This is the last of four posts reflecting on my experience of starting a nonprofit. In 2004, after running The Freechild Project for three years and SoundOut for two, I called together a group of friends here in Olympia to help me form a 501c3 nonprofit organization called CommonAction. CommonAction’s mission was “to create uncommon solutions to common problems by engaging young people and adults together for democracy.” I summoned the creative energy I had put into Freechild and SoundOut in the previous years, and called forth all the resources I could muster to build a machine. It worked. In just three years we recieved thousands of hits on our dozens of publications; mustered almost 200 workshops with more than 3,000 participants; and formed strategic partnerships with just over 150 organizations across the U.S. I call that successful. In closing the organization CommonAction’s board of directors made the bold determination that our model of community organizing was destined to be inoperable. Today I agree.
Lesson Four: Tell Your Stories There are little-known tales scattered throughout the streets of Activism City, stories of greed and fraud, deceit and falibility. Those tales, as well as the success stories, all have something to teach us. Some of the lessons I have learned about include the ways that politics shape nonprofits, whether stated or not; the ways The State and Corporations co-opt community organizers; the difference between activists and careerists; and ways to sustain outside the norm. I’m still working on the latter.
But all told, we all have stories. These are the paths that make our journeys, and the paths that give us legitimacy, learning, and authenticity, all of which are of particular importance for those who work with young people. And if you aren’t prone to running a nonprofit, more power to you! Still tell your story! We need all the energy we can tap from the people who care enough to do this work, and the power of actions comes out through good words – sometimes. Let’s get your stories out here so we can learn from them, and thanks for the hard work you do.