The Value of Social Knowledge in Community Organizing

When you’re in an academically rigorous program like Duke, it’s tempting to think the rigor of your academic environment alone merits leadership skills, power, and respect. You might assume you can walk into a room and people might crave your perspective simply because of institutional credentials. While many people appreciate the mind of a Duke student, there are certain trades and spheres of life which defines leadership primarily on what you do and less on what you know. One of these trades is community organizing.

In his book Roots for Radicals Ed Chambers writes “Academics and pundits love to throw around the word “social capital” and debate its nuances, but most of them couldn’t organize a block party (Chambers, 2005, p. 68).” In some ways, I disagree with this statement (mainly because I think Chamber’s definition of social capital ignores the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Jane Jacobs, and Robert Putman), but I think Chambers is right to suggest a background in academia carries little over into the world of organizing. Organizing is like playing basketball, and while history of the sport or theoretical knowledge of the inner workings of transition offense won’t hurt, what makes the best players is the ability to score, pass, rebound and play defense. Similarly, organizers appreciate what you do over what you know:

Are you willing to commit hours of research for a proposal? How many relational meetings have you organized? Did you attend the meeting last night? How many people did you bring to the meeting? Did you follow through on your commitments? Will you sign-up to criticize the mayor during public comment? Did you read the current policy change? Will you take no for answer? Have you done your homework?

As you can imagine, the emphasis of praxis in organizing, challenged me to work hard and lead through my actions, not my thoughts. With Durham CAN, I’ve partnered with local leaders at Hoover Road and other CAN members to start a garden project at Hoover Road, I’ve organized relational meetings with the City of Durham’s Neighborhood Improvement Services to implement summer camp at Hoover Road, I created a video to give Durham Residents a safe space to share their experience at Hoover Road, I organized several meetings with the Six-Eight church to help members engage with Durham CAN, I committed several hours of research while we developed our Eviction Policy, I provided key insights about how to get more young professionals involved in organizing, I summarized and analyzed  the City of Durham’s Community Development Department’s lengthy Master Plan to illuminate where Durham CAN and the City might have shared interest, I’ve used my voice in several meetings to prioritize the voice of residents and more. But some days, I felt guilty because I didn’t lead well—maybe I didn’t speak up in a listening session or volunteer to speak at a City Council meeting. Despite this, many days, I felt a sense of pride in the small tasks like making the extra effort to invite a resident into a following meeting.

Of course, an organizer is better off the more educated they are, but too often people (like myself) who enjoy the blessings of higher education, miscalculate the value of practical wisdom and good ole’ hard work in organizing. Instead, organizers put stock in social knowledge or to use the Greek term “phronesis” or practical wisdom. Chambers defines it as “the kind of know-how based on the hard lessons of life experience that guide a good parent, boss, or leader….People with this kind of practical know-how earned it in moments of challenge and struggle, or on the street—not in the ivory tower (Chambers, 2005, pp. 16-17).”

This spring, I learned the basics of organizing: the world as it is vs. the world as it should be, the importance of civil society and social capital, the relational meeting, public actions, listening sessions, organized money and organized power, in light of Chambers insights on social knowledge, the most valuable thing I learned was the stories of residents. Of course, the formal tools of organizing helps, but the foundation of organizing lies in learning your neighbors. The great urban sociologists Robert Park and Ernest Burgess handed down this insight to Saul Alinsky when they taught him the practice of ethnography (Bretherton, 2015, pp. 25-26). Indeed, in his book After Virtue, Alasdair Macintyre writes “I can only answer the question what am I to do? If I can ask the prior question Of what stories do I find myself apart of? (MacIntyre, 2007, p. 216)”

Through community organizing, I’ve found purpose and joy, amidst headache and heartbreak, in organizing. I hope to spend part of my career organizing in Durham or whatever community God places me in. In Durham CAN I’ve witnessed the church live boldly and embody the prophetic imagination in a contemporary religious context where the church either serves as “the opium of the oppressed” or explodes into a riot on the capitol. I cherish my priceless experience with Durham CAN because through my internship I’ve gained experince and vision for how church and community can work together to repair the fallenness of this world, engage “The Powers that Be” and work towards the Beloved Community. I’m glad to announce that through the Office of Field Education at Duke Divinity School, I will continue my internship with Durham CAN into the summer. I encourage people interested in organizing and Durham CAN to follow us on social media and watch our calendar for future meetings to attend.

