Drew Astolfi, a longtime organizer with Community Change, spoke with Prentiss Haney, co-director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC), about his experiences in electoral and community organizing. Haney, who had initially dreamed of becoming a filmmaker, started down the road to organizing through the powerful invitations of organizers. Haney recalls: “I feel like my whole career as an organizer has been about powerful invitations for me to decide: Do I want to say yes to my own power?” Along the way, Haney established the Midwest Culture Lab, where he explored the intersection of arts and organizing. He joined the Ohio Organizing Collaborative in 2012 because he was searching for answers as to why his family was falling apart. Instead, he learned how to transform that pain into power. In 2019, he became the co-director of OOC. The organization plays a critical role in Ohio, engaging community leaders through multiple statewide constituency projects.

The interview has been edited and condensed.


Let’s start with your organizer origin story. It's the Marvel Comics question. How did you get to be the superhero organizer?

I think it really starts with my parents. I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, in a household of Black entrepreneurs. My mom has been a cosmetologist/beautician for over twenty years, and my dad has owned his own lawn care and landscaping business for almost thirty years now. And so I inherited an entrepreneurial spirit, which is key to being an organizer. You've got to be willing to go build things up and tear things down and be unafraid. 

As I was going to college to be a filmmaker, I started to see a shift in my family. My mom went from being able to take care of all these things to being angry and upset. What I didn't know at the time was that she was trying to figure out how to keep our house because it was the housing foreclosure crisis. I didn't understand what was going on, but I felt the impact of how my family was different. My cousin was put into the foster care system. What's going on with my grandmother? She can't take care of my cousins anymore? And I started to feel anger. And I started to feel shame because they felt shame. 

It wasn't until I picked up a clipboard and went to have a conversation with someone that I realized I could transform that shame into dignity. So I started off as a volunteer for the Senate Bill 5 fight. And then I met a really great organizer, Victoria Phifer. She leaned over this Obama 2012 table and asked, "Would you be interested in being an organizing fellow?" And I was like, "Uh, I don't know what that is, but I'm thankful you asked me."

We set up our first one-to-one. She knew I was searching for answers for what was going on in my community. She saw me. And so when I started to organize that summer, I started to understand more about the public policy choices that had been made over the last decade that had gotten our communities here.

After the campaign was over, I began to organize around police brutality on campus. A student organizer, Meredith from Ohio Student Association, had a different type of one-to-one with me. She listened to my story, listened to what I was ready to fight for, and she asked me how I wanted to build a powerful institution and actually make a dignified choice around power. It was the first time I felt fully seen...not only could I do something, but I could actually build something with other people. And that's when I really understood community organizing. Not just, somebody's got a good pitch and they mobilize it, but someone saw me and invited me to be a part of something powerful and be a member of it, to co-create. And that invitation changed my life.

I feel like my whole career as an organizer has been about powerful invitations for me to decide: Do I want to say yes to my own power? Do I want to stand in my own dignity? Do I want to actually see what I could become if I say yes? Every time someone asked me something powerful and I said yes, I've gotten way more than I have given. 


You’ve mentioned how powerful invitations have shaped your life. Could you tell us a bit more about powerful invitations? 

What makes an invitation powerful is when the person who's giving the invitation is clear about the potential they see in you. They are not afraid of naming the shame and making clear that it doesn't have to be in your way if you choose to walk away from it. They authentically give you a choice to say yes or no about where you want to go with your power in your life. So much of public life for so many people is stripping people of their own agency. They feel like they don't have power over their lives or they don't have enough money or resources or they're regulated in this way and that way and so there's all these stories about how you can't. You can't do this. You can't do that. You can't demand this or do that.

And so just reminding people, you have a power path. Every time I've actually constructed a powerful invitation for someone and let it sit there, whether they say yes or no, I saw that they've changed because of that conversation.


OOC has long been such a powerful organization. Where are you now and where are you headed?

The OOC has been around for over ten years and we've learned a lot of lessons. When we started, we were a collaborative of local place-based organizations. We were just trying to aggregate enough local power to be the big guys at the little guys table back in 2007.

We have transformed since then. We've birthed movements and movement organizations. We've won ballot initiatives. The thing that is setting us up for our next decade is creating durable, member-led organizations. First, you have to have really clear places where people can practice democracy in the organization by structuring the organization so that members lead it. Second, you have to have real belonging by making sure that there are constituency-based experiences so people can see themselves reflected and feel comfortable to fight. The third piece is that we have to create real tension in the organization for cross-racial solidarity because if we do not model the way that our state and our communities actually work, then they won't get a real experience of how power works. 

And so from those lessons, we've structured the organization to have four state-wide constituency projects. We organize students and young people through the Ohio Student Association. We organize people of faith through the statewide Amos Project. Our third organizing base is formerly incarcerated folks and their families through Building Freedom Ohio. And then our fourth organizing vehicle, called the Caring Economy Organizing Project (the CEO Project), is women of color working at the center of the care economy, primarily childcare providers and the parents they serve. And then when they come together, they are the OOC and they get to experience negotiative power inside the organization and make real power moves at the local level and at the state level. This sort of construction allows us to be in every city that we need to be in, while also focusing on the main political counties that gets us to governing power. 


The state of Ohio is changing and you are straddling that change. How do you see Ohio changing and what is the role of OOC in that change?

Our state isn’t red; it's rigged. The folks who are in our base are being cut out of democracy. And so when you couple that with a narrative that there is no future for Ohio, then you have communities who feel left behind and left out. We have to give people hope and the vision that includes new green jobs in our state, that includes paying our caregivers what they deserve and make sure those industries are thriving and strong.

If we decide politically that Ohio is no longer important, then we're also saying that Black people are no longer important. There's more Black people who live in Ohio than in the state of Alabama. When we're talking about what we need for Black America, Ohio is where we live. The OOC is creating the space for communities of color to practice democracy with us, create real opportunities for them to see material changes in their communities, build enough electoral power for us to elect our champions and to structurally change the rules so that it's no longer rigged.

We're very excited about the new leadership in the party. But the party also has to do some reimagining. It has to go out into communities and bring people back into the fold and into the fight. I'm a believer in the power of an invitation. The party's got to go have some powerful invitations in communities and organize them, not just around the candidate but about the issues they care about year-around.


That takes us all the way back to Victoria's powerful invitation to you in the beginning of your story. One of the things that stands out about OOC is that you use a co-directing model. What made you decide to do that? What’s it like, and how is it working?

I firmly believe that when we share power, all of our power grows together. We wanted to model that power is an abundant thing. We can all have it, and we can grow it together.

Part of the reason why we chose to do a co-directing model is that taking a state like Ohio or building an institution with four mini-institutions is a hard thing to do. Our co-director, Molly Shack, is a fierce, amazing organizer. Literally the state of Ohio will change because she's here. I'm so thankful for her. I feel like together, we're bringing out the best in our lives and that we challenge each other and we grow together. What I actually love about my relationship with Molly is that we get to talk and negotiate on the power moves we want to make. We strengthen each other because we get to wrestle the hard questions. I think that is what the co-director model offers when you do it right.

And I think that for anyone who's considering a co-director model, I think part of what you have to think about before you enter into it is, what kind of institution do you want to model? I actually think that the co-director model makes sense for organizers because so much of what we do is about building things with other folks and sharing power and showing people how to share power. So if I was giving advice, I'd ask, "What are the best things about what you do with your leaders? How could you create that sort of experience with someone you want to share power with?"


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