Community Organizing:  Making Something Out of Nothing

by Denise Padín Collazo

When I was growing up, my Dad used to love to watch boxing; I grew up watching the likes of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. One day I asked my Dad why he was rooting for one boxer over the other. His answer rings in my ears as though it were yesterday: “Denise, you always, always root for the underdog.”

I didn’t fully understand what he meant by that until I was much older.  My Dad was born in Puerto Rico. They were literally dirt poor. My grandmother, Lela, brought her children to New York by herself.  She worked days in the garment district and nights at Bellevue hospital to feed her kids. My Dad had to fight a lot to survive, because they were usually the first ‘Spics’ in their neighborhood. Luckily they were 5 boys and one tough big sister.

My Dad, Rafael Padin Circa 1948

I started to understand…HE was the underdog. WE were the underdogs.

Growing up, I was a small brainy kid, a year younger than everyone else. I attended California public schools nestled between miles of strawberry and artichoke fields. One day I got a letter inviting me to attend Harvard University. I applied and was accepted—much to my surprise.

Christmas with the whole family c. 1955. 

While at Harvard I came face to face with real wealth. Many of my classmates came from the wealthiest families in the world. They were headed off to Wall Street, Law School and Business School. At graduation, I thought of Lela.  Fifty years later, there I was, standing on her tiny shoulders.  I knew from that early age that my work would be with people like my grandmother and my Dad.

My grandmother, Elisa “Lela” Padin c. 1931

I got involved in community organizing with Faith in Action shortly after college.  It brought together many parts of me: my interest in serving others, my faith, my experience with multi-culturalism, and my belief in people. My first organizing position didn’t pay very much. My Dad wondered why in the world we had gotten

into debt for such a tiny paycheck until he saw organizing in action. He saw that I was doing just like he taught me. I was the underdog, working with other underdogs who want a better life.

I recently returned from a 5 month sabbatical.  Three key things I learned on sabbatical: rest, reflect and recharge. I took good time to rest and recover from many years in the arena of social change. I learned that I tend to over-function and overwork which hurts me and doesn’t serve my organization well. Going forward, this will change. As I reflected, I reviewed the stories that I have told myself about my life. In order to write a new ending to your story, you need to own your whole story. As I recharged for the road ahead, I realized that there are some things I need to let go in order to continue. 

Dad, 2018.

The external forces that are targeting our families have money on their side. I believe, though, as Rev. Alvin Herring, our new Executive Director says, “Our unity is our best device.” As we align more within our network and with partners, I am focused on the impact even a small increase in creativity could do to tip the scales in favor of our families. I now serve Faith in Action as Senior Advisor for External Affairs and my focus is to explore creative ways for us to diversify our revenue base and forge new partnerships that make us stronger. I’ll represent Faith in Action with key external partners and develop ways for people in all 50 states to work with us.

When I look at our community leaders, I see in their faces, the faces of my Lela, my Dad and all of the other people in my family and yours who spent their lives making something out of nothing.

Denise Collazo is a U.S. social justice leader, a mentor to powerful women of color and a family work integration innovator. She serves as Senior Advisor for External Affairs for Faith in Action, the country’s largest faith-based organizing network.