How Small Steps Helped a Community Organizer Keep Her Dream Moving Forward

I’ve been advising a community organizer who lives in a relatively isolated and lower-income part of San Francisco and has been working for some time to create a women’s community center in her neighborhood. The women in her area are mostly minorities and have lower-than-average education levels – they’re struggling financially, socially, and health-wise.

For the past year, the woman has been reaching out to people in her neighborhood trying to get them involved. She’s been researching at the library on corporate sponsorship programs and networking with influential city figures. She shared with me a grand vision of what this center could do for her neighborhood – providing health education, professional training, shelter for victims of domestic abuse, a place to get a healthy, wholesome meal. But she just can’t seem to get anything going.

This is the classic chicken-vs-egg problem. She needs resources and support to build the community center, but no one is going to give anything a project without anything to show for itself.

The basic question is: How do you make something from nothing? It’s one thing to grow an existing program, it’s another to start from scratch.

It turns out I have some experience in this areaas a nonprofit cofounder and early-stage startup employee. So what did I suggest to her?

Start small.

Get something started, even if it’s not much. I asked her what need she wanted to focus on: “Health education” she said. Then I asked if there was a specific topic she wanted people to learn about: “Diabetes” she said. So I suggested she to organize a one-time meeting of women in her area to learn more about how to protect & prevent yourself from the adverse effects of being diabetic.

All of a sudden real possibilities started opening up to her. Did she know anyone who could volunteer an hour of their time? Did she know of any facilities that might be open later that she could borrow a room for? Could she get flyers at a discount or even free at her local copy shop if she gives a shout out to the place during the meeting?

When you’re starting out, you do whatever it takes to get SOMETHING done.

Take pictures of the event. Get people’s phone numbers. Ask for help at the meeting. See what the community is looking for. Get someone to give a quote about the event being awesome. Then hold a bigger meeting next week, get the local news involved, fundraise some larger donations. That’s how she’ll accomplish her goal.

So what about you?

I’m sure you’ve got some BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) you’re trying to work towards. Maybe things are not going so well and you’re thinking about giving up. Try asking yourself this question:

What is the smallest step forward I could take that would get me closer to this goal?

Figure out exactly what that is – and then go do it. Chip away at the monolith that is your BHAG. Do something. Build small victory upon small victory, and eventually you’ll break that rock down and win.

Oh – and the community organizer wrote back a week after our conversation to say:

Just wanted to report on my progress from last Mondays phone conference:

Found a place to host meetings at
Found two speakers
Found a sponsor for events

I also spoke personally with the new District Supervisor and I have a meeting scheduled. I spoke to her about some of the issues plaguing our community, and she not only feels the same, but wants to work with me and my partner on ALL the issues. I will continue to keep you updated, Thanks again!

When you start small and bust your butt – things can HAPPEN. How can I help you get started?

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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