Thirty years after the 1992 South Los Angeles Uprising, Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE) continues to build community power, elevating the voices of Black and Brown communities most impacted by historic disinvestment.
SCOPE’s birth was an experiment for grassroots power building to address the systemic factors that perpetuate intersecting drivers of disparities, including inequities in the health and wellbeing of our communities. Out of necessity, SCOPE and its South LA allies have continued to be a testing ground for innovative solutions. And while there is still a long way to go, South LA provides lessons for organizers, advocates, and funders working to advance long-term systems change.
Recently, we sat down with Gloria Medina, Executive Director of SCOPE, to discuss lessons learned from her years of leading organizing efforts. In conversation, she shares her insights on leadership development, the importance of face-to-face engagement, and shifting our collective focus from campaign wins to building power for long-term systemic change; and explains how organizers, advocates, and funders can sharpen their efforts to make a lasting and meaningful impact.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity
Megan, Rx: Since its founding, SCOPE has tried many different tactics and strategies to advance long-term systemic change in South LA, and has operated almost like a “testing ground” for power-building and organizing, sharing lessons with other groups across the country. So, I’m curious, what lessons from over the years still stand out to you?
Gloria, SCOPE: For almost 30 years, SCOPE’s mission has been to build grassroots power to create social and economic justice for low-income communities of color, grounded in racial justice. Over the years, we have tested our organizing model, shifting our strategies and tactics as needed to address the conditions in the community. We’ve engaged in community outreach and engagement, voter education, leadership development, and strategic alliance with other community-based organizations. However, the cornerstone of our power-building efforts have been investing in genuine relationships with community members. We have implemented various relationship-building tactics, including phone banking, mass texting, regular email communications, and traditional mailers. Still, time and time again, we have proven that nothing replaces face-to-face engagement with the community. The most important thing we have learned is that community organizing is about deepening personal relationships grounded in trust. We’ve learned that nothing replaces one-on-one conversations with community residents. Traditional “door-knocking” and personal visits are the most effective tactics for building a base of committed and politically conscious community residents.
The COVID pandemic created the opportunity for further experimentation. It allowed us to expand our technological capacities and skills, and it forced us to be more creative. During the past two years, we’ve relied on virtual engagement as our primary mode of community outreach and member activation. We are grateful for the access to technology and equipment to continue to do the work while we prioritized health and safety. However, the decreased opportunities for in-person engagement have impacted our ability to organize to scope and scale. Although we have been able to keep our existing base activated, and continued to engage new members, it has left us grappling with the question of the width and depth of our impact. There is a difference between community mobilization and grassroots power-building – although both are important, the latter addresses the root causes of racial inequities by shifting the power balance.
SCOPE’s organizing model has been grounded in weekly touchpoints with our grassroots members and leaders. These weekly one-on-one conversations provide an opportunity for political education and consciousness building. Most importantly, this level of engagement deepens personal relationships and trust. Our organizers have the opportunity to learn directly from the community; asking them about their priorities, what is going on in the community, and what their neighbors are talking about. For instance, when we are on a personal visit, we are observing and taking cues from what is going on around us. When we enter someone’s home, there’s a lot that we can learn from their environment. We might notice photographs of their grandchildren, and ask them about their personal stake in education justice policies. Also, if they are a homeowner, but they have multiple generations living in their home – we might want to have a conversation about housing equity and accessibility. These opportunities might be missed over a virtual meeting. There is something unique about that personal in-person interaction.
Second, we have learned that there are no shortcuts to leadership development. SCOPE, like many other community-based organizations, is constantly called upon to address the emergency or crisis of the moment. It’s very easy for us to fall into reactive mode. Almost daily we have to respond to the attacks on the community – fighting against the lack of investments and the decrease in existing services. We tend to become shortsighted and focus our capacity on quickly building a mobilizing base. However, building long-term power is key in bringing about real social justice change and addressing racial inequities.
When we fall into constant reactive mode, what tends to happen is that either the leadership development work falls off the plate completely or we start taking shortcuts. We must continually hold ourselves accountable to the leadership development of our grassroots base. We must remind ourselves that leadership development takes time, investment, and capacity. It means that we might need to prioritize smaller gatherings of ten leaders and take the time to develop curriculum – a program that really helps people develop their leadership in terms of understanding the political landscape and the root causes of the problems and conditions that they seek to change. This will not result in immediate policy change but it will deepen the ability of the grassroots leadership to articulate the impact of the drivers of disparities in our communities, making connections between all of the different issue areas, and lead with an intersectional lens. Leadership development needs to be a part of our ongoing work.