Appreciating the Small Victories: Building a Garden at Hoover Road

On a Saturday evening in mid-March, I sped over to Hoover Road, greeted the residents, and began to unload large bags of fertilizer and dirt from the back of a nearby pick-up truck as Heather and Ruth, two members on the Durham CAN affordable housing team, directed me towards the site of the new garden. A few weeks ago, one of the community leaders at Hoover Road expressed that she wanted a garden for people to grow their own food. Finally, after weeks of planning we started the first steps of making the community garden a reality.

Earlier in the month, Heather persuaded the the local Firehouse subs to donate their bright-red five-gallon buckets for the garden. Then in her spare time, she engineered five sub-irrigated planters by drilling holes in the buckets for PVC piping that would serve as irrigation for the soil. Ultimately this design creates a small reservoir of water, offering the benefit of less frequent watering while still supplying the moisture the plants need to survive.[1] After we finished filling the planters with the soil, Heather helped us plant cabbage, mint, rosemary and peas into the planters and then we covered them with fresh mulch. Two weeks later when we retuned to build more planters, the children giggled and smiled as they helped watered the plants, mixed the dirt, and discovered the taste of fresh mint on their teeth.

When reflecting on garden with Tinu, the lead organizer with Durham CAN, she mentioned how the site of the garden used to be a playground which rusted over and fell apart over the years. For the residents, the aging playground became a monument of insult and abandonment from the Durham Housing Authority, but when Durham CAN helped organize the residents to remove the playground, there was a sense of pride and agency restored to Hoover Road. She concluded “Removing that old playground is one of the most important actions we’ve done at Hoover Road.”

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, Durham CAN stands in Saul Alinsky’s tradition of Broad-Based Organizing which assumes the necessity of long-term actions which take months and even years to make real change. For example, Durham CAN’s affordable housing team has organized for several months on an action to change the Durham Housing Authority’s eviction policy. Therefore, community organizing can be a long, tedious process of incremental change and attrition. Even worse, despite the hard-earned satisfaction of a successful action, sometimes years of work can be washed away with the careless swipe of a pen. For example, Fair Fight Action, an organization founded by Stacey Abrams to fight voter suppression in Georgia, witnessed years of work washed away as Gov. Brian Kemp signed a new law to restrict voter access. Speaking on this same dynamic of organizing, Ed Chambers writes:

“Fleeting moments of peace and harmony are the most we get in this life. The holy books promise lasting peace, but only when the reign of God arrives. Until then, unity in the real world last for thirty seconds or maybe a day and a half. The law of change is incessant, like the tides. The yearning for unity is like the longing for certainty. We want both, but we can’t have them in this lifetime.”[2]

As a student in the Divinity School, I often reflect on how the Bible speaks to my context in organizing. Concerning the seemingly temporary peace in organizing, I’m reminded of Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes), the Old Testament book famous for its opening verses “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”  Like Chambers understanding of peace, Qoheleth reminds us that most things we toil for can be temporary, fleeting, pointless or in vain. Indeed, the Hebrew word commonly translated as “vanity” (hebel) literally means vapor.[3]

However, organizing isn’t simply a number of public actions in vain, neither is Qoheleth the entirety of the Old Testament. Through the work with Durham CAN, I’ve seen residents claim their agency and work towards building power to make their voices heard in the political decisions that affect their lives. Similarly, the Hebrew prophets reminds us not to slip into nihilism and meaninglessness, but instead that true worship of the Lord results in justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Suggesting the value of reading Amos and Qoheleth together, Duke Divinity Professor Brent Strawn writes:

“And maybe Qoheleth and Amos could agree that the glory of the finite includes the very small victories occasionally won in the face of what seem like intractable problems, such that the impossibly long arc of the moral universe really does bend, eventually and ever so slowly, toward justice.”[4]

The wisdom of Dr. Strawn’s analysis reminds us of the importance of celebrating “the very small victories” like the smile on children’s faces when building a garden, or the dignity restored the community when a rusty playground is removed. While I do hope Durham CAN’s efforts with the affordable housing team will lead to a change in the eviction policy, I realize the necessity for patience when working on long-term actions. Luckily in the meantime, I have the smiles of the children at Hoover Road and the joy of residents in their new garden to remind me about the incremental steps we take to make Durham the Beloved Community.



Chambers, Edawrd T. Roots for Radicals . New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group , 2005.

