Leadership Development
March 28, 2024

Behind the Organizing – Joel Rodriguez

Joel Rodriguez is a 47-year-old Community Organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP). He has been married for 24 years, has 4 children, is the second youngest of six siblings and was born and raised on the Southwest side of Chicago. At SWOP, Joel’s job is to organize first and foremost. There are many different areas of work that he oversees. He leads SWOP’s workforce initiative which goal is to assist 100 people each year in getting into free career pathway programs that allow them to pursue the type of opportunities that they desire for themselves. Through his passion in working with young people Joel also oversees SWOP’s youth organizing efforts. His work also involves organizing on issues of public safety and policing with the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA). Lastly, for the last year Joel has helped organize in a campaign that aims to create a community leadership course rooted in community organizing principles through city colleges that develops powerful organizers and leaders.

When asked about why he organizes, Joel shared, “I became an organizer because it is by far, in my opinion, the most powerful thing I can do to have the most impact I can have on black and brown communities. I've tried a lot of things such as running programming, counseling, drug and alcohol prevention, and after-school program, but to have deep rooted impact driven by people, community organizing is the one tool that I have found truly builds power. Power to create change.” Joel continued to share that he got into this work because he was searching for something that was meaningful, impactful, and capable of transforming young people's lives and community. Expressing that in his experience as a young person, things had felt very turbulent and unsure being involved in street organizations. He reminisced about how thankful he was to get out of that lifestyle, and how those experiences propelled him in his work. “It has given me purpose and it has given me joy. It is hard work but it is also heart work.”

Joel believes that organizing is rooted in building relational power, stating that, “We live in a very divided and isolated world where people try to draw lines using things like race and income which separates us as a society. Organizing breaks through all of that. It brings people together and agitates people to act together. It is very necessary because if we don't come together, nothing will get done. Our communities will continue to falter, our families will suffer. Building relational power will bring about the changes that we all need.”

When asked to share what someone looking to get into organizing should do to get started, Joel shared that the first thing he would tell someone is to seek to understand what organizing is. Listen and learn from people who already have walked this path and find opportunities where they can get involved and organize. He says that he is grateful to be able to organize as a career but one does not have to be paid to organize.

When asked about how this work encourages change in the community, Joel remarked. “We are seeing change. The heartbeat of all organizing is relational meetings. It is through those meetings and engaging people in power that we find out what moves people and what people have a desire and appetite to act together on. It’s the people most impacted by the issues that should be at the table when decisions are being made. We have won a lot but there is so much more we need to fight for. We aren't going to get a lot of what we need overnight so there must be a commitment for the long haul.”

When asked about what support they can use, Joel said that we need people, we need community, and we need the people in power to take an interest and stand with us. “We need funders and those that understand and align with the work to come along and say this is not about an organization's agenda, this is what the whole community wants, and this is rooted in people’s experiences and realities. The more people in power and funders can be connected with the people who are struggling and working to fix these struggles, the more we can move forward. We need the funds that can support the changes that need to happen.”

In his final statement, Joel shares that he is a person of faith. He was taught this by his parents to love God and to do so by loving his community and loving the people in need. When he isn’t completely engaged in his work, Joel loves spending time with his granddaughter and hanging around young people and doing a lot of DYI projects. More than anything, he wants people to know that he is just a normal person who has faith as his foundation and believes in the power that people have when they come together wanting the same thing.

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