Archive for the ‘Ruby Doris Smith’ Category

I’m A Community Organizer, and I Bet You Are Too

Monday, September 8th, 2008

I join progressive bloggers today in honoring the great work that community organizers do and in saying that, contra Sarah Palin, community organizers are changemakers and have made critical contributions to American organizer

What are some things community organizers do?

Anyone who has volunteered to help register voters is a community organizer.

Anyone who has volunteered to pick up people and transport them to the voting poll, to a cleaner and better hospital than the one they usually go to, to a cleaner and better supermarket because the one in their neighborhood is a rip off.

Anyone who has tried to organize a group for a cause is a community organizer.

Anyone who has spoken out about injustice, whether writing into a campaign, talked to their friends, or made a phone call is a community organizer.

Says sister progressive blogger, Sojourner’s Place:

Whether it be HIV/AIDS or Apartheid in South Africa or genocide in Darfur or Voting Rights, community organizers have played an integral part and had significant impact these issues and instigated change. To discount the significance and importance of Community Organizers, is to discount the significance and importance of what it means and is to be American.

For it is the Community Organizer who accepts the challenge and ofttimes thankless and dangerous position to go up against the status quo. It is the Community Organizer whose very life is dedicated to leaving the pile higher that it was found regardless of the cost. Yet, it is the Community Organizer who finds him or herself in the throes of ridicule, obstacles, and obstructions.

Community organizers, says, Prof BW DO in fact have responsibilities:

Community organizers are sometimes unpaid and more often underpaid for the work they do. Their hours are long as they have to accommodate constituents, emergencies, and changes in strategies and venues. They develop some of the strongest coalition building skills of anyone involved in civic work because they have to work closely with ideologues, establishment, rich, poor, the hurt, the angry, the apathetic, and the uncaring to accomplish their goals… More than that, many community organizers have been the first and strongest defense against the assault on the rights of marginalized people.

Come to think about, I too AM a community organizer.

I’m working with folks on my street to do something about the house across the way that some overzealous builder started building last year but went bankrupt and abandoned six months into the project and has now become an eye-sore street and a danger to kids in the neighborhood who like climbing its inside rafters to get a view of the city as the house sits on a hill.

I recently signed on to help register to vote the under-served residents who live around my church and to see to it that the members of my church know where to go in their neighborhoods and how to make certain ahead of time that they haven’t been dropped, because of some inconsistency, from the voting records.

After living in this neighborhood for over ten years I only recently spotted a nice neighborhood park that I’d like to take daily walks in (rather than driving 10 miles across town to walk around the university track), But I think the city should cut back some of the hedges, bushes, and growth surrounding the park to make it more safe for women to walk alone. I think I’ll see if there are others in the community who think the same and are willing to help start a petition to take downtown.   Fannie Lou

Here’s to the memory of the hundreds of community organizers, especially the women talk about a lot on this blog, whose fire breathing work on behalf of justice made it possible for us to enjoy the freedoms we have today.

Contra Sarah Palin, community organizers are changemakers.

Think about, Miriam, Deborah, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla and Lydia. I bet you’ve done some organizing, agitating, disseminating information, marching, and speaking truth to power in your lifetime.

I bet you can can come up with something you’ve done (or are currently doing) that’s said to the powers that be ”Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” If you haven’t, just hold on: these hard economic times we’re living in are gonna make prophets and community organizers out of all of us before it’s over.

Anybody wanna give a shout out to some community organizer that you know of or to some comunity project you’re working on and the many volunteers who work with you on the project?

Remembering Ruby Doris

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Sociologist Charles Payne talks about the slow respectful, behind the scenes, work that makes the dramatic moments possible. Making the phone calls. Running off flyers. Sending out reminders. Booking the flights. Training new volunteers. Smoothing out differences and navigating turf wars. Passing reminders to speakers about important announcements. Raising bail money. Striking up the right song while sitting in jail to keep everyone’s hopes alive.