Collins, John. A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Foretress Press, 2018.

Strawn, Brent. “Ecclesiastes has some things to say about COVID-19.” ChristianCentury.org . January 1, 2021. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/reflection/ecclesiastes-has-some-things-say-about-covid-19 (accessed March 29, 2021).

[1] For a visual: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-dXXY79mAA

[2] (Chambers 2005, 32)

[3] (Collins 2018, 346)

[4] (Strawn 2021)

Organizing Empathy: Learning Durham through the Relational Meeting

Despite the limits of Covid-19, I spent this summer excited about moving to Durham. When I finally arrived, Durham charmed me with her restaurants, growing downtown, and beautiful brick buildings that represent the culture, history, and style of the city. However, shortly after moving to Durham, I noticed certain areas where the buildings did not match the texture of the neighborhood. In between errands, I took note about how certain newer buildings awkwardly pressed against the older brick ones. Slowly, I recognized the pattern of urban renewal in Durham. As I familiarized myself with the city, I recognized my own ignorance about the inequality, economic injustice, and political insensitivity which perpetuate violence on Durham’s residents.

During the Grad Engage orientation, the instructor told us about the “Durham-Duke divide.” She explained how many students never engage the surrounding community, and, when they do, they often forget about their experiences when they return to the “ivory tower.” Similarly, the leaders in Durham CAN tell me, with disbelief, about how people do not believe poverty exists in Durham. Despite being a shining beacon for progressive politics, Durham often leaves its poorest residents in the shadows. And although residents sprinkle downtown with “Black Lives Matter” signs, often Durham residents remain ignorant about the exclusion black lives suffer in Durham. Consequentially, the most valuable thing I’ve learned through the fellowship is the often unnoticed occurrences of injustice happening in Durham, and the people who these injustices injure.

Standing in the legacy of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundations, Durham CAN builds the power necessary for fighting theses injustices through relational meetings; recently, I attended an IAF training on how to conduct them.  Through relational meetings, organizers search for shared interests to connect people and organize them around their self-interest. Now when framed this way, some might be tempted to view relational meetings as utilitarian and exploitative in nature, assuming organizers only practice them in hopes of a later political commitment. However, this is not the case. Ed Chambers writes,

The implication of asking for a relational meeting is the other person’s perspective is f value, that listening to the stories and insights, the memories and struggles, of another is more important than hustling their name for a petition or getting them out to vote. In contrast to pre-structured, carefully controlled and impersonal strategies like opinion surveys and focus groups, the relational meeting is a risky, reciprocal event. (Chambers 2005, 49)

Rather than treating people as a means to political ends, the relational meeting is a strategy to treat people, and their issues, as a mean in themselves. For this reason, Jacques Martian was right when he described Alinsky’s methods as a “good and necessary means to achieve good and necessary ends.” Indeed, as Duke Divinity School professor Dr. Luke Bretherton writes in Resurrecting Democracy, “Alinsky’s approach aims to stimulate the appearance of those who are de-politicized or excluded from the decision-making process, enabling them to appear and act on their own terms” (Bretherton 2015, 45). Relational meetings break through the “Duke-Durham Divide” and create a common life where people can fellowship and empathize with each other.

Through relational meetings, I’ve learned about the experiences of Durham residents living in Durham Housing Authority properties. As one news article says, “Hoover Road, located in East Durham near North Carolina Central University, was built in 1968, making the 54-townhome complex one of the agency’s oldest sites.” Because of this, many of the apartments at Hoover road need maintenance repairs, ranging from leaky roofs to mold removal. Recently, the DHA organized weekly meetings for the CEO of the DHA, Mr. Anthony Scott, to listen directly to the concerns of residents. Despite their initiatives, some residents hesitate to share their experiences because they fear possible retaliation from the DHA.

In response, another DHA resident interviewed other tenants about their thoughts around the repairs and maintenance at Hoover Road, in hopes to share the interviews anonymously. In the process, the resident reached out to Durham CAN to help her with the project. Ultimately, I ended up editing and producing a video with the recorded interviews and the video will be presented at the next meeting to Mr. Scott.  In the video, residents expressed their frustration about their leaky roofs, clogged toilets, unbearable apartments, unresponsive maintenance crews, and unreliable repairs.

