Cesar Linares is a longtime resident of Burien, who has been involved in the Church Council’s organizing circle in Highline. In 2020, he joined the Church Council as an Organizing Fellow, a program that cultivates talented, sustainable, effective community organizers — the future of faith-rooted justice work.
Interview 10/29/2020 | Beth Amsbary, Interviewer
How did you get into organizing and become an Organizing Fellow?
For years, I wanted to be in law enforcement. My parents let me watch the TV show Cops. I’d watch it and think, “People shouldn’t have to go through that. I want to help.” I got a bachelors degree in criminal justice, hoping that I could protect community members.
I ended up going to seminary at Boston University School of Theology. I have a church background in the United Methodist and Presbyterian Church.
Two years ago I came back to Burien, where I mainly grew up, hoping to be with my mom and my niece. We are a family together with my sister. My mom was involved in organizing in Burien with Joey Ager of the Church Council. She said I should meet him.
It was powerful when Joey reached out to me and asked “would you like to organize with me?” People have told me I should be an organizer. I did it on my own and with other community members. But it was out of what I had left. I never dreamed I could be supported for doing this work.
This Organizing Fellowship is pushing me to own the capacity I have in my own community.
I came home, hoping to serve the community. I thought I might find a nonprofit, learn from them, and eventually do some work near and dear to my heart. How do I get prepared for that?
Doing this organizing work is opening my mind and heart for how that might look. How do all the pieces of my experience come together? What makes it sustainable in the long run? I’m starting to see what that might look like.
In organizing, I see myself as an investigator, like the homicide detectives on tv. I’ve always been intrigued by research. Digging into the details of our situation to solve mysteries and make things better. To be able to do this together with my community is a blessing.
What’s the difference between cultivating leaders and doing a program?
It’s about meeting folks where they’re at. Help people develop skills and talents authentic to that person. Become the leaders they are, not who the program wants them to be.
Cultivating leaders is different from following a formula to create that program’s kind of leader.
Why does the work of cultivating local leaders matter right now?
Organizing groups often bring in an outside organizer who doesn’t belong to the community, doesn’t get it from the inside. The Latinx community in Burien has a lot of divisions. If you’re from outside, you can’t see the differences going on in parts of the community and bridge them. It’s cultivating, watering, and nurturing the talents that are here in the community.
For a while I had an appointment as an Assistant Pastor in Eastern Washington. I was Latinx, like that community, but I wasn’t of that community, so they were like “who’s that outsider?” I can make a bigger difference here in my own community.
Too often Capitalist systems don’t give that recognition to folks who are of the community. They only recognize external credentials.
What does it mean to do this organizing work during COVID?
Often Latinx communities don’t see government as an option for solutions. Picking through the budget – getting info to folks – inviting them to see the difference it would really make – it’s about constantly reaching out. It takes more effort to get folks together. The fact I know folks personally when I call, it really helps to get us all together. Of course, then we all come apart, but at least we got together for a while. We’re especially looking to create some celebrations. Find little ways to share beacons of hope.
For example, Burien passed a budget with no cuts for human services. That’s a big deal. We need to stop and recognize our community power that helped that to happen.
Are there any memorable moments from your time so far?
The research meetings with City Council members. Bringing people I know into these meetings. It was important for community members to see the Council is really interested in their questions and experience.
Coming up, we’re planning a community meeting to share findings on the budget to the community. We’ll say, “We have these ideas. What do you think?” Then “How shall we move forward as community?” It’s going to take time to listen and work it all through. I’m excited about it.
You are a busy person, with a lot of ways you could contribute to the community. What made you want to get involved in this organizing effort, and as an Organizing Fellow?
In a way, I’ve wanted to organize for a long time, and to be guided in how to grow as an organizer. I care about a lot of things.
Lately I’ve been thinking of Henri Nouwen and The Wounded Healer: thinking of wounds in my heart that I want to organize around. I feel impotent, feel angry, feel it in my gut. Taking this on lets me be in my community, learn tools for my entire life around issues I care about. It’s a vocational journey. Making sense of all I’ve learned: organizing with it all. And how to sustain the work over time.
To do it here in the community where I grew up, where I went to grade school and high school, where my family lives. It means a lot. It takes off a piece of that burden.
When we can all gather again to share a big community meal after COVID, what would you like to bring?
I will work on my mole cooking skills or perhaps enchiladas and will bring those!
Anything else you’d like to say?
The other thing I see in this work of cultivating leaders: how do we thrive and not just survive? Thinking of my own vocation, I want to do more than just survive. I want others to thrive too.
It’s a shift of expectation, to dream for more. It’s uncomfortable. Pushing past the sense that it’s impossible.
Something I kind of dream of is a community center. Like a community-owned café, where people can thrive. They could come hang out. Get a meal if they need it. Have community meetings. Organize. Practical stuff. Healing together.
That’s what I wish to see for my community, my family. I need healing. My community needs healing. I’ve had people die. There is trauma for me and my community. We need to heal. Organizing is a way to do that together.