At the beginning of March, Together Baton Rouge hosted the first of two Delegates Assemblies planned for this year. As someone who is still pretty new to Together Baton Rouge, this was my first time being able to be a part of such an important event for our member institutions. The Delegates Assembly was an opportunity for members from each institution to make their voices heard in the direction of TBR. For some, it was the first opportunity to see each other since the start of the pandemic. We also had visitors from a sister organization in Michigan and a few folks who were simply concerned citizens looking to get involved in their community. Although we had to hold the assembly via Zoom, the energy and hope of over a hundred people working together to make their community better flooded through the screen. I wanted to take some time in this blog to reflect on the importance of the institutions that make up TBR, and give a behind the scenes look at everything that goes into planning such a large event.
For those of you who don’t know, TBR is what’s called a “broad-based organization”- basically, an “institution of institutions.” By connecting all of these institutions together, we help build power by organizing people and bridging cultural divides. Needless to say, without the dedication of the institutions that make up our broad-based organization, TBR would be nothing. But it’s a reciprocal relationship, too. When an institution joins TBR, we are committed and obligated to provide them with the tools and support they need to deal with the issues affecting their members. Because the strength of TBR depends on the strength of our institutions, the organizers must be committed to supporting those institutions in whatever efforts best serve the people who belong to them.
You see, many community organizations fall into the trap of organizing from the top down. The organizer decides what issue is important to them, and tries to convince other people to care about it. While this can work on occasion, it’s often hard for the organizer to overcome the perception that they’re just an outsider and not to be trusted. And it makes sense - why would I trust some random person who showed up in town a few days ago yelling to me about an issue I’ve never even heard about? Not to mention that people dealing with problems like gun violence or unclean drinking water are going to have a hard time caring about tax policy. That’s not to say tax reform isn’t important - but daily concerns in our immediate communities have to come first, and then be connected to larger, structural issues.
TBR strives to be different from organizations who lead with issues rather than relationships. That’s exactly why we value the participation of our institutions so much. By building public relationships within and among each of our member institutions, we are able to unravel the issues affecting people’s day-to-day lives. Instead of flyers and indigestible statistics, we use personal stories to identify the kind of work people want to do to improve their communities. Instead of “You should care about this!” the conversation becomes “What’s a challenge your family is dealing with, and how can we help you address that challenge?” Rather than an outsider who invites suspicion, the organizer becomes someone who people trust to go to for guidance and political expertise.
Although most of us are pretty experienced with Zoom by now, planning a virtual event as large as our Delegates Assembly is no easy task. Planning for that meeting started as early as last Fall and went right up until the day before the Assembly. The leaders who helped organize this event put in hours of hard work to make sure that we had a good turnout, that things ran smoothly, and that we would capture the energy of prior Delegates Assemblies despite being online. Dr. Jen Scott, a representative from the National Association of Social Workers and the chair of the meeting, took time away from grading and lesson planning to do multiple run-throughs. I ended up requesting an extension on a paper for the first time in my entire college career because there was no way I was going to miss being a part of this event. Many other leaders— including Dianne Hanley and Maria-Rosa Eads of Spirit and Justice, Edgar Cage of the Episcopal Diocese, and Jennifer Carwile of Methodists for Social Justice—all took part and made sure that the diverse voices of TBR were well-represented on our agenda.
For me personally, the Delegates Assembly was also a chance to see the hard work I have put in as an intern pay off. This entire semester, I was tasked with working with University Presbyterian Church to engage leaders and further develop TBR’s relationship with that institution. Although UPC has always been a huge part of TBR, COVID-19 has strained everyone’s ability to connect with the organizations and communities they care about. That’s why, when I saw UPC show up with one of the biggest delegations from any congregation, I held my head high knowing I had some part in that.
I’ll talk more about my reflections on my experiences and growth with TBR later this month, but that was a huge moment and realization for me. My entire life, I have always been afraid that despite my “book smarts,” I would never be able to make it in the “real world.” People always told me that my Psychology degree and Social Work degree would never pay off. I lacked confidence. But seeing the participation and energy of UPC members that night has totally changed that, and I can’t thank them enough. Nearly all of the people in attendance had met with me or heard of me in some way, and I was so grateful to have formed relationships that helped motivate church members to turn out for the event. I can’t wait to see how the relational meeting campaign takes off at UPC even after I leave TBR.
Speaking of that, the Delegates Assembly also marked the launch of the Relational Meeting Campaign. I’ve written before about the importance of the Relational Meeting, so I won’t go on too long about that, but this campaign is an exciting new initiative that we are encouraging our member institutions to be a part of. As I mentioned before, the COVID-19 pandemic has really strained all of our relationships - not just within TBR, but among everybody. We’re hoping that by having hundreds of conversations by the next Delegates Assembly this summer, new relationships will be built and old relationships will be strengthened. By developing these relationships, institutions will build power, new issues will be identified, and new leaders will be brought into the fold.
Keep on the lookout at the TBR Actions page for upcoming Relational Meeting Trainings and encourage others to sign up. The next training will be on April 8, but more will be scheduled soon. If you’re a leader of a congregation or committee at your church, we encourage you to announce the training there. The Relational Meeting Training gives people the tools to have deep, engaging conversations through skills like active listening and the use of probing questions. In fact, these skills are very similar to those taught in the Social Work courses that I paid thousands of dollars for. But this training is free and only lasts an hour and a half!
It’s been an exciting start to the year here at Together Baton Rouge, and I wish I could stick around to see the results. Unfortunately, I’ll be graduating from the MSW program soon and moving to Iowa, where my partner will be pursuing her Ph.D. While it’s been an exciting time for me, it’s also a bit bittersweet. I will do my best to keep in touch and hopefully see some of y’all in the future. Until then, look for my next and final post in the coming weeks!