Community-Based Leadership for Social Change – By Sonia Keiner…Community Educator, Artist, and HCG Consultant

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” –June Jordan

I have never been moved by my formal study of leadership theory but have always been intrigued by global stories of resilience, restorative justice, and cooperation.  Stories that connect our common humanity and convey our interdependence and desire to belong to healthy, thriving communities.  Stories of healing and authentic change within self and within community. In my not-too-distant past, I began questioning my own strength and resilience when life became too overwhelming.  These are commonplace experiences many of us can identify with; death, confusion, feelings of worthlessness and disconnectedness. I had a master’s degree, a great job, owned a home, started a business, was surrounded by supportive friends and family, yet I felt powerless and hopeless and a desire to retreat rather than connect.  Unfortunately and fortunately, I found I was not alone.  My friend who grows organic food on a farm in New Hampshire gave me a prayer for the new millennium written by the Elders of the Arizona Hopi Nation.  It spoke to me by posing a series of questions, “Where are you living? What are your relationships?” “It is time to speak your Truth…do not look outside yourself for the leader…we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

That line continues to find me.  Obama, a community organizer himself, used it in his Super Tuesday speech in Chicago, Will.I.Am sampled it in his ‘Yes We Can’ video which has reached 5 million views,, and one of my favorite scholar activists’ who writes of citizen agency in democracy, Harry C. Boyte, references it in his book, The Citizen Solution.  John Legend even manages to make it sexy in his song, “Cross the Line.”  This quote has deep roots though.  It was expressed in song by SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. King) activist Dorothy Cotton, composed by Bernice Reagan, and was inspired by a line in Jamaican-American activist June Jordan’s 1980 “Poem for South African Women.”

“And who will join this standing up

and the ones who stood without sweet company

will sing and sing

back into the mountains and

if necessary

even under the sea:

we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

(Listen to the poem and acapella rendition by Sweet Honey in the Rock at


Having taught leadership courses and facilitated community development projects as a scholar-practitioner the last 13 years in both university and community settings, my goal has always been to engage communities in collaborative, mutually beneficial work.  To teach leadership, I feel compelled to move beyond models and theories of leadership, which, although illuminating, often left me uninspired and students inexperienced. One must engage in practical experiences to build capacities and to even recognize personal and communal strengths and weaknesses.  Like my favorite education theorists, John Dewey and Paulo Friere believed, the authoritarian factory-model approach to education leaves little room for understanding students’ lived experiences or for practical application of knowledge and skills.

For the same reason I use the term community-based learning instead of service-learning, I use the term community organizer instead of leader because, for me, the words service and leader insinuate an underlying power structure that deserves unpacking.  How do we acknowledge and come to terms with past and current hegemonic practices which elevate some to dominant decision-making roles while others are relegated to subordinate “consumer” roles, whether it’s in our schools, our communities, our institutions, or even in our homes? Whom exactly are we leading or serving and for what and who’s purpose? What is wanted and/or needed in communities and who decides?

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” embodies a teaching approach which moves away from what Harry Boyte calls technocracy, control by experts who see themselves outside a common public civic life, to the politics of empowerment which put people at the center as co-creators of democracy and enables people to build their own communities from the inside out through self-reliant, cooperative, bold action.

At the root of community organizing is a seemingly simple concept, talking with others and building relationships. Sounds easier than it is.  Thelma Craig, civil rights leader in south Alabama whose organization, the Civic League, elected more blacks to local office than anywhere else in the south, believed that citizens must claim a sense of responsibility as well as power. “You have to begin with people who are dissatisfied with their position in life, find people who are willing to commit themselves, and are willing to confront the obstacles.  If you get a strong group, you can get recognition. Good organizing like this has to have the good will of the community, the support of most everybody.  Everybody will come together when there is a fire.”

In my work now directing the activities of a community center located in a low to middle income community, I continue to struggle and strive within the spaces of what ancient Greek philosophers termed “praxis,” the practical application of a theory. As academics we understand the implications of climate change; do we know how to teach our young students actions to adapt to and improve their own environment?  We know it’s going to take a savvy generation to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energies; do we challenge ourselves to remove fossil fuels form our own lives to set an example? We know what foods are damaging the earth and our health; do we have the skills and resources to teach our students how to grow their own?  We understand NAFTA and what cheap labor has done to our jobs and our economy in this country; do we have the courage to become more conscious consumers and to pass on that value system to our next generation?

We have learned from academicians, practitioners, and our own experiences that learning and action require consistent feedback loops.  We move from theory and idea to implementation, to introspection, to evaluation, to dialogic exchange and back around.  It’s not linear, it’s not static, and if we’re honest we’re always confronted with some tough but illuminating truths, about ourselves, about our communities, about the world as it is and how we think it should be.  It is in these truths, stemming from connectedness to our community, that we can create the communities and the world that we want and find hope again.  At least, that’s what has worked for me.