These were just a few of the duties of Ruby Doris Smith as a formidable force in the student sit-in movement and eventual leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

As part of my ongoing fixation with women’s biographies, especially those of little known women, I finally managed to track down a copy of Cynthia Griggs Fleming’s, Soon We Will Not Cry: The Liberation of Ruby Doris Smith Robinson. I’ve been trying for months to find a copy. It was worth the wait. Once again there’s much to learn about women’s ongoing struggle to juggle love and work, the private and the public, conventional notions of power with conventional thinking about femininity. Unlike many other black women from that period whose stories we probably know better, Ruby Doris Smith was young, and, until her illness and death from cancer in 1967, she struggled to combined her passion for the movement, with her marriage and eventually motherhood.

Was it the writer of Ecclesiastes who wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun” (1:9)?

Atlanta born Ruby Doris Smith was only 18 years old when she, along with seventy-seven students from throughout the Atlanta University Center, fourteen of them from Spelman College, was arrested for attempting to integrate white cafeteria counters throughout Atlanta. Ruby Doris had arrived on Spelman’s campus two years earlier at 16 as something of a child prodigy. But from the time of her arrest on March 15, 1960 on she stood out for her courage and commitment to the cause.

In the months and years following March 1960 Ruby Doris Smith took part in dozens of pickets of supermarkets, restaurants, bus terminals, white churches, and state and capital buildings. From time to time, some girls would pull out of marches at the last minute, complaining that their periods had started and that they didn’t want to be in jail on their period. Others like Ruby Doris Smith stuffed sanitary napkins in their socks and went on to the marches. Her remarkable organizational skills, her attention to details, along with her courage and energy would eventually make her an indispensable presence in both the local and the larger national student sit-in movement.

One thing that strikes me as I read Ruby Doris’ biography is the role women sometimes play in their own erasure. While she was powerful and had no problem using that power, Smith seems never to have wanted to call attention to her power or to herself. Sexism within the male dominated SNCC was a given, and she often bristled at men like Stokely Carmichael who seemed to relish the spotlight. But Ruby Doris shied away from any personal spotlight for herself. The personal must give way to the political, she argued. I can’t help wondering how much women like Ruby Doris Smith and Ms. Ella Baker (who argued similarly) contributed to their anonymity by repeatedly shunning personal attention and by refusing to see how intertwined the personal and the political often are.

Even though her involvement in early sit-ins, marches and pickets, her willingness to go to jail for her convictions, and her growing administrative responsibilities within SNCC would force her to drop out of college several times, Ruby Doris Smith did eventually graduate from Spelman in 1965. The struggle to juggle commitments would continue when two months after graduation Ruby Doris Smith (now Robinson) gave birth to a son. For the next year she would divide herself between a husband, a child, and her new full time job with SNCC as Executive Secretary. That struggle ended sadly, on October 7, 1967, when at 25 years old, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson died from cancer — and sheer exhaustion, says some.

It would be easy, though not quite true, to say that with the death of Ruby Doris came the death of SNCC. Other forces were ripping at the organization’s seams in 1968 and contributed to its eventual demise within that year: turf wars, an ideological shift away from nonviolence toward more militaristic methods, the death of comarades, the increasing number of whites in the movement, sexual tensions, King’s assasination in ’68, harsh government reprisals, economic hardships. It does seem true, however, that with the loss of Ruby Doris’ daily presence there in the SNCC office for those nine months she lay dying in the hospital, the organization’s demise was hastened. That’s how important Ruby Doris Smith was to SNCC and how much we miss out by not having her around today to pose questions to. Especially since her decison to marry and have a child so early, say Flemings, was in large part the result of her belief that a woman’s identity ultimately grows out of motherood. Some of us may disagree with such a notion today, but it’s not one we haven’t bumped up against forty years later.

Reading the biography of Ruby Doris Smith is to be reminded that we are not the first generation of women who’ve struggled to find a balance between the personal and the political, love and work, ministry and motherhood. Her biography is also a reminder how important it is to know your worth and not be shy about tooting your own horn when necessary, if only for history’s sake.

I wake up the next morning with Ruby Doris on my mind. “She was only a girl, a teenager, a young woman in her twenties, when she was doing what she was doing” a voice inside whispers. I sign back on this morning to salute young, brave lionesses like Ruby Doris who find their passion at an early age and spend themselves exploring where it leads.