A Fellowship For Community Organizing: 3 Questions With TOLA Fellow Karina Rivera

Apr 23, 2013

TOLA Fellows Amanda Clifford (left) and Karina Rivera (right) at a neighborhood clean up in Oakland organized by TOLA
We recently learned of The Organizing and Leadership Academy (TOLA) and their TOLA Fellows program, created for aspiring community organizers. TOLA recruits passionate, service-minded individuals for an intensive, four-month academy designed to teach community organizing and leadership.  Taught by some of the most effective community, business, educational and political leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, the program includes several weeks of initial classroom and case-study teaching, and Fellows also engage in up to two on-the-ground organizing projects in local communities. Past TOLA organizing projects have included revitalizing the Piedmont Avenue Merchants Association (PAMA), working with the Oakland Firefighters to improve their community outreach, and organizing to build community support for the redevelopment of the 51st and Broadway Shopping Center. Each class of Fellows commits to a full-time organizer’s schedule (six days a week, 10-12 hours a day) for four months, and during the fellowship, TOLA provides an $8,000 scholarship to help cover Fellows’ living expenses.

TOLA is now taking applications for their next class of fellows who will start on July 22, 2013. We caught up with former fellow Karina Rivera to ask about her experience in the program and her tips for the application process.

1. What inspired you to apply for the TOLA Academy Fellows program?

My hometown Watsonville, CA has a long history of organizing. During the cannery strikes in the 1980s, my mother helped organize workers. At the time she had 3 young children but she was still out there supporting the workers. I remember listening to her stories about the difficulties of the strike and how important it was for her to support the movement. From her stories, I learned from an early age how powerful organizing can be.

When I heard about TOLA, I was immediately drawn to the concept of a fellowship that taught people how to be effective organizers while also working on leadership skills. During the 4 months of the fellowship, you are assigned 2 community organizing projects. While doing organizing work, you are also expected to attend workshops taught by community leaders where they speak about their own experiences as organizers and the lessons that brought them to their current leadership roles. These workshops also give fellows an opportunity to ask questions and really understand what it takes to be an effective organizer. Fellows meet on a regular basis to reflect on the work that they are doing out on the field. During these sessions, fellows are able provide insight on the things that are working on in their projects and the things that they need to change in order to be successful.

Lastly, I will say that TOLA staff does a great job of ensuring that fellows have the support they need to succeed in their respective projects. While the work can be incredibly hard and tiring, fellows will find that there is always someone that has done and understands the work.

Karina talking to parents from Allendale Elementary School in Oakland at a Volunteer Work Day that she organized as part of Supervisor Chan’s Adopt-A-School initiative. The event, which attracted close to 100 volunteers, helped beautify the grounds of the school.

2. How has the fellowship experience impacted your career path?

Prior to the fellowship, I was working for a non-profit doing case management. While that work is incredibly important, it wasn’t what I saw myself doing long term. After joining TOLA, my career took a slightly different path.

My first project on TOLA was helping organize a campaign to pass a Parcel Tax measure for a local school district. It was incredibly crucial to pass this measure as California schools had been facing deep budget cuts every year.  Working with Tramutola staff, parents and with the support of the school district, we led a volunteer driven effort to educate community members about the importance of the measure and were out on the field through Election Day ensuring that people went out to vote. It was an incredible experience not only because of the people involved in it but because I got see all sides of how a campaign is run. I was out in the field organizing people and when back in the office, I was talking strategy and figuring out what steps we needed to take to take the win.

Since the fellowship I’ve moved on to work as a representative for Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan. I work with residents of Alameda County’s Third District, which encompasses parts of Oakland, San Leandro, San Lorenzo and Alameda, to ensure that they are connected to county resources. Through TOLA, I learned about the importance of increasing civic participation in local communities. This has been incredibly helpful with the work I currently do organizing community events that educate and help raise awareness of the role of County Government and the safety net.

Working “in the field” during the TOLA fellowship helped me understand the importance of educating community members about resources available to them and how to best advocate for themselves and their communities at large. The education that I gained through my TOLA experience helped me take the lead as an organizer and representative for communities in Alameda County. 

3. What tips would you give others interested in applying to the TOLA Fellows program?

The application process was fairly straightforward- cover letter, resume, and writing sample. I would say that the interview was really the most important part.  I had an incredibly positive interview and was honest about my lack of organizing skills. TOLA is not necessarily looking for people who have already done organizing work, so highlight other leadership skills and experiences that will be telling of what you are capable of.  Demonstrating passion, good work ethic and a need to want to make a difference in the community is key to getting into the fellowship program.

One of the best parts about TOLA is that a majority of your time is spent out in the field getting experience- meeting, talking and organizing real people, while also getting some classroom instruction time where you learn about the principals of organizing. You are taught the tools that it takes to become a great leader and you also get the opportunity to meet leaders in the Bay Area- people that have done significant work to make their community a better place to live in.

If you’re looking for a 9-5PM fellowship, then TOLA is not for you. Some weeks, you may only work 40 hours and then there are others where you are out in the field or making phone calls until 10PM and through the weekend.  The work is difficult and ongoing but like all great work, it is incredibly rewarding.

Karina Rivera graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a B.A. in Latin American and Iberian Studies in 2009. Since then, she has worked with various non-profit organizations and youth agencies in the Santa Barbara area. As a TOLA Fellow, Karina is currently a representative for Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan where she works as a liaison for boards and agencies, community organizations and citizens in her district. 

© Victoria Johnson 2013, all rights reserved.