Many Americans who voted in last week’s midterm elections were hungry for change. They pinned their hopes on politicians who they felt embodied the values and diversity of the nation as a whole, and who could lift up their communities.
The result will be a Congress significantly more representative of America today. But merely putting people in office will not produce the seismic change needed to sufficiently improve local communities and the lives of the most disenfranchised people. The stunningly diverse 116th Congress, which starts in January, was made possible by grass-roots community organizing around the country. But those same communities can’t stop there. Real change must come from the ground up.
We saw this in Flint, Mich., where political leaders failed to maintain safe water infrastructure for poor and black residents. As a result, children and families drank water contaminated with lead, poisoning a generation. Elected officials at the state and federal levels did nothing.
Instead, local activists, doctors and families exposed the contamination and forced the authorities to take action. Volunteers spread awareness about the risks of drinking tap water. Bottled water drives gave the community strength to withstand the crisis. Flint is not out of danger, but it is on a better path today precisely because its residents took on the challenge themselves.
I’ve seen this same dynamic in my hometown, Kibera, one of the largest slums in Kenya.
As in Flint, clean water is not easily accessible to Kibera residents; without formal piping into the slum much of our water is easily contaminated with disease. To make things worse, enterprising locals tap into the nearest pipes and re-sell contaminated water as “safe,” at exorbitant prices.
With each election cycle, my community placed faith in politicians who promised to provide clean water, as well as to tackle systemic poverty, endemic corruption and myriad other problems that plague our society. But time and again they struggled to deliver.
Tired of waiting for those solutions, my mother took matters into her own hands. She organized a group of women who gathered each week to pool their money to help start a business, care for a sick child or buy school supplies. They were mostly illiterate; since I could read and write, they asked me, a 9-year-old, to keep the books.
One day, many years later, a woman in the community proposed expanding on the group’s model, making it more of an official, organized operation, with an agenda we could present to the public and politicians. I saw an opportunity to combine the efforts of Kibera’s many community groups — churches and mosques, groups of young people and old, community centers, and assemblies of craftspeople. We created a unified urban movement.
By organizing through these groups, we are able to tackle bigger problems, starting with water. We created a network of aboveground pipes that reduced the spread of disease, cut the cost of a jerrycan of potable water (about five gallons) by 60 percent and prevented local cartels from siphoning off water to sell to private vendors.
The community took on new problems. For example, most Kiberans lacked official ID cards, meaning they could not take advantage of employment or government services. We simply did not exist in the eyes of our government. Many people did not even know how to register, or even have the resources to do so. We organized an effort to get thousands of people their first ID cards, ever.
Recently this community movement held its own, unofficial elections. Community leaders organized themselves, and elected representatives to, for the first time, form a unified community congress to lead their own agenda. These community leaders seek to influence government to bring resources to communities like mine, to create accountability mechanisms and to address systemic challenges like land rights and inequality.
Flint and Kibera are reminders that the power of politics is the people. The process of community organizing will bring forth the leaders who can truly represent their communities and advocate change, whether or not those leaders hold political office.
Many of the most impactful leaders never wanted to be politicians. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali and, in Kenya, heroes like the environmental activist Wangari Maathai — their legacies speak to the truth that political office is not everything.
We should look first to our neighborhoods, towns, schools, churches, mosques and temples to identify the leaders who represent our needs and values. Empower them, and the politicians will follow suit.
Kennedy Odede is a co-founder and the chief executive of Shining Hope for Communities, a Kenya-based organization working to reduce poverty and create systemic change in the country’s urban slums.
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