Why Commit to the Watson Fellowship? 

Tuesday, August 15 – Barcelona

Who would say no to a year-long trip around the world? It seems irrational even to second guess it, I know. But at the same time, it is a year away from my partner of 6 years and my family, a year away from a career that I love, and a year on my own for the most part since the Watson restricts all personal visits to a maximum of two weeks. Not something to be entered into lightly. 

So this first post is dedicated to illuminating the reason why I am pursuing this opportunity. It is the story of how I came to the work of Community Organizing and why I think that work is important enough to put the rest of my life on hold for 12 months. This story will also will serve as the basis and context for all future posts I write on the Watson:

I was raised in Spokane, Washington in the late 1990s, a decade that marked the climax of union busting and deindustrialization in Eastern Washington and saw many of the stable industrial and healthcare jobs stripped away. At the same time, I grew up traveling regularly, and for months at a time, to Kathmandu, Nepal where my family has worked for nearly 40 years in partnerships primarily with refugees from Tibet. 

Experiences with my friends, family, and community on both sides of the globe taught me that there was a deep divide between the world as it is and the world as it should be: Seeing adults I looked up to turn to alcohol out of shame for being unable to support their family; watching, at 11 years old, as peers in Nepal dropped out of school to begin working to support their siblings; sitting with kids on the wrestling team who were afraid to go home because of abusive parents; losing friends to suicide.

I was lucky to have role models, especially my parents, who were not afraid to address these issues head on. But as a kid it was still painful seeing people I loved forced to act out of desperation because they felt like they had no power to do anything else. And I, too, felt powerless, unable to fight back against these problems that were so much bigger than myself. I was afraid of my own impotence. 

But I was also angry, and anger is one of the few things I know that can overcome fear. So I started searching for an opportunity to act and stake a claim that I was not powerless. 

That opportunity came in 2013 when, in a meeting with two young women in Nepal, they admitted that they and many of their classmates would be unable to afford the next year's school tuition, forcing them to drop out… This was something actionable. 

So in 2014, I saw my opportunity, and co-founded the non-profit Conscious Connections Foundation (CCF) with partners in Spokane and Kathmandu to address two challenges facing families in Nepal: access to primary healthcare and girls education. CCF’s mission was and remains: “to invest in the power of women and girls to be key participants in their society.” 

When a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal a year later, we temporarily turned this organization into a vehicle for disaster relief as well, distributing food, providing temporary shelter, and rebuilding schools. Another opportunity to take action. 

Flushed with the success of the concrete impact we were having, and armed with the new contacts made in Nepal, I continued down the road of International Humanitarian Aid. I moved to the northern border of Greece where I sub-contracted under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to provide housing and shelter for Syrian refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War and the spread of ISIS.

When I arrived, I was initially stationed in the Idomeni refugee camp, an informal settlement of nearly 16,000 people which had been created when the government of Macedonia shut down its borders and refused to allow all but a few hundred to cross the frontier every day. Thousands chose to stay here because they believed it would earn them a better place in the queue waiting to cross into Macedonia. 

A month into my time working in Idomeni, as I began our daily drive to the camp, my supervisor got a ping on her cellphone. A photo came through showing lines of Police and military dressed in camouflage sweeping through Idemeni and rousing residents out of their shelters. As our car drew close, we were stopped by a police barricade. We could only watch as the residents were herded into a waiting queue of buses, carrying what few items they had been able to pack up before the onslaught of the police line forced them out. As we tried unsuccessfully to get past the police and help the families, a line of bulldozers came into view, relentlessly leveling the tents, make-shift kitchens, and the improvised soccer field. 

A day later I went back. And it was in that moment, sitting in silence on the side of the road staring out at what was left of Idomeni, that my worldview fundamentally changed. I realized acting alone was not enough. If you wanted to truly change things – even change the system – you had to be at the negotiating table. And to have a seat at that table, you needed more than altruism and personal dedication, you needed an organized group of people able to apply pressure in pursuit of their goals. You needed to build power.

Frustrated with the limits of disaster relief work, I returned to the United States to earn my Bachelors Degree. While doing so, I worked with the City of Walla Walla to create their Neighborhood Engagement Program, an initiative actively helping neighborhoods organize and carry out local change. As the Coordinator for this program, I came to love bringing people together across differences, seeing them learn to take action, and watching their personal transformation as they realized they had the ability to actually achieve concrete improvements for themselves and their neighborhood. 

After graduating, I chose to work for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the oldest and largest Community Organizing Network in the United States. As an Organizer with the IAF in Dallas, Texas, I worked with schools, congregations, and neighborhoods to address predatory pay-day lending practices, immigration reform, access to mental health care, COVID-19 vaccines and more. 

During my nearly three years in Dallas, I saw organized people win incredible victories: taking down the largest oil and gas tax-break in Texas and restoring billions of dollars to state schools, pressuring six of the worst slumlords in Dallas to improve living conditions, and getting legislators in Iowa to allocate $2 million for mental health resources developed by community leaders. The people who participated in these fights did not feel powerless, they felt proud. I felt proud. 

As a Watson Fellow, I will be traveling through Spain, England, South Africa, and Mongolia to learn from Community Organizing models around the world. Each of these places have organized people and money to achieve impressive victories in their own unique ways: in Barcelona through the use of Cooperatives, in England with innovative economic policy, in South Africa through neighborhood-based Civic Associations, and in Mongolia amid traditional nomadic communities. My hope is to learn from leaders in each of these areas and begin a conversation, become a better organizer myself, and stoke our collective imagination for what organizing – and the world – can look like in the future.