December 12, 2016

14 books that inspired America’s community organizers

We asked Renewal Project contributors to recommend the books that influence their community work

Updated April 10, 2017: Matthew Desmond’s book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” recommended by Chris Donnelly of the Champlain Housing Trust, was honored today with a Pulitzer Prize. Read an excerpt from the book here.

Community work is never complete. There’s always more to do to build up our neighborhoods and cities. That’s why we asked these tireless organizers and volunteers to tell us what keeps them going.

We put the call out to Renewal Project contributors to ask them which books inspire their work. From academic research, to history, to fiction, here are some of the readings they recommend. As 2016 comes to a close, we hope you also will find wisdom in these books.

Here is the list, written by our contributors, and edited for length and clarity:

Justin Kruger, co-founder of Project Helping
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
by Brené Brown
Being vulnerable is looked at as weakness. Struggling with your mental wellness makes you feel vulnerable. Brené Brown’s research sheds light on how to feel more comfortable expressing yourself and facing your vulnerability, which is a key component to healing. We use her guidance as a tool in building our own programming to help our community.

José Andrés, Chef and owner of ThinkFoodGroup
Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal
By Tristram Stuart
This is an incredibly eye opening book. My friend Tristram Stuart is such a visionary. From events like Feeding the 5,000—where we fed thousands of people in Washington amazing paella and more from food that would otherwise have been wasted—to this book, Tristram is showing us how we can be working towards a better food system. Here you will follow his own personal journey around the world to places like New York, China, and Pakistan to meet with farmers, food CEOs, and others to talk about how we can minimize food waste. It is very inspiring.

Razia Hutchins, student activist
Big Girls Don’t Cry
by Connie Briscoe
Briscoe highlights the struggles of the main character, Naomi, and the problems she endures while trying to find her voice during the Civil Rights Era as a young black woman. In this book, Naomi loses her brother to racism and she gets caught up in a nasty relationship. She eventually loses sight of herself, but then returns back to school and turns her life back around. I read this book when I was 13, and ever since then I promised that I would never let anyone try to silence me. This book has taught me everything about finding my voice. This is my favorite book because it’s so relatable and has taught me about using my identity as a young black woman to my advantage, even if society sees it as a burden.

I read this book when I was 13, and ever since then I promised that I would never let anyone try to silence me.

Steve Tobocman, Director of Global Detroit
Immigrant, Inc.: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (and how they will save the American worker)
by Richard T. Herman and Robert L. Smith
This book makes a powerful and cogent case about why Americans should welcome immigrant ingenuity, labor, and contribution to the American economy. The book was the foundation of my education on immigrant economic development work and sets the platform upon which American cities and communities can be renewed and empowered through immigrant inclusion.

Myiti Sengstacke-Rice, Chicago Defender Charities
Chicago Defender
by Robert Sengstacke Abbott
Robert Sengstacke Abbott had a vision, purpose, and a slogan that said it all: “American race prejudice must be destroyed.” In 1905, Abbott created the Chicago Defender in his landlady’s kitchen with 25 cents and a dream. The Defender was a platform and voice for talents such as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and W.E.B. DuBois. What began as a humble weekly grew into the largest and most influential black newspaper in the country. Born in 1868 on the heels of the Reconstruction Era, Abbott―the son of former slaves―managed to influence the first two decades of the 20th century and was a major contributor to the prolific movement known as the “Great Northern Migration.” Boasting a circulation of more than 300,000 nationally, the Defender was secretly delivered by Pullman porters across the United States. The story of the Defender is one of inspiration, struggle, triumph, and irreversible pathways being forged.

Tamara Hudgins, Executive Director of Girlstart
The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure
by Caroline Paul
This book is for girls of all ages who want to try something new, but maybe have doubts. The author is inspiring, engaging, and the lessons she has learned (by trying lots and lots of new things) is completely in Girlstart’s wheelhouse. She perhaps does a FEW really daring things that parents might not want their daughters to do, but she acknowledges that her tolerance for risk is higher than others. There is a lovely podcast with the author here.