In addition to projects like these, I also work with the Affordable Housing and Eviction team where we work on a campaign to change Durham’s eviction policy. Our efforts are in hope of preventing homelessness and securing good and healthy living conditions for the residents of Durham. Projects like these are the weekly tasks organizers must do, working with residents to help them take part in the decisions that influence their lives.

Democracy in Action: Community Organizing in Durham

TJ will be working with Durham CAN to organize with Durham Housing Authority residents for better living conditions and eviction prevention.

This spring, I chose to partner with Durham CAN, a community organization based in Durham’s institutions. According to their website, “Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods) is a broad-based, non-profit organization that works to coalesce, train, and organize communities in Durham across religious, racial, ethnic, class, and geographic lines for the public good.”

Durham CAN stands in the legacy of several organizing movements. First, CAN is affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, founded by Saul Alinsky—the father of modern community organizing. In his book Roots for Radicals, Alinsky’s friend Ed Chambers details the philosophy behind broad based organizing. Chambers argues “a truly democratic public life requires the organization, education, and development of leaders who regard themselves as equal, sovereign citizens with the know-how to stand for the whole.”[1] In hopes of an inclusive public life, Durham CAN executes countless “relational meetings” to find shared self-interest with other citizens. Through this practice, Durham CAN builds the “relational power” and social capital necessary to organize for the good of local communities—particularly unrepresented Durham residents.

Secondly, CAN is also a descent of Durham’s legacy of social justice movements, specifically the Black Freedom Movement in Durham, NC. While Alinsky’s insights on organizing are invaluable, Alinsky himself did not believe women could be organizers. With this in mind, it’s important to draw attention to the legacy of patriarchy in organizing and recognize the equally important work of woman in organizing. In her book Our Separate Ways, Christina Greene, an assistant professor of history in the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, offers an impressive study to include the forgotten women, especially black women, in the story of Durham’s Black Freedom Movement.[2] Greene writes:

“By the mid-1960’s, largely as a result of the success of local War on Poverty campaigns, poor African American women were among the best-organized members of the black community. Because of their mass base, they were able to set the tone and the agenda of black protest. Militant, low-income African American women, especially in United Organizations for Community Improvement, challenged not only the middle-class male leadership of the freedom movement, and middle-class white reformers, but Durham’s white power structure as well.”[3]

Today, Durham CAN’s lead organizer, Atinuke “Tinu “Diver, carries on the legacy of black woman leading organizing movements for justice in Durham.

Speaking generally, I came to Durham CAN because I wanted to learn about how faith can inform community organizing. As a student in the Master of Divinity program, I enjoy exploring areas where religion and justice intersect. My interest in faith and community organizing arises from my college experience as a Bonner Scholar in the Knoxville area. During the summer between my junior and senior year in college, I completed a summer internship through the Bonner Program. That summer, I served full-time with the Knoxville Urban League as the education and youth intern. Working at the Urban League showed me the tangible ways the legacy of redlining and inequality persists in urban areas. For example, I remember seeing inequality in Knoxville’s schools according to the neighborhoods. Students in East Knoxville, a community which the FHA graded red, shared Chromebooks to do their homework. Conversely in West Knoxville, a neighborhood which green, each student received their own MacBook. My experience with the Urban League solidified many of the things I learned about in the classroom, but it also showed me the need for a Christian theology that could address inequality on the neighborhood level.

I’m heavily influenced by Laura Stivers application of Traci West’s disruptive ethics. Using Jesus as a paradigm for ethics, West develops a framework to build communities which foster “spiritual wholeness.”  West argues to properly disrupt social issues, we must put the oppressed at our moral center and build communities in solidarity with oppressed people.  Then she argues our Christian analysis must always include:

“(1) deconstructing social ideologies that are created to justify oppression and violence; (2) examining intersecting forms of social domination and oppression; (3) complex individual and institutional power relationships; and (4) paying attention to the ways in which people are both victimized and have agency.”

While I’ve always cared about merging Christianity and social justice, disruptive ethics provided the framework for theological reflection on social issues and a conviction to get involved in disrupting exploitation. Consequentially, I wanted to work with Durham CAN because CAN is the best place to practice disruptive ethics in Durham. Ultimately, I hope my time with Durham CAN introduces me to community organizing, but more importantly, I hope to make Durham a better place for the marginalized, the poor, and the outcast.

[1] (Chambers 2005, 14)

[2] (Greene 2005, 5)

[3] (Greene 2005, 220-221)