Young Spokane man learns about organizing globally
Cameron Conner, who grew up in Spokane and Nepal and founded the Conscious Connections Foundation, is spending a year exploring how community organizing has impact around the world. With a Watson Fellowship, he is funded to live and learn about cooperatives in Barcelona, innovative economic policy in England, neighborhood-based civic associations in South Africa and traditional nomadic communities in Mongolia.
This opportunity requires putting his life on hold for 12 months, time away from his partner of six years, his family and a career he loves.
In this issue's Sounding Board and over the year, Cameron will share with The Fig Tree insights from encounters on how relationships and power can bring change.
Growing up in Spokane in the late 1990s, a decade marked by union busting and deindustrialization, Cameron saw many stable industrial and healthcare jobs disappear. He also traveled for months at a time to Kathmandu, Nepal, where his family has worked nearly 40 years, primarily in partnerships with refugees from Tibet.
"Experiences with friends, family and community on both sides of the globe taught me that there was a deep divide between the world as it is and the world as it should be. I saw some people I knew turn to alcohol out of shame for being unable to support their family. At 11, I saw peers in Nepal drop out of school to work to support their siblings. Some kids on my wrestling team were afraid to go home because of abusive parents. I lost friends to suicide," he said.
Cameron's parents were role models who, he said, "were not afraid to address issues head on." Nonetheless he saw people he loved forced to act out of desperation because they had no power.
"I, too, felt powerless, unable to fight problems that were bigger than me. I was angry and afraid of my impotence," he said.
Cameron started searching for opportunities to act in order to realize he was not powerless.
An opportunity came in 2013 when he learned that two young women in Nepal and many of their classmates couldn't afford the next year's school tuition and would drop out.
"That was actionable," he said. "In 2014, I saw my opportunity, and co-founded the non-profit Conscious Connections Foundation (CCF) with partners in Spokane and Kathmandu to address two challenges facing families in Nepal: access to primary healthcare and girls' education."
CCF's mission was and remains "to invest in the power of women and girls to be key participants in their society."
When a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal a year later, CCF temporarily also became a tool for disaster relief, distributing food, providing temporary shelter and rebuilding schools.
"That was another opportunity to take action," he said.
"Flushed with the success of the concrete impact we were having, and armed with the new contacts made in Nepal, I continued down the road of international humanitarian aid," he recounted. "I moved to the northern border of Greece where I sub-contracted under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to provide housing and shelter for Syrian refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War and ISIS."
He was initially stationed in the Idomeni refugee camp, an informal settlement of nearly 16,000 people created when Macedonia's government shut its borders and allowed only a few hundred to cross the frontier every day. Thousands stayed, believing it would give them a better place in the line to cross into Macedonia, Cameron said.
"A month into my time in Idomeni, as I began our daily drive to the camp, my supervisor got a ping on her cellphone. A photo came, showing lines of police and military dressed in camouflage sweeping through Idomeni and rousing residents out of their shelters," he reported. "As our car drew close, we were stopped by a police barricade. We could only watch as residents were herded into buses, carrying what few items they had packed, before the police line forced them out.
"As we tried unsuccessfully to get past the police and help families, a line of bulldozers came into view, leveling the tents, make-shift kitchens and improvised soccer field," he continued.
Returning a day later, Cameron sat in silence on the side of the road staring out at what was left of Idomeni.
"That changed my worldview fundamentally," he said. "I realized acting alone was not enough."
To truly change things—to change the system—people have to be at the negotiating table. To be there, they need more than altruism and personal dedication. They need an organized group to apply pressure to pursue their goals. They needed to build power.
"Frustrated with the limits of disaster relief work, I returned to the U.S. to earn my bachelor's degree at Whitman College. While doing so, I worked with the City of Walla Walla to create their Neighborhood Engagement Program, an initiative helping neighborhoods organize for local change," he said.
As program coordinator, Cameron loved bringing people together across differences, seeing them learn to take action and watching their transformation as they realized they had the ability to achieve concrete improvements for themselves and their neighbors.
After graduating, he began working for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the oldest and largest U.S. Community Organizing Network.
"As an organizer with the IAF in Dallas, Texas, I worked with schools, congregations and neighborhoods to address predatory payday lending, immigration reform, mental health care access, COVID-19 vaccines and more.
"During nearly three years in Dallas, I saw organized people win incredible victories: taking down the largest oil and gas tax-break in Texas and restoring billions of dollars to state schools, pressuring six of Dallas' worst slumlords to improve living conditions, and having legislators in Iowa allocate $2 million for mental health resources developed by community leaders.
"The people who participated in these fights felt proud, not powerless. I felt proud," he continued.
Cameron added that among those in the organizing effort were 22 faith communities, including a Lutheran Church, a Jewish synagogue, an Hispanic Catholic church and an African Methodist Episcopal church.
"Before I went to Texas, I was not involved in organized religion, but there I saw a side of the church that broke walls down," he said. "People came together in community to fight for one another. Hispanic people had not realized white people had problems but saw that as they established relationships. As they listened to each other's pain, they stood together."
Cameron saw that people working together as peers could accomplish something to benefit everyone in the community and be proud of themselves.
"The focus of organizing is building relationships. We could organize for fair housing without separating the political and the personal," he said.
As a Watson Fellow, he will learn from community organizing models in Spain, England, South Africa and Mongolia.
"Each place has organized people and money to achieve impressive victories in unique ways," he said.
"I hope to learn from leaders in these areas, begin conversations, become a better organizer and stoke our collective imagination for what organizing—and the world—can look like in the future," Cameron commented.
A version of his third blog is in Sounding Board.
His blogs are at cameronnorbuconner.com/blog.