It’s not just butts in chairs: What Community Organizing is really about
By Vickey Wilcher with photos by C.D. Boykin
One person after another took the microphone at Theo Brown’s “Half Century Celebration.” They took to stage to talk about how impassioned, compassionate, dedicated and committed Mr. Brown is to his family, his friends and his work..
Theo, as he known to his family, friends and colleagues, is a community organizer and has done said work for 50 years now. His bio actually tells the story of a man who more than 50 years ago dedicated his life to service. Theo is the son of a Baptist preacher and he says that his early intensions were to follow in his father’s footsteps. But while attending Baylor University, where he majored in political science and minored in religious studies, his gaze shifted to a future in civic engagement.
Theo explained that while at Baylor he got involved with addressing issues around the war in Viet Nam and civil rights. He became a student and practitioner of the Saul Alinsky approach to community organizing and political theory and later incorporated the ideas and methods of other leaders, organizers and activists; particularly, those involved with the civil rights movement like James Lawson and James Forman.
When he left Baylor he went to Ghana to teach high school for two years. This two-year stint deepened Theo’s commitment to service. He said that seeing the cultural differences and the abject poverty in Ghana “changed his life” and served to intensify his understanding of and the need for intentionally working to empower others.
Upon his return to the United States, Theo did attend divinity school at Duke Divinity But the call of community organizing was too great to ignore—in 1973 he headed to Roanoke, VA for what would be the first in a long line of community organizing assignments.
When asked about what makes a guy with so many life options choose to become a “community organizer,” Theo has a ready answer: “I always knew I wasn’t necessarily going to make a lot of money doing this, but through this work I get to work on causes that I care about. And I can combine my faith with service,” he said. He also noted that he’s been extremely blessed to have the support of his wife, Diedre, and their two children, Cybil and Martin over all these years. (And yes, you guessed it; Martin is named after Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Theo spent the first 15 years of his career on the ground level—just putting butts in chairs. “That’s when you do things like get petition signatures, make phone calls, whatever you need to do to get folks out and involved,” he explained. But after that, Theo moved into meeting design and facilitation, and training. And by all accounts it seems he’s mastered the art and science of community organizing. His business partner and one of the principals at Public Engagement Associates (PEA–a company Theo co-founded), Kim Sescoe, says, “I’ve worked with lots of organizers and activists and I have never worked with anyone as devoted to and successful at inspiring others as Theo.”
Another PEA principal, Steve Brigham, added that, “Theo has been a dear friend, amazing colleague and organizer extraordinaire over the course of his work with AmericaSpeaks and with PEA. Working with him for more than 20 years has been an experience that I will not forget.”
When asked “what advice he’d give to someone just getting started in the community organizing arena;” he said, “You really have to care for folks. You have to have real empathy and clear, deep intentions to empower others.” He added that, “Mindset is key. You need to understand that one of the differences between a leader and an organizer is that the organizer’s work is done before the meeting.”
Over the course of his 50-year career, Theo has worked on just about every kind of community outreach and issue-based public engagement organizing task there is. He’s worked on projects that addressed issues ranging from farming to the nuclear threat, to what to do about neighborhood school re-districting. He says he doesn’t have a favorite, though he does recall working his hardest during his time with the Ground Zero Campaign. He’s gone back to a few places where he worked. Once, while back in Ghana, he ran into a former student, who was doing quite well. This, he explained, of course, filled him with a sense of happiness and pride. And while he doesn’t have a favorite project, he says he does really like looking at the local DC projects he’s been involved in and seeing the transformations that have taken place.
Theo is cutting back on his organizing work now, but it’s clear that through his work he’s taught people incredible lessons, built lifelong relationships, helped to rebuild entire communities and perhaps most important to him, he’s EMPOWERED those, who in many instances, had no voice or resource of their own. For confirmation of this point, one need only talk with any one of the attendees at Theo’s recent Half-Century celebration. They will surely tell you that it’s always been about more than “putting butts in chairs” for a given meeting for Theo. And he will undoubtedly add, saying specifically, “That the real measure of this work is how you serve God and people.