Stephanie Kogan, mother of Elana Kogan, took JOIN for Justice’s seven-week online course in community organizing, “Don’t Kvetch, Organize!” in spring 2016. Elana Kogan is a long-time organizer and creator of the online course. We interviewed Stephanie to learn more about her experience in the course, how it has impacted the work she is doing, and to explore the special experience of taking this course as the parent of an organizer. She is involved with a variety of volunteer organizations and the Cincinnati Jewish community.
Why did you want to take Don’t Kvetch, Organize!?
I belong to a group called Delta Psi, which is part of an international education society for women. I was treasurer for nearly a decade. When the president passed away while in office, there was no one else to fill the position, so I stepped up. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that everything was being done by the president. I couldn’t get anyone to take even the smallest of jobs, not even a simple job like buying snacks. I recognized that I had to work on building leadership in the organization. I knew that a strong skill and foundation for community organizers is building and developing leadership in those that they work with. I realized it was time for me to learn those skills and how to build up the leadership in our group.
Can you share a story or two about how you have applied what you learned in the course to your work?
After learning about the concept of relational conversations in Don’t Kvetch, I decided to try it with a few people in my chapter as a way to meet immediate leadership needs. It was ABSOLUTELY amazing. My whole approach and outlook changed—instead of talking about our organization’s needs, I talked with members about their interests and what they wanted to get out of volunteering for the organization. Lo and behold, I was immediately able to fill four leadership positions I had struggled with for so long. I’m not talking about easy jobs like getting the snacks—I’m talking about multiple-hour jobs. I was successful simply because I applied the skills I learned in the course: talking with the volunteers about their interests, sharing our stories and experiences, and then suggesting how the proposed positions would help them meet their own goals. I was flabbergasted by how effective this approach was.
I saw how, by changing my own attitude and outlook, I was also much more excited about my role as president—and way more effective! Now I’m actually enjoying being president!
Bonus: Check out this very excited voicemail Stephanie left her daughter, Elana, about the day she filled one of those leadership roles mentioned above.
The course also helped me reflect on failed organizing efforts in the past. When I was a teacher, I was very active in the teachers’ association at our Jewish day school. The administration and board worked closely with our association, and it was a true collaborative effort. Then, after more than 20 years, a new principal and new board changed the way the school was run. Not recognizing the value of our teachers’ association that had enabled the school to run so effectively, they made many changes without our knowledge or input. We, the teachers, fought these changes, but were completely unsuccessful.
Because of this course, I have a better understanding of why we were unsuccessful, which is important so that moving forward I won’t make the same mistakes. At the time, we arranged to have teachers speak up at every board meeting and wrote out responses to the changes. However, we didn’t organize for success; we didn’t focus on targeting people who could have made a difference. For example, we didn’t contact our former school principal and ask her to write a letter on our behalf. We didn’t compile and publicize stories that showed how the cooperative approach had benefited the school. We didn’t enlist the help of former board members or major financial contributors to the school. I learned from the course that you have to look for others who may be in a better position than you are to influence the people in power. Unfortunately, by not being successful in our efforts, within five years, the school’s student population fell by 75 percent and many of the best teachers had left.
This course was a real eye-opener to the power that community organizing can offer. It’s easy to think that these things are intuitive, but they are not. It’s a learned process and a different way of thinking.
What is one takeaway for you from the course?
It was a very inspirational course. It motivates you to do something, not just to make a statement. Now I know the difference. When I look at some of the things I’m doing, I see that I’m making a statement, not a difference. While I know that what I am doing is important, I also want to make a difference.
I now look at things differently when others ask me to do something. Recently, I was contacted by an interfaith group that is going to meet in a major public square in Cincinnati and read poems about peace during the noon hour. I asked “What’s the plan for after this event?” I was told, “Well, it’s just to show our support for peace….” Basically, there was no plan for after the event.
I thought to myself that this event is just a statement. I learned from this course that to make it more than a statement, we need to plan for how to use the strength of the rally and how to capture the people’s energy and enthusiasm for action afterwards. If we just stand around and read about peace, that will be nice, but it will not make a difference. The course taught me to think this way, through the lens of an organizer.
What was special about taking this course as a parent?
As a parent, I really understand so much better what my daughter is doing and why she is so committed to organizing. I also think I understand my daughter much better. I have always been very proud of her, but it’s at a different level because of my new appreciation for what it takes to be an organizer. I have great respect for what she does and hopes to accomplish in society. It’s really more than pride; it’s a deep, deep respect. I have a better understanding of what it is that she’s doing, the difference that she’s making, and why she is so passionate about it. Seeing her do this work really makes me, as a parent, feel like what I have taught my kids really sank in. It’s such a positive feeling as a parent—to see that those values really came through. Now I get to take what she has built to help me further the things that I am trying to accomplish in my own life.
What would you say to someone considering taking the course?
You will learn skills that will enable you to organize and accomplish whatever it is you want to do—social justice work or volunteer work, etc. The skills are adaptable to so many different situations. We can apply these skills today, reflect on how we should have used them in past, and plan for how use to them in the future.
I want to share how exciting it was when I applied what I had learned, and it turned out to be so successful. I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly, but it did. And it was like, “Wow, this really works!” It was exciting, that’s the only way to put it. I got it and I can use it.
To learn more about “Don’t Kvetch, Organize!” click here.
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