The Power of the Collective: A Conversation with Calvin Allen

A Conversation with Calvin Allen //

How did you get into community-based and collective action work, and where has that led you?

Calvin: Actually it was here in Durham—it’s funny, I was just telling this story. I was part of this really amazing group of young adults who had just graduated from college. I had just graduated from Duke University and was working in town at my first nonprofit job. I don’t know how, but this group of young adults formed something called the Community Youth Collaborative in downtown Durham…. But upstairs it was basically kind of empty space that the landlord made available for several young people who wanted to start non-profits. So SEEDS started out of that space, Public Allies, which is the group I eventually became the director of, started out of that space, another international nonprofit called Shakti for Children, and Stone Circles….

It provided space for us to lean on each other, get to know each other, and support each other’s work. If SEEDS was having an event, Public Allies would be there, and it was just this really amazing community of folks. Of course there were a number of issues that were coming up, and we had an automatic network to kind of go out and be a part of the work, whether it was protesting or supporting something. That led to later incarnations: there was this group called North Carolina Youth for Tomorrow. It became its own nonprofit.

How would you describe Collective Action, and how does Community-based Organizing work fit into this?

I’ll start with talking about Collective Action’s work. The way I think about Collective Action is of power in three realms. There’s personal power. This is my ability to speak to you and have you understand, to convince you of my way of thinking, or someone else’s way of thinking, and why something is important. There’s group power, in which if I don’t feel like I have personal power, I gather other people who feel similarly. Then we can work together as a collective to do that specific work. And then of course beyond collective power there is kind of institutional systems-level power. What are the laws and the policies that are written and that serve as a way to get things done?

Collective power is one of those three. It’s meaningful because I don’t know that you can really achieve the other two without that piece. I think in the United States so much of our structures are dependent on collective action. You’ve got to get individuals motivated, but a lot of that happens through collective work. And once people recognize that there are other people who believe similarly to what they do, there’s a place for them to connect, and then they use that to move forward.

That ties back directly to community-based work. So, what sort of groups are we connecting with, and making sure that there is voice for everybody within that community, within that collective group. How do we make sure that it’s not just a few people speaking for everybody, but instead several voices contributing to moving forward, the policies and decisions we make, and the values we have? That to me is the connection between collective action and keeping work community-based.

In what ways do you see community based and collective action work as being particularly valuable for rural communities?

What makes rural communities so unique is space. This includes the space between people, the space between people and businesses, and people and services. People can feel isolated, even more than people do in large cities, which is an interesting dynamic as well.  It’s a different kind of loneliness that happens in rural communities, and a different kind of isolation. And so collective work is really how rural folks get anything done. They know that “If I’m gonna farm, I’m not gonna have a real food value chain without connecting to others.  I’ll grow my crops here, but I need a distributor who can reach here, and then I need a local shop that will sell my wares.” You just can’t do it on your own. So rural communities have been leading lot of communities in figuring out a collective structure that works for everyone.

What are some accomplishments of community-based/collective action work that you’ve been involved in that you’re particularly proud of?

The agency I collaborate with works with rural communities and provides organizational development and capacity-building tools to help accomplish the goal of helping the community be healthier over the long term.  There’s a group up in Halifax County, North Carolina, that has been working so hard to bring together the emergency medical services, the hospital, the local clinic, the school system, and the department of social services.  How do you bring all those different groups together to actually share data? If I’m in the hospital and I have records at the clinic, that the hospital needs to have access to those records so that the people treating me for a heart attack can see I’ve been on medication. Or if there are issues around safety and DSS has records relevant to that, there needs to be a way of sharing data that will help this patient. This group came up with an organized healthcare agreement,signed by all the partners at the table. This legal document is a tool dreamed about for two years. It took strategic planning and a lot of trust-building. It took collective work. Now this rural community is doing something a lot of other communities can’t quite figure out how to do.

Any words of wisdom for helping people to work together?

Listening. It sounds so simple, but it’s such an underrated skill. People need to understand the value of valuing others’ stories. Stories are gifts, and people don’t treat them that way. We need to acknowledge people’s stories before we tell our own story, and let people know we value the act of them sharing their story. As simple a gesture as this is, it can turn the corner. It builds trust, it builds opportunity over time, and then it provides an opportunity for the other person to share their story.  And that’s what really creates the possibility of that larger collective work. This is when systemic work truly happens, and real change can take place.


Calvin Allen joined Rural Forward NC as their first Director in October 2014. In his role as director, Calvin supervises staff, sets program vision and direction. He manages key state and national relationships and provides technical assistance and support in Healthy Places NC counties. Prior to joining Rural Forward NC, Calvin has worked in the nonprofit sector as an administrator, trainer, facilitator, advocate, and consultant, primarily around rural economic development.

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