Michelle Obama was in the Twin Cities last week visiting Hope Community, an organization that started in 1977 as a shelter for the homeless. In response to a community ravished by a crack-cocaine epidemic in the early 1990s, Hope Community expanded their housing focus to include civic engagement.
Community organizing, even then, was the crux of what transformed a few houses benefiting a few families into the impressive building that now sits on the corner of Franklin and Portland Avenues housing 112 low-income rental units. Hope’s programming has a strong focus on civic engagement and teaches children from elementary school age though adulthood that they play a vital role in forming public policy.
After a tour of the facility, members of Hope community, including the children and young adults involved in their programs, introduced themselves to Obama. Dhop, a program coordinator who works with children age 14 and under, described community documenting, a process that allows children to understand civic engagement through film.
“The kids are making their own film, and [it] gives them a certain amount of power so that they know that their voice is being heard,” Dhop said.
Obama asked how much parental involvement the programs require. Dhop explained that because parents are busy, traditional ways of getting parents involved are not always effective in urban areas like South Minneapolis.
“We sat down with kids, and they were telling us that parents were always yelling at them, or they don’t quite understand what their role [in the family] is,” Dhop said. “So we very simply have given them the power to go up to their parents and say, ‘I want to have a positive conversation [with you].’”
These conversations initiated by the children prompted calls from parents wanting to know more about the program. Facilitators also help parents understand how best to advocate for their children in school.
Members of the group SPEAC (Sustainable Progress through Engaging Active Citizens), a group that focuses on teaching community organizing to teens and young adults, explained their civic engagement process. When group members seemed hesitant to speak, Obama told them, “Don’t be shy. Ignore the cameras. It’s all off the record.”
Obama asked about their most interesting experience when speaking with community leaders. “I think its really interesting meeting with [someone with whom] you might not realize you share a common interest,” Alena Chaps, a SPEAC member, responded. “Realizing that…we really can co-create what we want to see and what we want to change in the world.”
“There’s not a lot of young people saying, ‘I want to be a community organizer,’” said Danielle Peterson, a SPEAC facilitator. She explained that an important part of what SPEAC does is teaching young adults to think differently about the role they play in public policy and community organizing by “discovering how we can really work together and kind of shifting the mindset of students to contribute.”
Obama said a challenge she is often confronted with is helping people to understand the concepts of self-interest and power. “I think this process lends itself to this kind of education that you would love to have happening all across the country just so that people understand what’s at stake.”
She informed SPEAC members that Barak Obama had been a community organizer and emphasized how important it is to understand the structure of government, using as an example community members in Chicago she interacted with who didn’t understand the difference between Barak Obama running for the Illinois State Senate and then later for the U.S. Senate.
“We don’t even have civics anymore in schools, where you’re teaching kids the importance of the political process and how it works,” Obama said. “In the public schools in my neighborhood, all our fourth graders are taking tests. They’re not talking about problem solving and having important conversations. They’re trying to get those test scores up.”
A longtime Hope Community participant and current organizer explained that he works with disenfranchised people who often don’t fully understand their power through civil engagement. “What can we do — as a government and a people — to better educate and support these people?” he asked
“People can’t do it on their own,” Obama answered. “People need support. They need centers like this. They need resources… We’ve come to the point in this country where sometimes you can’t even work your own way out of a situation. Even if you’re determined — I’m going to fix this, I’m going to go to school, I’m going to get an education, I’m going to get a job — you’re still struggling to just keep it together.”
Obama said that most issues require community-wide support. “It’s up to the society to say that this kind of effort is worth it, because it doesn’t help to have any percentage of homeless who are unengaged in the process.”
She also emphasized the power of the vote. “Change doesn’t happen just because you wake up and you’re mad; change happens because you understand the problems, the issues. You’re holding people accountable, you understand what you’re holding people accountable for, and you understand your own power in the process.
“If we understood that as a nation, there’s no way we would have dismal election turnouts. There are people who have decided that the political process makes no difference… They’ve given up their seat at the table, and the problem with that is that the game doesn’t stop just because you didn’t sit down at the table.
“Somebody else takes your chair.”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.