By Diondra Hicks
My experience as a Kalmanovitz Initiative Summer Organizing Fellow with ONE DC was utterly amazing. It afforded me the opportunity to do meaningful work with very interesting people. I do not believe that most summer interns can arrive at their workplace as excited and eager to see what new endeavors the day will bring as I was this summer. Each day of my internship I walked into work not really knowing what to expect. I learned that grassroots community organizing is a job in which you must be open-minded because anything can happen. New issues, people, and tasks are constantly being introduced and it takes a lot of time and knowledge to be able to effectively intertwine these seemingly distant pieces to create movements for change.
So on our first day at ONE DC, Dominic instructed us to simply walk around the neighborhood and take note of what we observed. I was able to detect that the Shaw neighborhood had a deeply rooted history with Howard University, a colorful mural of Chuck Brown, and the infamous U Street corridor. But I could also see the impeding emergence of gentrification in the neighborhood as many new, fanciful housing developments situated on the same blocks with aged townhouses and public housing facilities seemed largely out of place. Without a doubt, gentrification was changing and even erasing the physical culture and history of the Shaw neighborhood in ways as explicit as the displacement of many residents in the area. On day two of my internship, Reece said to me, “Millions of anonymous people is what history is about.” This statement would prove to define a lot of the work I engaged in during my summer at ONE DC.
During our first few days at ONE DC we were given lots of information to read about ONE DC’s history, essential rules of being a community organizer, phases of oppression, emotional justice, radical movements, direct action, and much more. However, the most valuable knowledge I gained came from my experiences. I can group my experiences at ONE DC into three major categories: research on Ban the Box legislation, planning right to income meetings, and work around the creation of a Black Workers’ Center for DC. My second week at ONE DC was filled with Ban the Box legislation research as ONE DC was seeking to become a supporter of this legislation.
Ban the Box has been the catch phrase for a series of campaigns around the nation to remove the check box on job and housing applications that asks if one has ever been convicted of a crime or felony. Usually, upon truthfully checking this box an applicant’s paper work is disregarded as a qualified applicant. Banning this box aids the 25% of all American adults which have been convicted of a crime. It makes them more likely to be able to provide for their families and less likely to return to prison. We shared news of Ban the Box with individuals ONE DC had contact with in the past and were glad to see the DC City Council push the bill onto Congress on July 14th, although with some undesirable amendments.
Under their Right to Income campaign, ONE DC held monthly listening sessions to hear from the individuals the organization seeks to build power with. Most people were contacted due to their involvement in the Marriott Jobs Program, a job training and hiring project put together by multiple partners in order to ensure that DC residents were hired for a DC job opportunity at the Marriott. Unfortunately, the program ended in a lot of disappointment for the applicants involved. Many people simply never heard anything back from the Marriott. These listening sessions were held to create a safe space in which individuals could express their frustrations with not only the Marriott Jobs program but also with the state of unfair hiring and employment practices all over the District. Reece themed these sessions with ‘The Five Phases of Oppression.'
During my time at ONE DC I helped to plan the sessions on Power and Violence. During the Power listening session we used snippets from Richard Pryor stand-up sets that demonstrated unproportional injustices for Blacks in America. The Violence listening session allowed people to voice their experiences of employers’ harsh, demeaning, and unfair tendencies on jobs. There is one more listening session to be held to cover The Five Phases of Oppression. After all of the sessions have been held the staff at ONE DC will compile all the information, experiences, and suggestions made by DC workers in order to create a mission and vision for a Black Workers’ Center in DC.
The rate of unemployment for Black workers is twice that of White unemployment. In addition, Black workers are 25% more likely to be underemployed than White workers. In these positions of underemployment, Black workers are often mistreated on their jobs. Low wage jobs have a poor reputation for practices of wage theft and other violence against workers. Reece introduced the idea of a Black Workers’ Center to ONE DC to make working conditions better, create better jobs, and fight against bad work and bad employers. He talked enthusiastically about the Center and was able to grab the attention and curiosity of others with his pitch.
Over time at ONE DC though, I found myself unable to really define what the Black Workers’ Center (BWC) would be or what it would do. It took encouragements from many people, some even without knowledge of my lack of comprehension, to speak up about my opinions of the work I was participating in and one day I finally did. I expressed to Reece that I felt the wording around the BWC was vague and I was unable to give a strong pitch for it because I was unsure of the vision for and actions of the BWC. This conversation led to an entire day of Reece and me working though the communications around the BWC and became the highlight of my time at ONE DC. Over several weeks Reece and I edited our write up for the BWC, adding strategic information and steps. I am really proud of the work that we did and while the information surrounding the Black Workers Center is still subject to change, I feel really good about making the message more direct and clear. I believe I have developed a strong suit for work in communications.
Pushing the creation of a Black Workers’ Center required me to meet individuals in the community to try to get to know them on a more personal level. During house visits and meetings I met many interesting people with a range of life stories and dreams for their futures. We are hopeful that the BWC can be instrumental in initiating change in the lives of some of these people and many more. We have gathered individuals who want to respond to the Marriot Jobs Program asking for explanations for the disappointments of the hiring process, people who currently work for Marriott and want to stand up to their unfair employers, residents who have a background in healthcare and dream of having ownership in a healthcare business, and individuals who simply just want better job opportunities. The vision of the BWC supports the realization of all of these goals for the workers of Washington, DC.
I learned so much from my experience at ONE DC and each day was enjoyable. I even got the opportunity to dabble in a little bit of the housing work ONE DC does. I was a little saddened by how quickly my time ended there. Hopefully though, I will be able to return to ONE DC in some capacity during the school year. The internship with ONE DC gave me a real world experience with real people who live in it; not some glamorous office suite job, but hard work with people who need help and social justice. The work grassroots community organizers do is not important because it involves big names and events that will be recorded in history text books; the work they do is important because of the thousands of anonymous lives they touch to effect change for the underserved and create a history of progression with those individuals.