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Interview with a Chicago Community Organizer
This community organizer and instructor at a community technology center in the Chicago area allowed us to interview him to find out what his career was like. It was partially the role of a teacher, but largely the role of a leader in a struggling, impoverished community. In his interview, he shares the highs and lows of serving an under-resourced community.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: My job title was Manager/Instructor of a Community Technology Center. I worked seven years in a position that could simply fit the job duties of “community organizer.” Most of my job duties all essentially fell into that area. Hard-working, compassionate and knowledgeable -- all described me.

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I am black and have experienced discrimination all my life. However, I don’t expect this to be an extraordinary observation. It is quite normal that African Americans are discriminated against. Since there is no proper restitution, the statement itself becomes vacuous, having no meaning. I do my best under whatever circumstances to work against discrimination and defeat it.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: My job duties were to organize the technology center as a way to teach computer literacy to individuals in an impoverished community. It included outfitting the center with computer equipment – computers that we later learned to build; canvassing the neighborhood to bring in members of the community; organizing seasonal class schedules with afternoon and evening courses; organizing and teaching special focus classes to teenagers, tots, seniors, teachers and other groups; and writing grants to insure that money flowed into the program.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: I would rate it as an eight. Besides good and trustworthy assistants, there was nothing else required but more time. I found out the assistants had to be of a measure of the community, and this was a significant finding.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: Interestingly, this was exactly the job I had sought during my life. It enabled me to return some well-honed skills back to the community. The feedback I got was very sustaining. It was great.

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: For one thing, I am a massively creative individual and really sought out capable outlets. A community technology center was great. Another thing, I was an intellectual type from all the schooling I had gathered throughout my life. There was actually no other outlet for me. So this was perfect.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: A significant part of my life had been engaged in the printing trades. I was able to professionally use desktop computers basically from the time of their introduction. I was a typesetter and desktop publisher assisting printers and publishers. For a number of years I was a research grant writer in the field of radiation oncology. I had always maintained a great interest in literature and the arts. Honesty, were there not discrimination, I would have raised my own family.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: I learned some real things about community. One, people were starved for knowledge. Two, education suffers badly in impoverished communities. Three, there was a lot of violence, throw-back, that people instilled upon themselves for their own shortcomings. Four, there is great human warmth in impoverished communities.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: The working world is a great demander and organizer. You must be a slave before you become a master. Or, in less harsh words, one must spend years learning his or her trade before commanding respect.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: It wasn’t so much strange as it was part of an unwanted duty of the job. I had to be persistent with juvenile authorities for the prosecution of deviant youth for whom I was initially responsible for guidance and training. It was disappointing, but it was a necessary responsibility that came with the job, demanding accord.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: I felt proud from the number of individuals who latched hold of me. I found myself serving as counsel in situations that I would never have dreamed of. Job-seekers stuck to me; job-holders stuck to me as their situations became challenged from personal problems, some that were very deep. I learned how to stabilize myself as this was the most important thing. To function professionally and stabilized in an impoverished community was a way of giving back. The people not only appreciated and welcomed these efforts, they stuck their hopes to them.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: There were too many challenges, but hardly any that were insurmountable. They were like pistons of self-renewal for me, from expecting the exhausting, yearly crop of adult applicants for a certain state online application that would return them some meager $100, to challenging teens to learning programming languages that I had to first learn myself. The violence was insurmountable. However, I got use to it and tried not to personalize it. Later, I found out that my sponsoring agency had located me in what outsiders described as a very violent part of the city. I had a major representative of this in one youth. But for the other so-called progenitors -- and/or victims -- of violence, all I had to do was to keep up with their lives. I taught everyone basic computer knowledge. That was my mantra. It was a winning one.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: There was tremendous stress. But there was also a resuscitative rhythm that one had to find that paced itself within the energy of the community. This rhythm floated in different positive ways from everyone.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: Paid $27,000 a year, I also had good health and dental benefits, as my center fed into a well recognized, nonprofit mother-agency.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: Working seven years straight, I took no vacation.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: You must have the ability to work with different kinds of people. I had people coming from well-seeded suburbs to take computer courses among a mainly low-income student base. One must be able to work with tots, teenagers, adults, seniors and all races with a smooth source of energy.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: One, know the technology; two, be able to communicate and explain.

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: I would write a heart-warming novel of my experiences, probably cloaked in a mystery.