“I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do.”
– I’d Love to Change the World, Ten Years After, 1971, by Alvin Lee
Affecting change is hard. Screaming for social justice can be frustrating. As anyone who has ever been involved in social and political activism can tell you, making sure that you have a consistent pool of people to continually put the pressure on politicians and society is the most difficult part of creating and maintaining a sustainable movement. This is especially true for liberals and progressives working in red states, where you have to pick yourself up off the ground, lick your wounds and start again, more times than you’d like.
A new movement in one Deep South state is trying to change that. It’s called Activist Recruitment, Organizing and Mentoring in Atlanta, or AROMA.
“Recruiting, organizing and mentoring, that’s something each organization does on its own,” explained Misty Novitch, a long time Atlanta activist and co-founder of AROMA. “You do your own outreach. You get your own people. You mentor them, you pull them in. You make them into leaders. But we have so few activists, and so much work to do, especially in Georgia, that people don’t necessarily have time to do that.”
What AROMA seeks to do, she said, is “to build community and solidarity across existing groups, and across the entire social justice movement.” AROMA will “recruit for all of our organizations, all of our movements, and help new activists get involved more easily and comfortably, and really invest in their growth and their development as leaders.”
That has the potential for a huge effect on the changing political climate in Georgia, and has local activists very excited. “I think it’s really going to help people be able to see their power,” declared AROMA member Troya Ole’badd, an activist who works against economic disparity in Atlanta. She believes that, if successful, the group will “expand the base of people who are activists” and help create “a paradigm shift and a social construct shift in the state.”
AROMA is the brainchild of Novitch and fellow activist Guled Abdilahi, who leads the group’s website development team.
The idea is for the group to be a resource for Atlanta area activists by providing a directory of hundreds of organizations to whom they may want to lend their time and talents. But it’s also a resource for the organizations themselves, by being a place where they can find trained, committed activists who have been through AROMA’s mentoring program, and where, eventually, they can send their own budding activists for training.
“What AROMA does is almost like a business-to-business service for non-profits,” explained Munir Meghjani, a veteran organizer, and one of the “leader-y people” Novitch tapped to help get the group started, around the beginning of the year. “You’ve got all these non-profits in the world that, unfortunately, have trouble working together,” he said, “At the same time, you’ve got all these volunteers in the world who have passion and knowledge, but may not necessarily be able to link up with the non-profit of their choice. They need a spark to get that fire cracking. That’s what AROMA does.”
AROMA exists for the organizations, Novitch says, as much as it does for the activists. “We want to support existing activist groups and show them we support them by recruiting for them, and say, ‘Hey, we have mad solidarity with you. Here’s what we want to do for you. Do you want to support us to do this for you? Either way, we love you and we love what you’re doing, so here are some new people. Can you welcome them when they come to your group for your meeting?'”
The mentoring program, the group believes, will provide a sustainable, regenerating pool of activists for the social justice movement. According to a recent draft of the document outlining AROMA’s plan:
“We want to mentor people to provide a supportive, friendly environment for newcomers, guide them in finding their place, train them to develop their skills and understanding, and help them walk in their own power, so they can become leaders.”
AROMA activists at a planning meeting near Atlanta, May 18, 2014
Meghjani says the group’s mentoring focus comes from an understanding of how difficult activism is. “It’s hard to volunteer. It’s not something that comes easily,” he admitted, but “if you have someone standing with you, especially a mentor, what we’ve seen is you’re more likely to stay, you’re more likely to be involved.”
Novitch agreed. “Activism is very come-and-go, because you’re livelihood does not depend on you being a consistently reliable activist. People come and get a taste and then leave,” she said. “The way we can support the frustration of dealing with activists and activism, is that new activists, or existing activists, can have mentors or just friends, authentic relationships, people to talk to about the kinds of things they’re experiencing, and noticing, and vent their frustrations to.”
That’s something that drew one young activist, Iesha Akyempong, to AROMA. “I am really passionate about the recruitment and the mentoring process,” she said. “I’m really into it because I think it’s important.”
A graduate of Spelman College, where “there’s a big emphasis” on community service, Akyempong said that she likes the way AROMA can help make the activist experience less daunting to a new recruit. “If you’re somebody who wants to be involved in fighting drug abuse, or working for Jobs for Justice, some of those larger causes, you need someone there to help you get involved in it, show you how to do it,” she said, “because you don’t just want to walk into things blind. It’s scary.
