Catherine Matthews, ‘11, felt isolated and “enclosed in a bubble of ignorance and apathy” when she first arrived on the Richmond campus.

“Life seemed to revolve around classes and social life,” she said. Things began to change for her when she joined WILL and designed an interdisciplinary major in human rights.

Now Matthews has taken her desire for change a step further by joining the UR Organizing Project.

“Community organizing involves gathering a group of passionate and driven individuals around a common cause in order to work together to effect change,” she says. “... Community organizing gives voice to an issue and the people affected in order to achieve change.”

The UR Organizing Project got underway in February with a two-day program, where more than 30 students learned the skills, tactics and strategy to become change agents through community organizing. Mandy Carter, a self-described “black, lesbian social justice activist and community organizer” with 40 years of experience, spoke about her life’s work Feb. 26, and the next day, representatives of the Virginia Organizing Project led a day-long workshop.

Glyn Hughes, director of Common Ground, and Amy Howard, executive director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, pulled together a committee including Holly Blake and Melissa Ooten from WILL, Judy Mejia and Adrienne Piazza of the CCE, Camisha Jones from the Chaplaincy and Thad Williamson from Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Of the workshop Hughes said students learned “about building coalitions around issues.” He said student leadership arising from the workshop will determine where the project goes in the future.

Participants attended for a variety of reasons, but all were passionate about creating change.

“I feel that this project will empower me to take productive and meaningful action,” said Emily Hagemann, ’12. She is interested in education and health care and is a Bonner Scholar with prior service at Youth Life Foundation and Fan Free Clinic. 

Several students want to use their organizing skills to further the cause of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual individuals. Johanna Gehlbach, ’12, wants to use what she learns in the organizing project to promote and achieve equality for members of the LGBTQ community both at UR and in the world.

"[The workshop] gave me a direction for my passion," she says. "... One thing that really meant a lot to me was Mandy Carter's concept of 'justice or just us,' that all issues — race, class, sexual orientation, gender, etc. — are tied up in one another. It's important that individual groups ... make that connection and work for equality for all — not just for our own individual issue, not just us."

Koldo Guierrez-Boada of Spain, who is studying at Richmond for a year, also wants to work for LGBT and other social issues. Although he is studying business, he says, “Money shouldn’t be the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal must be people.” He wants to use his organizing skills to participate in debates, discussions and educational activities.

Matthews spent last semester in Kenya, where she learned that foreigners cannot impose development or change, but “must work with the community to learn the most vital issues and determine the best actions to take to work toward improving the lives of the community members.”

She plans to take that experience and her new community organizing skills with her when she begins volunteering at Richmond Refugee and Immigration Services.

She was encouraged by the motivation and passion of the students who participated in the UR Organizing Project. "It is clear to me now that Richmond has a dedicated body of students excited about organizing and that we have the tools and the power to effect change," she says. "The next step is to align ourselves and campus groups and organizations and strive for justice together."