to see that their community is filled with regular people who care — I want them to see that they can make an impact on real problems when they participate in the solution.
Looking back, it’s funny to me that I deemed mental health and affordable housing to be issues that were too big to address, yet now I’m dreaming about reinvigorating my entire community. It’s nothing grand. It’s simple. It’s fun. We’re educating and emboldening people to make the changes they didn’t know they had the power to make.
OFA has also helped me see myself as a leader.
I may be a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother of 3 with a bachelor’s degree in studio art and art history who is nervous speaking in front of people and grapples with self-doubt — but I can lead because I love my city and I’m willing to work hard with my neighbors to make a difference. That’s what makes me a leader.
The OFA fellowship was a lot of fun! There’s really no reason not to do it. On the surface, it’s leadership training, but it’s leadership training with a community of enthusiastic people from all across the country. The passion and drive of the trainers and the other fellows pushed me to think deeply about the material and do some real soul-searching. What is truly important to me? What is my city lacking that would help it flourish? How far am I willing to go to create change in this community that I love? Who can help me make this happen? What resources are available to me?
OFA helped me realize I’m not alone having passion to make a difference, that there are tools to help me reach my goals, and that OFA has my back in this process.