Sojourner Truth School hosts ‘Organizing 101’ to help activists

  • The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, director, The Sojourner Truth School for Social Change

  • Judy Hyde of Northampton, writes during the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change “Organizing 101” course at the Lilly Library in Florence Saturday. Rebecca Mullen

  • From left: Chad Fuller of Florence, Jordana Willes of Amherst and Sherrill Hogan of Charlemont discuss mock campaign strategies at the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change “Organizing 101” course at the Lilly Library in Florence on Saturday. Rebecca Mullen

Published: 11/18/2017 6:34:54 PM

FLORENCE — Ever seen a disorganized protest?

A local activist school aims to fix that — and that’s just the start of its educational goals.

New activists, veterans of the local progressive scene and folks just testing the waters gathered at the Lilly Library on Saturday evening to learn how to organize an effective campaign.

They were there for a workshop, one of 46 classes in the fall course catalog of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change.

Saturday’s workshop, “Organizing 101: The Art of Structuring the Most Effective and Winning Campaign Goals, Strategies and Tactics,” was led by local activist Jo Comerford.

“If we organize, we can change the world — but only if we organize,” Comerford told the dozen attendees.

Comerford focused her class on the nuts and bolts needed to achieve change at the local and national level.

“It’s a combination of tools and pragmatism and vision,” Comerford said. “That’s what activism is.”

Comerford is a campaign director at and an adjunct assistant professor at the Smith School of Social Work. She was previously the director of the National Priorities Project, which was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, the Truth School’s director, founded it in response to the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The school hosted 42 classes in the summer and another 46 this fall.

Classes are free and open to the public, funded by donations from individuals and local organizations. Teachers include pastors, professors and local politicians.

A sampling of the school’s offerings includes “Old People! Expressing Our Radical Selves in the Final Third of Life,” “Preparing to Run for Office” and “Harnessing the Unique Power of Teens to Advance Climate Legislation.”

Registrar and project administrator Lilly Lombard, who attended the workshop on Saturday, estimates that around 500 people have attended classes since May.

A recent workshop in Holyoke was conducted entirely in Spanish with the goal of educating the city’s large immigrant population about local government.

Comerford spent the first hour of “Organizing 101” outlining ways to build effective organizational strategies, then divided the participants into small groups to practice the tactics on mock campaigns.

Attendees said they hoped to fine-tune their activism skills to be more effective moving forward.

To Lombard, that included some self-reflection.

“I think I do a lot of things knee-jerk,” she told the group.

But in the face of an increasing wealth gap and concerns of consolidated power at the national level, Lombard said, community organizing is a necessity.

“If there wasn’t such a power imbalance, we wouldn’t need to organize,” she said.

Longtime activist and Truth School volunteer Judy Hyde of Northampton expressed similar concerns around wealth inequality and its effect on politics. But she seemed hopeful for the possibility of change.

“There’s more of us than there are of the billionaires,” she said.

As an “elder” in the local activist community, Hyde said she wanted to support the work being done by younger activists. The Truth School, she said is a step in the right direction.

“This is a wonderful beginning for what is so badly needed,” she said of the class. “It’s really focusing on the process and what it will take to do the work.”

Jordana Willes of Amherst came to the class with a more modest goal in mind — to connect with her daughter, who took a class with Comerford earlier that same day.

“I wanted to know the language that was used around organizing so she and I could have a conversation,” Willes said.

The Institute for Policy Studies — a progressive think tank in Washington and the school’s fiscal sponsor — hopes to replicate the Truth School model in six cities around the country.


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