Leading the Way

Tim McManus says one of the rewarding aspects of being a community organizer is seeing people take the lead themselves and negotiate for causes that impact their families and their communities.

A meeting at his local church changed the life of Tim McManus. It happened over a decade ago, when he was a teacher in Dallas.

McManus is now the lead organizer for the nonprofit Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action, or COPA. He says he chose teaching as a way to create positive change in the community, but found himself limited: “You can’t get at the bigger systemic issues going on.” At the time, he was not aware that organizing was a thing. But at that church meeting, he saw it in action:“I felt like it was what I’ve been looking for all along,” he adds.

McManus believes community organizing is powerful. It helps move those with needs from passively going without to active involvement in the decision-making that impacts their lives. “Good organizing creates new possibilities,” McManus explains. He points as examples to the success of VIDA, a countywide community health program that launched during Covid, and Esperanza Care, a county program to provide undocumented immigrant residents with health insurance.

McManus has been an organizer in Texas, Arizona and California. His recent projects with COPA include a pandemic-related rental assistance program, as well as the VIDA program and advocating for its extension.

Thanks to his efforts through COPA, McManus was part of an Industrial Areas Foundation delegation that met Pope Francis last October. The IAF, founded in Chicago in 1940, is the largest network of faith – and community-based organizations in the country. COPA, created in 2003, is one of its members.

Weekly: What do you like about being a community organizer?

McManus: My favorite thing is being able to be a part of somebody’s development as a public person, being able to help mentor somebody who’s learning how to try to get something done and be effective and change things. Every single day I get to learn new things about what’s going on in the community – about different concerns, different needs, how things work, how the economy works, history. I get to learn a lot, which is fun for me. If you know how to do it, you can build a lot of power that gets you into really high-level conversations. That’s also fun to be part of, and to see ordinary community members taking on the high levels of power, negotiating on behalf of their families, their interests. Doing that can be very rewarding.

How was the transition from teacher to organizer? Are the two roles very different?

When I was a classroom teacher, if I had 25 kids in my class I would spend a lot of my energy and time trying to figure out how to get to those kids who are falling behind and really struggling – really trying to figure out, “How do I make sure every single kid here passes and gets ahead?”

Early on I was applying that to organizing. I’d be really worried about somebody who was not that interested or not going to get involved. Organizing is teaching, but it’s really about identifying who in this parish, who in this neighborhood, in this community – who, if I invest in them, will cultivate the others.

You mentioned organizing is power. Where does it come from?

You have to be organized effectively, in the places that matter, where decision-makers pay attention and listen for that to become a reality. The first step is that idea of something new and something possible. But if we didn’t have an organized constituency in all five [Monterey County] supervisory districts, who are saying the same thing to their supervisors, then [the VIDA program] wouldn’t have happened.

You met the Pope last year because of the work you’ve done locally, on the Central Coast. What was your takeaway from that experience?

It felt very validating about the work of organizing, very reassuring that as a Catholic – or somebody who cares about the community, cares about the world – that this is a path to keep following.

It was also a great reminder to stay connected to real people and to be able to come and dwell in that space of what’s going on with people, and not to get lost in my own ideas about what I think needs to change.

Who is a person you’ve seen grow through organizing?

Marisela [Acevedo, a COPA member]. She’s had a few years of experience with COPA, and she’s gone from being someone at the periphery of her parish to being a leader, being able to speak to a [new] priest in another community about how to organize.

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