Community Leaders: Essential to Organizing for Change

Presdelane Harris (left) next to Tiearra Pettway at the Nov. 2019 Center Partner meeting in Washington, D.C.

Relationship building is at the heart of organizing. In particular, building relationships with people on the ground who care about their communities and are impacted by issues is essential to making meaningful change. It is a privilege to get to know and work with community leaders, especially those who are recognizing and building their personal capacity as leaders. Tiearra Pettway, a native of Mobile, Alabama, is one of those people who has emerged as a passionate leader in her community.

I first met Tiearra when Alabama Arise partnered with Bay Area Women Coalition and Trinity Gardens Community Civic Club on a local project to address food insecurity in their Mobile neighborhood. A goal for the project was to elevate community voices in the new Alabama Medicaid managed care program. Another goal of the project was to strengthen local leadership and help identify and support the next generation of leaders.

When Arise held a series of listening sessions and community meetings, Tiearra helped organize those meetings and collect information from meeting participants. Tiearra, a 33-year-old mother of a child lost to cancer, had been invited by her mentor to get involved with the Bay Area Women Coalition. She actually gained enough confidence to help facilitate a segment of one of the listening sessions.

Tiearra was then asked to be a consumer leader at the November 2019 Center Partner meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss the local work and meet others engaged in projects around the country. At this meeting, this passionate, yet shy, young woman opened up and networked the group with growing confidence. She was motivated by her desire to learn so that she could do better work in her community. As Tiearra said, she joined the Bay Area Women Coalition and Alabama Arise because she “wanted to follow and learn from seasoned, effective leaders in my community and on the state level.”

Since the Center Partner meeting, Tiearra has taken on more leadership roles both in her community and with Arise. Locally, she is part of the community’s Street Captain structure designed to help connect people to needed resources. When Arise asked her to serve as a “community contact” in our efforts to engage consumer voices in our new Alabama Medicaid structure, she did not hesitate. Tiearra has also been instrumental in ongoing food distribution efforts since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Other longtime local leaders said she really stepped up to serve during this time of unprecedented crisis.

We continue to be impressed with Tiearra’s growing confidence in her own leadership. In September, she applied for the Southern Partners Fund’s competitive Young Leaders for Social Change (YLSC) Fellowship. Though she was not awarded the fellowship, she was bold in her pursuit of this possibility. In her own words, “My work for justice has given me the great joy of informing my community about issues, developing projects, assisting with planning and organizing community meetings, and listening to the voice of my community so justice can be served.”

Thank you Tiearra for your time, your commitment and your leadership!

Presdelane (Pres) Harris is Organizing Director at Alabama Arise, a statewide coalition working on policies to address poverty through advocacy, policy analysis and organizing.