In 2008, just a few weeks shy of graduation, I concluded in my final paper for Professor Hunter's NGO seminar that "the success of civil society, social capital, and community relies not on great political figures, large national NGOs, or scholars, but on the power of individuals to communicate, work together, and organize for social change on a grassroots level." For me, that was a powerful summary of the knowledge I had accumulated over my four years as a sociology major at Grinnell, and an idea that had become a driving force in my post-Grinnell plans. Ultimately, it was this conclusion that led me to take a job as a community organizer at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI), a grassroots activist organization based in Des Moines.
For 36 years, the 3,500 members of CCI have been confronting power in Iowa and changing policy to put people before profits, politics, and polluters. And confronting power means exactly that. When Mitt Romney came through the Iowa State Fair in August, it was a CCI member who forced his comment that "corporations are people, my friend." There were many people that portrayed the moment as a rude outburst from a bunch of rambunctious hecklers, but for the family farmers, immigrant workers, disenfranchised voters and struggling homeowners who make up the membership of Iowa CCI, it was an empowering moment. When powerful figures can no longer ignore the struggles of people who must endure the negative impacts of their policies, that's what we call success.
Iowa CCI was formed on the belief that the people who are directly affected by the problems of their community are in the best position to identify and carry out the solution. We believe in a hands-on approach to running our organization, where every member has a voice. Through a process of voting and democratic decision-making, our members choose what issues the organization works on and then take the leadership roles in addressing those issues. And although there are certainly a lot of people who think direct action and protesting will never realize effective change, in the last few years alone we passed a predatory lending ordinance in three Iowa cities, preserved millions in housing stock by saving homes from foreclosure, have pushed banks to commit to increasing lending in the poorest neighborhoods of Des Moines, recovered over $100,000 in stolen wages from immigrant workers, and stopped the construction of six dozen factory farms. It's certainly grueling work, and work many would call unconventional, but ultimately community organizing can be reduced to one simple idea: do whatever it takes to make the world a better place for everyone.
And ultimately, that's what I believe sociology is about. Our burden and our blessing as sociologists are to use our knowledge to find a way to make the world better for all people in the best way we can. Sometimes that means we are teachers, lawyers, activists, parents, doctors, farmers, priests, politicians, or even bankers. We have taken the time to defy years of predetermined knowledge to examine society, examine ourselves, and recognize that we could still do more to move the world to a place where more of us who live on it have a sense of dignity and autonomy. That's what Iowa CCI allows me to do, and that's what I hope all students of sociology get a chance to experience.