Community Organizing: An Interview with Dennis Ojogho, MS ‘12
"The key to getting involved with issues you care about is to engage with people who are most affected by that issue."
How did you spend the two years between undergrad and law school?
I had the privilege of returning home to South Central Los Angeles where I worked as a youth organizer at Community Coalition, a social justice organization. Community Coalition was founded in 1990 by Congresswoman Karen Bass. As a youth organizer, I worked directly with high school students to develop their leadership skills and push for local and state policy changes that could transform the social and economic conditions of our neighborhood.
What were some local issues you worked on?
My youth organizing efforts centered on two broad issues: educational equity and youth justice. Los Angeles, like many other cities in America, has a history of funding schools in black and brown neighborhoods less equitably as well as a history of over-policing and over-incarcerating black and brown students.
In the two years that I was there, Community Coalition successfully settled a lawsuit against the LA Unified School District for misallocating funds from the state that were specifically earmarked for the highest needs schools in the district. The groundbreaking settlement resulted in more than $150 million of additional funds being distributed among 50 of the highest need schools, need being defined as schools with the highest proportion of low income, foster youth, and English learners. Many of the students I organized attended those very schools that received those funds and I worked with them, along with their parents, teachers, principals, and local superintendents to brainstorm the best programs to direct those funds to.
Our youth justice work emphasized redefining the meaning of public safety. The youth leaders I worked with surveyed three thousand other youth in LA County about public safety and were able to make findings such as, "2/3 of youth surveyed in LA County feel that law enforcement cannot relate to their experiences." The youth I worked with also helped Community Coalition knock on thousands of doors across South LA in November 2016 to urge voters to pass Proposition 57, which overwhelmingly passed. Prop 57 moved up parole consideration for certain nonviolent offenders and it also provided more credit-earning opportunities for sustained good behavior and in-prison program participation.
As you can see, the youth I worked with have been, for years, on the forefront of the issues of equity and justice that have now taken center stage across the nation in the summer of 2020. Many of the students I worked with are now in college, carrying on that same spirit of activism that they cultivated while at Community Coalition.
Before organizing to make change, you have to make sure you’re aware of the issues in your local community. How do you go about identifying the most pressing local issues and educating yourself on them?
I keep myself informed in two ways. First, I do my best to read local newspapers as often as I can, both those with wide circulation and those with smaller readerships. Second, and perhaps most important, is I try to engage with local organizations and organizers as much as possible. It's more difficult now for me to be engaged with the causes I care about in LA while I am in school on the East Coast, but when I come home during breaks, I make sure to visit Community Coalition and talk to the people still doing amazing work on the ground. I also remain a dues-paying Community Coalition member, so I still receive newsletters from the organization which helps to keep me up to date on the organization's latest organizing efforts.
Once you ID the issues, what are some first steps you can take to get involved?
The key to getting involved with issues you care about is to engage with people who are most affected by that issue. If you care about education, you need to talk to students, parents, teachers and other school personnel. If you care about prison reform or abolition, you need to engage with people who are incarcerated or who have loved ones who are incarcerated. Start by going to community events and forums, even if virtual for the time being. People who have been most deeply affected by the issues you care about will likely be there. Make real connections and figure out how people are organizing themselves and what policy proposals they are pushing for. Do that and you'll be well on your way to becoming part of the change you wish to see in the world.
How do you then work to expand the movement or organize at a larger scale?
Expanding a movement takes a lot of work and I cannot pretend that I can provide the best answer to this question. But as someone who was actively engaged in helping to build a youth-led movement in South Central LA, what I can say is that finding ways for those with real policy-making power to feel the stories of those people most impacted by an issue is essential. I can rattle off dozens of statistics all day, but nothing sticks with people quite like feeling the stories of those who are suffering. Unfortunately, in the case of police brutality, we have seen that it often takes a disturbing video of seeing someone lose their life before many people actually feel what Black people have been feeling for a very, very long time.
In other cases, thankfully it does not require seeing death for the urgency of an issue to take place. I have seen students courageously tell their stories to state legislators and school board members about the impact that not having enough funding in their schools had on their education. And those students made a difference with their stories.
Change is often a very slow process. It can also be disappointing when you do something like canvass for a prop really hard that gets decimated at the polls because of lobby money. How do you avoid burnout?
Burnout is a real danger. Organizing can be a grueling, thankless job and more often than not, you are working every day for results that you yourself may not ever see. I have two pieces of advice for this.
First, what kept me going while organizing were the people around me engaged in the same struggle. At Community Coalition, we had a saying, Unity, Struggle, Unity. As long as we remained united from the beginning, no matter what struggle we encountered, whether that be the defeat of a proposition or the election of a candidate unaligned with our vision for our community, we always knew that we would remain united at the other side of that struggle.
Second, in times of struggle, I always think about my ancestors. Because as difficult as our struggles are today, I know that so many people before me struggled, and gave everything they had, and sometimes laid down their very lives so that we could bear the torch and run with it as far as we could to fulfill their dreams of what society could be. I know that I owe it to them not to give up, no matter how difficult things may seem. Even if their dreams do not become reality in my lifetime, I have a duty to carry the torch as far as I can.
Anything else you’d like to add about ways to affect change in your community?
The older I get, the more I realize how much community change begins with the self. When I was younger, my focus was always on structures. It's the whole reason I went to law school. Change the law, change the structure, change the lived experiences of our communities.
While structural change remains essential, I am beginning to realize that change is also going to depend on all of us making sure that our individual intentions toward all of humanity are in the right place in our day to day lives. Every small act of kindness goes a long way because it contributes to a kinder, braver world. So whether that means saying hello to a stranger on the street, picking up a piece of trash on the floor, taking the time to listen to your friend talk about a problem they are having, or donating to a worthy cause--all of these acts in the aggregate have the potential to transform our world if everyone does what they can to treat every person and every space they are in with the right intentions. I recently listened to an interview Deepak Chopra did with LinkTV and I'll close by paraphrasing the four intentions he recommends we have every time we wake up and begin our days:
Intention of a Joyful, Energetic Body.
Intention of a Loving, Compassionate Heart.
Intention of a Quiet, Reflective Mind.
Intention of a Lightness of Being.