Chris Donnelly, Champlain Housing Trust
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
by Matthew Desmond
Only one in four Americans who qualify for rental assistance to make their housing affordable actually get it. What do the other three do? They struggle mightily each month, move more frequently and, increasingly, face eviction. Matthew Desmond’s book brings us into the lives and homes—if they can be called that—of people trying to survive despite the unraveled American social safety net. We quickly begin rooting for the protagonists he introduces us to. A must-read for anyone who wants to understand the challenges of housing and poverty, and an inspiring call for all of us to do better.

Ruby Menon, Program director for CARE Project
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander
What strikes me the most is the correlation Alexander draws to the end of slavery and the current mass incarceration of people of color in our penal system as another form of social control and a means of using prisoners as a cheap form of labor. A relevant quote from her book: “By the time I left the ACLU, I had come to suspect that I was wrong about the criminal justice system. It was not just another institution infected with racial bias but rather a different beast entirely. … Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Marcus Bullock, entrepreneur and founder of Flikshop
by George Orwell
This is my favorite because Orwell painted a picture of what the world could look like if the technology leaders and political leaders used their powers for evil instead of good. It pointed me in the direction of Flikshop as I worked to contribute in both spaces.

Tim Rinne, co-founder of the Hawley Hamlet
Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution
by Jennifer Cockrall-King
If I had come across this book when it was first published in early 2012, I’d have saved myself a ton of work trying to get a handle on the importance of localizing our food supply. With a wonderfully readable, down-to-earth style, Canadian writer Jennifer Cockrall-King covers all the basics about why city dwellers need to be more than just “eaters” and have to start pulling their weight in the food system. Her investigation of the urban food movement takes her not only across her native Canada, but the whole of the U.S., with stops in England, France, and even Cuba. Hands down, this is the book I recommend to people to get them engaged in local food. I wish I’d written it.

Susan Mernit, CEO and co-founder of Hack the Hood
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
by Ben Horowitz
Ben Horowitz’s book is one I find myself referring to again and again as we grow and deepen Hack the Hood, the #techinclusion nonprofit I co-founded and lead. Horowitz has so much real talk about how to build community in your organization, pitfalls about staffing and salary equity issues to avoid, and how to create an environment where people are able to share hard truths, instead of staying quiet and letting consequences build up. This book has value for people growing and running social justice organizations, those mentoring emerging leaders, and everyone looking for honest truths in operating any type of business or social enterprise.

Scarlett A. Martin, House Life Project
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
by Jane Jacobs
This book is a treasure trove and classic for urbanists in all sectors. Jacobs views the “neighborhood” as an idealized concept to be a barrier to urban planning. By understanding the neighborhood as an inward and “cozy” place, she argues that planning makes the mistake of trying to re-create the town structure (a doomed attempt at “self-government”), thereby negating that people interact and share resources in all parts of the city. Instead, Jacobs proposes viewing the city at three levels: as a whole, the street, and the district. By thinking about neighborhood-based planning on these three scales, Jacobs argues that in order to improve quality of life for residents, planners should nurture a healthy street life (such as the role of sidewalks), create a unified network of streets throughout a district, and integrate a variety of mixed-use spaces in this street network. Even though this book was published in 1961, it resonates today in cities of all sizes and character and its emphasis on nurturing a creative use of space is incredibly informative for my work with the House Life Project and beyond.

Anne Steptoe, co-founder of MedServe
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
by Carson McCullers
I was and will always be an English major with a day job. Great literature is a window into the human condition and the human soul. The continuous effort to understand and connect with others that literature cultivates is one of the greatest assets I carry with me in my work. McCullers’ novel centers around John, a disabled man in a small Southern town, and the relationship struggles as a local outcast. My organization, MedServe, strives to shine a light on those who are more likely to be forgotten in rural and other underserved communities across North Carolina. The simultaneous love and sad reality of John’s life that McCullers captures are precisely what we aim to do—understand, emphasize and walk alongside the “outcast.”

Sam Sesay, founder of Game Plan Inc.
The Team Captain’s Leadership Manual
by Jeff Janssen
Every great team consists of strong leadership within the locker room. At Game Plan, one of our main goals is to assist student athletes in becoming better leaders, not just within their teams, but all-around leaders. Jeff Janssen’s “The Team Captain’s Leadership Manual” is a great book to help us in doing just that. It provides a 10-week program student athletes can go through to becoming effective leaders. It also includes surveys, assessments, and questionnaires students can take to get a baseline and track their leadership development.

The Renewal Project