This is our mantra – every opportunity is an opportunity to build leaders. And so, if we are feeling overwhelmed, we’re feeling under-capacity because we have to prepare for five community meetings, we ask ourselves, “who else should be engaged?” It is not about doing the work on our own, as staff, but providing the support for grassroots leaders to lead it. Are we using these opportunities to build the capacity and skills of grassroots leaders to take a leadership role in helping either set the agenda, develop the content, help facilitate, organize, or conduct outreach? That is genuine leadership development. A strong base of grassroots leaders will keep us grounded in a proactive agenda for long-term change – and keep us away from reactionary responses.
Megan, Rx: So often, we – as funders, advocates, or organizers – can focus on mobilizing and campaign wins rather than the slow burn of building power for long-term systemic change. Can you speak more about the distinction between campaign wins and building power?
Gloria, SCOPE: I really appreciate this question because as an organization we continually remind ourselves of our mission. Our purpose is not to go through a cycle of campaigns and have small wins. Our purpose is to build long-term power to create systemic change.
When we evaluate the impact of a campaign, we consider both our campaign wins and our base-building goals. What did the campaign itself achieve? Did we accomplish our demands? Was our agenda met? Did we change or improve the material conditions of the community members in South LA? These are all campaign-related evaluation questions. But most importantly, we want to evaluate how much grassroots power we built in the process of waging this campaign. We use our Power Analysis tool to facilitate these evaluation conversations, not only at the end of the campaign but as we’re developing and tracking its progress. So, we’re having conversations not only about the agenda and demands, or whether we’ve won the policies, but about shifting the power equations. We reflect on our efforts to build power to scope and scale – in numbers and breadth of constituents. We also evaluate the opportunity to build organizational and coalition power. For example, evaluating the level of impact we have made on decision-makers. Have we increased the level of influence over decision-makers? Have we established key relationships, including maybe neutralizing some oppositional forces or bringing them to our side? We’re also thinking about allies. What are the strategic alliances or coalitions that we’re building as a result of the campaign? Moving away from our traditional friends that we tend to do work with and thinking about how we build partnerships with allies who have shared values. How are we building power by increasing our collective knowledge, expertise, and resources?
We also examine the power that we are building in terms of our base and constituency. Again, did we use that as an opportunity to deepen leadership at the grassroots level? Are our members much more committed, engaged, and informed about the work because of the campaign? Were we able to reach a larger number of constituencies? We do have a targeted base but we also consider who else is being impacted and has a stake in the issue.
Even if we win the campaign, the key question is still about power. How much power did we build? And did we shift the power equation in favor of those most impacted by the conditions? Building power is not only necessary, it’s the purpose of our organizing efforts. The purpose of us being in the community is to make sure that those most impacted are the ones leading the work, and that their power is deepening with each campaign we wage. Regardless of SCOPE’s presence in the community, we need to ensure that our grassroots members and leaders have been prepared, and that they possess the skills needed to continue moving toward justice.
Megan, Rx: This work is heavy, especially when we take on a long-term vision for change rather than accumulating small wins…so what brings you hope these days? And what is your guiding north star?
Gloria, SCOPE: Our base. They are the hope and the inspiration, particularly when the work gets really hard. When we feel the oppositional force and attacks, it is easy to lose hope. But when I see Patricia or Blanca, our members who are the center of our work – the ones who show up at every meeting, organize other community members, and show up with deep commitment despite the hardship they face in their personal lives. The grassroots members who continue working on campaigns year after year, some who have been committed to SCOPE longer than I have been at SCOPE – they are the source of our hope. Regardless of all the circumstances that our community members are living with and are juggling every single day, they continue to be committed to this work. Our members are our north star, our hope.
Megan, Rx: Is there anything else we haven’t discussed that you’d like to uplift for our readers?
Gloria, SCOPE: SCOPE began as an experiment almost 30 years ago. We have learned many lessons along the way – we have excelled in some areas and in others we have struggled. However, we have remained focused on our purpose – building grassroots power and leadership to bring about systemic change. We feel blessed to have the support of the community and our allies, and being able to mentor and support other groups across the country. Over the course of 30 years, we have made significant impacts at a local level and in supporting the larger social justice movement.
My final thought is to encourage us to keep our eye on the north star, not to lose sight of our purpose as fighters for justice. We know how to do this work – many of us have been doing this work for a long time, perhaps we are even well-established organizations. However, we need to step into the challenge with openness to learn and to be flexible – knowing that we are still experimenting. All the while, we ground our efforts in genuine relationships with the community and a focus on leadership development. For organizations like SCOPE, despite our wins and influence, we must remain open to creativity and the ability to move with the changing times. In my 30+ years of doing community work, these past few years have been a moment of tremendous change and shift. More than ever, it’s important for us to be open to new strategies and tactics with the understanding that some might work, and others might not, but at the end of the day we are here to invest in grassroots power-building.
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