Summer Organizing Institute builds leadership, provides outreach, gives residents a chance to speak

"Who can it be knocking at my door?"  This past summer, you didn’t have to be a member of the musical group, Men at Work, to ask that question in Kalamazoo. The answer? It was the Summer Organizing Institute (SOI), asking for your input about what you want for your family, your neighborhood, and the future of the city. 

Volunteers knocked on 14,115 Doors in 10 precincts in the Kalamazoo, completed 1,868 survey forms, and helped register 74 voters. Most of the information was completed in person, but the survey also had a postcard that could be sent in.
Executive Director Melissa Fish coordinated the effort from the 60th District office at  315 N. Burdick, in downtown Kalamazoo. Most of the activity took place between July  24 and Aug. 17. The idea originally came from Fish and State Rep. Jon Hoadley as they were discussing the need for leadership development in the area.
"There are 10 precincts. We’ve knocked (all their doors) once," Fish says. "During that first pass, we knocked on every single door, whether they were registered voters or not. And on the second pass, we went back to the houses we knew had registered voters in them, mostly because it’s easier for us to track them than homes that don’t have registered voters."
Also working on the project was Anna Cool, a Sally Appleyard fellow. She says, "We were not just looking for data. We wanted to have a conversation with the community. We went to listen." 
"The Summer Organizing Institute is an effort to train a diverse set of young leaders on basic organizing strategy, theory, and tactics through a combination of progressive organizing curriculum, local practitioners, and extensive canvassing." Cool adds. Participants were required to participate in a 2.5-day training and then actively knock on doors for four hours each day. Participants collected information from residents regarding housing issues, access to child care, utilization of the Kalamazoo Promise and more. Participants were also responsible for attending and participating in related community events,  Cool says. 
What the people say: Roads, healthcare, policing
"The top issues that we found," Fish says, "(people are) upset with the road situation, with roads being in bad condition, but people were also upset that there’s construction, which I found interesting... Nobody has any magic wands, yet, to fix the roads overnight, but we’re working on it.
"We heard a little bit about health care, but we also heard about a ton of things we normally don’t hear about when we think about what people’s top issues are. We heard about youth programming, especially in the Edison and Northside neighborhoods--people want there to be more things for kids to do after school, in the summer, when parents or family members are at work--just having more 'safe spots' for kids to go.
"We also heard a lot about policing issues--wanting more police presence in the neighborhoods, but also, if there’s to be more police presence, to have more enforcement. Some folks that we talked to said, you know, we see police, but there are all these issues happening, and it doesn’t seem like anything’s being resolved," Fish says.
Tree trimming, paid sick time
Perhaps one of the most unexpected response was the level of concern regarding tree trimming on the Northside. "We asked people what’s the number one issue that you’re always thinking about--it was tree-trimming, in a couple particular neighborhoods in the Northside," Fish says. "They told us, ‘every day, it’s dangerous for me to back out of my driveway, you know.’ 

Charting information on registered voters was one of the results of the Summer Organizing Institute's work. Photo by Gerry HoffmannFish says they are collecting names of residents with such concerns to share them with the city. "We’ve sent some over, so at least the city is aware. But that’s the surprising thing that came up. The number one issue for many people is--trees.
"One of the other issues we talked about was paid sick time," Fish says, pointing to her paperwork, "whether they thought people should earn sick time, and whether people had access to paid sick time. Overwhelmingly, something like 93 percent of the people we talked to were supportive of paid sick time. I would say about 6 percent were undecided on the issue, and a percent, or maybe less said 'no,' they weren’t supportive. It was much higher (support) than I anticipated.
"We’re also interested in collecting some stories from people who are losing their job because they had to take care of a loved one. We found that about half of the people we talked to said they had access to sick time, but we tried to make it clear that we were not talking about taking unpaid time off. We were trying to find out how many people had employers who provided actual paid sick time, separate from their paid time off," Fish says.
Getting out the vote
"We also talked to folks about their voting habits. Did they vote in the 2016 election," Fish notes. "The majority of people said they voted. They said they did it because 'it’s what you do, it’s part of your civic duty. It’s important to show up and voice your opinions.'  

