October 20, 2022
(Frederick, MD) - The 2022-2023 cohort of Transform Mid-Atlantic (TMA) Civic Fellows convened in September and October as the inaugural year of the fellowship program continues. The fellowship, a student-centered program hosted by Transform Mid-Atlantic (formerly Campus Compact Mid-Atlantic), provides student leaders from across the Maryland, DC, and Delaware region high impact opportunities to develop their leadership skills and understanding of civic and community engagement so that they may better serve as leaders in their communities and collectively create solutions to our region's most urgent problems.
This year’s cohort includes thirteen fellows representing a diverse array of TMA’s partner campuses. The fellows hail from Frostburg State University in Western Maryland to Goldey-Beacom College in Delaware to the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and many institutions in between.
Each month, the fellows meet with an expert, scholar, or community leader to learn about and discuss topics relevant to TMA’s mission and the objectives of the program.
In between each session, fellows meet for one-on-one conversations with each other and compose written reflections about what they have learned. The fellowship year will culminate with each fellow completing a capstone project and an in-person celebration at the end of the spring 2023 semester.
Centering Community Power: Grassroots Leadership and Development
On September 26, the fellows met with Parisa Norouzi, the founder and executive director of Empower DC. Ms. Norouzi – who grew up in Maryland – shared how, after graduating from Marlboro College in Vermont, a position with Green Corps working with the Alaska Wilderness League in Washington, DC altered the trajectory of her career and personal commitment to community organizing. Her move to DC came at a time of growing political and socioeconomic inequities in the nation’s capital and the emergence of the Financial Control Board, an unelected panel of leaders appointed by the United States Congress will full oversight over the city and its finances.
Racial inequities, Ms. Norouzi shared, persist in the District and have accelerated over the last few decades: “In the last 20 years…we’ve lost 60,000 Black residents of the District of Columbia …because of policies [and] decisions that made the city no longer affordable and also led to the demolition and destruction of thousands of units of low income housing.”
One of the first communities with which Ms. Norouzi began working was Ivy City, located in the northeastern corner of DC. Her goal, which has become the mission of Empower DC, is “about building power so that people who are impacted by these policies and decisions can exercise their collective power to have influence and to shape the decisions that are impacting their lives.”
For nearly twenty years, Empower DC and its strong and a growing network of volunteers, partners, and community members have been collectively building power through grassroots community organizing. Representatives from Empower DC attend government meetings, participate in community demonstrations, and hold space for conversations and community-led decisions about the future of Ivy City and other communities across the District. For example, Ms. Norouzi and her team have fought for new requirements for racial equity impact analysis within city planning and zoning as part of Empower DC’s equitable development work. For twenty years, she and other community members have lobbied for the city to restore the Alexander Crummell School – which was once a vital institution in the community – in Ivy City as a historic landmark and a community center. The movement has also taken legal recourse against a series of development projects that threatened the health and environmental vitality of the community – from a planned bus depot to the construction of high-rise condos.
One key takeaway from Ms. Norouzi’s visit was that being in the room where decisions are made is critical to the work of grassroots organizers. “I think a big part of our impact is in the narrative change [we have created],” she said, “because what is really clear is that when we are not in the room [when decisions are being made by city leaders], the conversation is very different than when we are in the room.”
Intentional Activism: A Catalyst for Systemic Change
Dr. Duncan Green was the guest speaker at the fellows’ October 10 session. Dr. Green is a senior strategic adviser at Oxfam Great Britain and a professor in practice in international development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also the author of the blog: From Poverty to Power and the book How Change Happens. Dr. Green’s visit was focused on how leaders, specifically young leaders, can catalyze systems change through intentional activism.
Intentional activists, Dr. Green shared, are analytic, adapt quickly to changing situations, and both understand and are responsive to stakeholders, their context, and the sources of power within the system they are attempting to change. Relationship building is also key to becoming an influential leader. “Whatever you need to do to get in the room, and get [policymakers] aware of you and your work, so that when there’s a crisis they will take a meeting or read a paper you send them or just maybe even pick up the phone to you…you need those relationships, because that’s the currency of influencing,” he said.
Change seldom occurs if leaders or community members are unwilling to get outside of their comfort zone and speak with people who may disagree with them or whose opinions they view as immovable. Systemic change is difficult to catalyze, partly because of how complex systems and the problems within them are – from inequitable access to quality education to resolving conflict. “You have to learn to dance with the system,” Dr. Green shared, quoting the mathematician and systems thinking scholar Donella Meadows, “You’ve got to enjoy that dance and finding out new stuff. You have to have humility, which means that you know that you don’t know much.”
Additionally, he shared a number of models and methods for analyzing and understanding a system and entry points for action where change might be possible. These included systems/stakeholder mapping, process mapping, the three dimensions of power, league tables, feedback loops, and the formulation of meaningful questions about change, power, and precedent. In conclusion, Dr. Green suggested that sometimes, the most consequential forms of change occur not through policymaking or lobbying legislators, but through “trying to change how people do things or how they think.”
Where to Next?
In November, the fellows will be visited by the Reverend Dr. Craig Mathies, president of the Somerset County, Maryland Board of Commissioners. The Rev. Dr. Mathies is the first person of color to be elected to countywide office in Somerset County’s 300+ year history. The focus of his visit will be “Advancing Justice and Equity in Rural Communities.”
To learn more about the inaugural class of 2022-2023 Transform Mid-Atlantic Civic Fellows, please visit the program’s webpage. Contact TMA Associate Director Anthony Wagner with questions or comments about the program, its objectives, and future plans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Transform Mid-Atlantic
Transform Mid-Atlantic, formerly Campus Compact Mid-Atlantic, is the largest higher education association in the Mid-Atlantic region, with 37 members comprising public, private, 2-and 4-year colleges and universities. The mission of TMA is to mobilize the collective commitment and capacity of higher education and community partners in the region to develop global citizens and co-create just, equitable, and sustainable institutions and communities. For more information visit www.transformmidatlantic.org.