“Activists are strong minded, strong willed people. You don’t want to go into a meeting and feel lost, or say the wrong thing, and what could have been a whole group of new friends, are like, ‘Who are you?’”
Even if that does happen, Meghjani says, a mentor can help pull you through. “When people make mistakes and get down, if they have a mentor who is going to be there to support them through it, they’re more likely to get over it, and get over it in such a way that they make a comeback, and they’re going to come back stronger than they did before.”
Ole’badd agrees. When you invest your time in helping people through a difficult situation, she said, it can be personally and emotionally draining for the activist. “Sometimes people just completely fall apart and they don’t even know why. But [it’s important to have] someone who has done it for a while, who is able to come in, talk to you about it and make sure that you, as an activist, get the help that you need, so [your] activism can continue.”
Patricio Cambias, a twenty-one-year-old airport fast food worker and union activist of barely a year, recognizes the value of AROMA because of his own experience. “I was trained by an organizer who taught me what I know. If I had to do it alone, I wouldn’t be near where I am now,” he said.
Cambias, who sees AROMA’s mentoring program as “sowing the seeds of a movement,” said he looks forward to helping others. “I think I could contribute to someone’s growth,” he said, “it brings the movement alive to me.”
And Novitch admits that even an experienced activist like herself could use some further guidance. “We want to recruit a lot of much older activists, from the Civil Rights movement in the Sixties to mentor the middle age activists,” she said. “We want people to be mentors and mentees at the same time, if possible.”
One activist Novitch might look to as a mentor is Milton Tambor, a septuagenarian union organizer who had his first foray into activism in the early 1960s, protesting the Vietnam War. “As a veteran activist,” he advised, “I would say that you have to take a look at each struggle, each fight within a larger perspective. The only way you’re going to be able to make any headway is to think in terms of long range goals. You want to fight and win the immediate goals, but you also want to bring together all the progressive forces so that you can present some kind of a united front.”
After attending some of the AROMA planning meetings, he is cautiously optimistic. “For me,” he admitted, “it’s too early to make an evaluation about AROMA, [but] at this stage of my life, to have young people stepping forward is critical. Going to meetings and seeing twenty, twenty-five people there, talking about their interests in activism, I think that’s great. In all of my activist work, there was never that kind of framework laid out where you could learn from someone and deepen your activism.”
That point is not lost on the young Cambias, who said that without being able to source the activists who came before you, “You lose the collective memory of the struggle.”
Organizers say that is the most important point of AROMA’s goal of recruiting and mentoring new activists. Meghjani points to Novitch’s experience as an example. “The things that Misty learned from organizing in the past,” he said, “the things that worked and the things that don’t work, if she doesn’t pass that knowledge on, then the next person who comes to organize us will make the same mistakes and we’re going to be at the same spot that we were five years ago.”
As for Novitch, creating new activists is akin to raising an army – “a nonviolent army,” she is quick to point out. “We need to recruit them, and we need to make sure that they are able to do anything that any other activists can do,” she said, “so that if one of us burns out and has to take a break, or gets injured or killed or is put in jail, they can take over.”
Picking up the flag and continuing the charge, she believes, is the only way for liberals and progressives to succeed in reaching their goals. We can’t just be reacting to the latest assault on civil and human rights, because that won’t move the cause forward. “Strategically,” she said, “if you’re always on the defense, you’re always going to lose ground.”
Akyempong is motivated. “We cannot just sit back and wait for laws to be passed to get things done in our communities,” she said, “because nothing’s going to happen. If we want something done, let’s get ourselves together, galvanize, and let’s do it.”
AROMA, like any other new activist group, has needs. They of course need people willing to mentor, at any level, and they need a solid leadership program. According to Novitch, “We need help figuring out how to move people through a process of leadership development, and we need people who are willing to help make that happen in a consistent way, over a long period of time.”
She is positively passionate about AROMA’s success. “We have to be the transition team, that helps the world transition between the way it is and the way it could be,” she concluded. “I really believe this group can help do that.”
If you are interested in participating in AROMA’s mentoring program, either as a mentor or a mentee, or think you can help with leadership development, please contact the group through the website – atlanta-activism.blogspot.com – or the Facebook page – facebook.com/atlantaactivism.