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Who is RISE? Organizer Spotlight on…Sarah August 10, 2010

Posted by RISE: Social Work to End Oppression in Uncategorized.
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In its first year, the RISE Conference brought together over 150 attendees and 40 speakers at New York University. Workshop topics ranged from Undoing Racism to Theater of the Oppressed to Media Activism in NYC. And in October 2010, organizers expect a turnout of at least double that number in Harlem for the second annual RISE Conference.

RISE began humbly: with an email written from a couch in Brooklyn. Since that first call for organizers was sent in early 2009, it has grown into a vital group of organizers, activists, and social workers. RISE initially came together to create a social justice conference, but in the process created a community.

Leading up to the conference, we’ll introduce you to some of the people in that community.  We begin with Sarah, a core organizer from 2009 and 2010.

What led you to the social work community? When did you first know you might want to work toward social justice?

It was a natural path; I come from a long line of social workers, teachers and providers. My father worked at one of the very first free health clinics in Montreal in the ’70s. Socialized medicine was a really big deal at the time, because the government was finally making health care available to everyone – you could walk into a clinic, get free services, and it was a one-stop thing. My father worked at same clinic as his brother, providing free health care and social services, linking families with various resources. It was revolutionary for its time. So this was in my genetics.

And what type of work do you do?

My interest lies in international relief work, immigration and human rights. I’ve always been more geared toward the challenges, indignities, and issues that come up when you have to leave your job and country and find that people don’t really want you here. I had a really easy time making a transition to the U.S., but clearly for others it’s not so easy.

I’ve traveled a lot, and it makes the U.S. look like Disneyland in some places. I have all these resources— people abroad would kill to have a$5,000 grant to go back to school or start a small business—and my clients don’t call! But all I can do is provide a gentle nudge. Then I have clients who have had female genital mutilation happen to them – we’re working through incredibly intense consequences.

I try to leave it at work. Sometimes their voices haunt me – I remember having to call someone, or remembering that I should have checked something off my list. I try really hard not to do that at home.

How did you get involved with RISE?
In June 2009, right after I graduated, I was surfing on Facebook and I saw that a friend had posted Kate’s call for organizers. I thought it looked cool, so I reached out to Kate, sent her my resume and an email with my interests and work history. It’s funny in hindsight because we’re not so formal – little did I know RISE at the time consisted of her and Shane sitting on a couch somewhere!

When I went to my first meeting, RISE already seemed like a pretty sturdy vehicle. The call for presenters was done, tasks were in place and things were moving, so I said, “This sounds great. How can I help?”

What’s your role on the organizing committee?

I’m probably the most shallow of the RISE members because I am into the money. I’m into the donations. And sponsorship. Did I mention money?

There’s a deeper level to it that motivates me, though. Last year, connecting with the coffee shops and businesses where the event was being held, saying “You can be a part of this, and here’s how,” was really satisfying. Creating that sense of ownership is one of my favorite parts of working in a community. For me there’s a certain thrill and challenge in trying to persuade someone to believe something that I believe to be extremely important.

Plus, free food makes sense in the social justice realm. At an event like this where we’re all volunteers, to have our efforts rewarded and be able to provide a low-cost conference and provide food and coffee all day at no cost…that gives a real sense of collective and community. Free coffee all day long? That sounds pretty good to me.

Has RISE changed the way you view your degree or your work?

It’s definitely changed how I look at institutions. My own education was mainly focused on clinical work and very little on grassroots community organizing. I remember thinking, “I like this, but there’s so much more I want to do. I want to be out in the community mobilizing people and getting things done!” Coming into RISE and meeting people who had very different experiences showed me other, more grassroots routes social workers can take.

On a personal level, being a member of the RISE team has left a huge impact. Many of the organizers have extensive experience in anti-racist work, have focused on minority groups that have less privilege and less of a voice. We talk in school about position and privilege, but having those conversations on a regular basis with people I trust has been extremely important. Not a lot of people sit around on a Sunday afternoon talking about this stuff. If we’re going to try to mobilize a community, we have to put our money where our mouth is. Thanks, Heidi! Pushing myself in this direction has been challenging and rewarding.

Can you talk a little more about the organizing team?

For me, the RISE team has grown into a small family. I’ve literally picked up the phone and called another organizer and said, “Hey Heidi, I have an interview coming up and they’re testing my Spanish. Will you please practice with me for 15 minutes?” and gotten help. These relationships have developed into deep connections with powerful, intelligent, strong women who really want to make a difference – and actually DO it.

What do you remember most vividly from the first RISE conference?

Bagels. And orange juice. I was in charge of a lot of the food and supplies for the day, and mostly I remember running around.

The day itself was a blur. We had no idea what it was going to be like, whether this thing would sink or swim. As the day went on, I could feel this positive energy and sensed that we had winged this. Panel discussions were happening, workshops were coming along, and people looked happy! People were hugging!

And then toward the end of the day, I started seeing students, colleagues, professors, and everyone was giving such positive feedback. People said over and over that they were walking away with something, a tool, a discussion, some piece of learning. And that was incredible.

How do you think this year will be different?

With everything we learned last year and then some, and with the growth of our organizing team who have been struck by the RISE movement, I think it will be bigger and better. It’s one thing when 200 people come to your conference, but when people email to ask “How can I help? I want to be part of this in a deep way,” it’s so special and meaningful.

And this year I’m hoping that with the help of our new volunteers, I’ll actually sit down for 10 minutes and hear what’s being said. This year we’ve had new volunteers out pounding the pavement with me, talking to all the local mom and pop shops in Harlem, which makes me feel like when the buzz of the conference comes, I’ll have that support. I’ve learned you can’t do things all by yourself – this is the collectivity of RISE at its best.

Where do you hope RISE will be one year from now? How about in 2015?

I hope for a RISE chapter in Canada! I would love to spread this movement, get the universities involved in Montreal, bring it international. I think that would be my goal for the future.

Julia Smith spends her days working in nonprofit communications and project management. She attended the 2009 RISE conference on a hunch, learned something new in every single workshop, and feels very lucky to have joined the organizing team this year.


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