"We did run into quite a few folks, though, who don’t vote. It’s just something that they don’t do. Some of them were registered, but many of them were not registered and were not interested in registering. A couple folks talked about the fact that they were registered, but they didn’t vote in 2016 because they didn’t find the candidates inspiring, or that they felt like they didn’t know enough to vote--that they just needed some more voter education."
Residents found resources
"This is our first year," Fish continued. "Depending on what people think, when we provide our official reports back to some of our funders, and to the community, we’ll see if this is something we’d like to do again in the future. We definitely did see an increase in the number of people contacting our office for services.
"I even had a couple days where people called in and said, ‘your organizer is standing on my doorstep, and they said you can help me’ do whatever it might be--contact with DHS, or a Loaves and Fishes referral, or a whole list of issues. That was really helpful for us because we’ve been around for a long time--our organization has been around for 45 years--but we know there are many people who don’t know we exist, or what we can do to help people."
Canvassers experienced growth
Although there are a number of groups canvassing for the midterm election, Fish says they didn’t run into any of them. "So people aren’t getting campaign fatigue. But I think we were early enough in the summer and the season. We recruited a lot of folks just out of high school or college, looking for a 'summer gig.'  Some are politically active, but others said, 'You’re gonna pay me fifteen bucks an hour, and that sounds great to me!  Gotta make some money to go to college.'
"It was really good to see them grow as organizers and citizens, and they’d say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know my neighbors were experiencing all these issues,’ or, ‘I didn’t know this part of the city, and I’ve lived here for a long time.' It was good to see people experience that, and they’re, like, "Now I have to register to vote. I wasn’t going to,' so that was exciting, too."
Several groups worked together
Summer Organizing Institute is a joint effort of the 60th District Service Office, in cooperation with the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, The Kalamazoo Promise and other organizations. The goal was "working on community organizing and leadership development," according to the organization's survey form.
"We partnered with the Kalamazoo Promise," Fish says, "so we were looking for (families) who had KPS graduates, who had graduated since 2005, and we were looking for folks who used The Promise, so we could make sure they could get hooked up with The Promise, to offer their story and success, so we can keep showing people that it’s possible to go to school, keep showing the benefits that the Promise can provide, and the doors that it can open.
Kalamazoo Promise--Scholarships
"We also wanted to find the folks who either started using The Promise, or who hadn’t used The Promise at all but were still interested in getting connected back (to school) since folks do have 10 years from the time they graduate, to start using The Promise. We found over 250 households that we’re going to be connecting back. Most of those households had only one person in it who was connected to The Promise in some way. We got their permission to share (their information) with The Promise, and The Promise team will then connect back with them, to see if they need help navigating the many hoops you have to jump through to get back into college," Fish says.
Kalamazoo Community Foundation--Childcare

"We also partnered with the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. They’re really interested in access to preschool and childcare, and one of the things they wanted to know was who’s taking care of the kids during the day, or during the summertime. Are they using family members, a big reason being affordability?" Fish says.
"The cost of childcare is really high. We also found that in some families, one of the parents just stays home and cares for the children because it was so more an economic choice to do so. But, of course, people deserve to make better wages than they do. Folks aren’t making enough working in (childcare). Our children are the most important part of our community, and yet it’s hard to get good quality care that families can afford and feel good about.
"So the top issues we ran into were affordability, trustworthiness, people concerned about licensing, who their kids were going to be with all day long, and then the hours. People found it difficult to navigate the hours of child care centers. 

"For preschools, some people didn’t understand the importance of getting their children enrolled in preschool," Fish says. "We had some folks who just preferred that they stay home for an extra year or so, with grandparents, to get that extra care, then jump into kindergarten from there."

The questions asked by the Summer Summer Organizing Institute.

Read more articles by Gerry Hoffmann.

Gerry Hoffmann has lived on the same corner in Edison since 1969 and is past president of the Board of the Edison Neighborhood Association.