January/February 2001

Building Democracy

Faith-based Community Organizing Today



By Mark R. Warren


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On November 7, 1999, six thousand people were listening to these messages from Fr. Richard Beck, a white Catholic priest, and the Rev. Terry White, a black Protestant minister. The audience – which included Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, several Texas U.S. Congress members, and San Antonio’s mayor – was packed into the municipal auditorium in San Antonio, Texas, to observe the 25th anniversary of Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), perhaps the nation’s most powerful community organization.

They were also celebrating 25 years of organizing by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the community organizing network that helped found COPS in 1974. IAF’s work in the Southwest has since grown to encompass 22 faith-based organizations across Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Nebraska, Iowa and southern California that work on an impressive range of issues including job training, living wage ordinances, housing development, school reform and after-school programs, citizenship classes and voter registration, health care and neighborhood safety. Although these issues are diverse, IAF uses a theme of “human development” as a unifying umbrella by looking at all the issues the network addresses as steps toward healthy families and communities.

Ever looking forward, COPS and the Southwest IAF network took the occasion of the anniversary to unveil an ambitious new initiative. COPS and its San Antonio sister organization Metro Alliance proposed a $250 million municipal human development fund to finance job training, after-school enrichment classes and college scholarships for low-income students. The fund would use a small sales tax increase to secure long-term financing for the IAF’s projects in these areas, and would be the first municipal endowment of its kind in the nation.

The assembly demonstrated the growing political clout of the network and also reflected its growing diversity. COPS was founded among the Catholic parishes in San Antonio, so it was no surprise to find Hispanic Catholics were well represented. But African-American and white Protestants also attended in large numbers, and newer leaders from Jewish congregations were featured prominently.

The range of participants also reflected IAF’s efforts to broaden its base beyond faith congregations. The Alliance Schools, an organizing program in over 100 Texas schools, brought a large number of principals, teachers and parents to the convention. Linda Chavez Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, spoke to the assembly, marking the growing collaboration between the IAF and unions across the country. Nevertheless, the faith basis of the network remains its bedrock, and much of the reason for its success.

The Field of Faith-Based Organizing

The Southwest IAF network is one of the leading examples of the broader field of faith-based community organizing. Although the field has yet to hit the media’s radar screen, a recent national survey, sponsored by Interfaith Funders, reveals that faith-based organizing is now a truly national phenomenon, with deep roots and a broad reach into American congregations and communities. According to the survey, about 133 local faith-based community organizations operate in 33 states across all regions of the country and claim more than 4000 institutions as members. About 3500 of those institutions are religious congregations, making more than 1 percent of all American congregations involved in a faith-based organizing group. Through its institutional membership base, the field may reach as many as three million people. Most of the 133 groups are themselves members of one of four national networks: the IAF, the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), the Gamaliel Foundation, and the Direct Action Research and Training Center (DART).

The accomplishments of these faith-based organizing groups are impressive:

• In San Antonio, COPS and Metro Alliance founded the innovative job training program Project QUEST, which won an Innovations in American Government Award from Harvard University.

• The IAF’s East Brooklyn Congregations has built over 2200 moderately priced homes in one of New York’s poorest communities, developing a model for the Nehemiah Homes legislation passed by Congress.

• BUILD, the IAF’s affiliate in Baltimore, worked with the local AFL-CIO to get the city council to pass the nation’s first “living wage” bill, requiring all recipients of city contracts to pay workers enough to support a family. This started a movement for such local ordinances that has spread across the country.

• The PICO California Project got the state government to increase the funding for primary care health clinics by $50 million.

• Isaiah, a statewide organization in Minnesota affiliated with the Gamaliel foundation, spearheaded the passage of legislation promoting metropolitan stability by equalizing resource allocation to suburbs and inner cities.

Organizing Democracy

Although faith-based organizing groups have made impressive accomplishments in the practical improvement of communities, these gains are not really their immediate goal. A core belief of these networks is that concrete community improvements follow from generating participation and training leaders to build powerful organizations committed to the needs of the families and communities that get involved. One of the hallmarks of faith-based community organizing is that, through it, people actively participate in civic and political action, and don’t just write checks to lobbying groups. According to Interfaith Funders’ survey, nearly 24,000 core leaders participate regularly in issue campaigns pursued by these organizations at any one time. And every year over 100,000 supporters attend large public actions they sponsor.

Democracy building and a focus on broad-based participation are part of the faith-based networks’ heritage. They find their roots in the work of Saul Alinsky, who founded the IAF during his organizing work in Chicago’s working class neighborhoods in the 1930s and 1940s. Known as the father of community organizing, Alinsky was committed to generating popular participation by those excluded from power. Militant tactics and an irreverent style marked his campaigns, and the campaigns’ successes brought him national fame.

Alinsky understood the importance of community institutions like churches as mobilizing vehicles for popular participation and power, but he saw them primarily as repositories of money and people. He was not particularly interested in the cultures and belief systems of the churches he recruited. In an interview with Harry Boyte, author of Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics, the Rev. John Egan recalled that when he advocated more discussion of religious values within IAF organizations, Alinsky responded, “You take care of the religion, Jack, we’ll do the organizing.”

When Alinsky died in 1972, he left an organizing legacy that inspired popular activists across the country, but a weak organization. Ed Chambers, who took over as IAF’s director, began to rebuild the foundation as a training institute for organizers and community leaders. Meanwhile, a young organizer, Ernesto Cortés, Jr., began to explore the benefits of engaging the faith traditions of churches in the organizing itself. He also began recruiting community leaders by reaching deeply into the existing lay leadership, mostly female, of the Hispanic Catholic parishes in his hometown of San Antonio.

Working closely with priests and lay leaders, Cortés began to fuse political organizing with faith traditions into something of a theology of organizing. As Cortés relates, Father Albert Benavides, an early COPS leader, “brought home to me how important the symbols were to people, how deep they went. But it had to be their symbols, their stories. As an organizer, I had to be engaged and learning from them at the same time I was trying to teach.” Cortés found, for example, that the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt symbolized for parishioners the need for hope in the face of despair, and the commitment to build a new nation. The story of Moses became a mainstay in IAF training; IAF trainers began to call Moses the first organizer and asked participants to draw lessons about leadership from his example. Later, as African-American ministers became more involved in IAF efforts, they brought some new symbols and stories, like Ezekiel’s prophesy of the valley of the dry bones, where a fractured people came together to rebuild a broken community.

The Model

Cortés’s fusing of faith with Alinsky’s political strategy formed a foundation for a distinctive faith-based organizing model that is particularly suited to democracy building, and has been embraced across the country. There are six key components to this approach.

Institutional base. Congregations, and a growing number of schools, unions and other organizations, are the official members of these groups, not individuals. This grounds their organizing in institutions that already structure the lives of families in their communities. Far from making these organizations removed, having an institutional base provides them a broad reach to community residents through pastors and respected lay leaders. COPS in San Antonio directly reaches 50,000 families through its 27 parishes, and also connects, though less directly, to the friends and neighbors of those families.

Values orientation. Reaching people is one thing; inspiring them to act is another. Faith-based community organizing draws on central themes from religious traditions that inspire people to work together for the betterment of their communities and for social justice. COPS leader Father Mike Haney of St. Leonard’s parish explains that COPS is a way of implementing the Gospels’ call to justice, both by dealing with issues themselves and by working as a collective to find strength in community, which is a gospel call itself. This kind of grounding, along with the support of consistent congregational communities, nurtures and sustains community leaders through the ups and downs of more volatile issue campaigns.

Relational organizing. Key to faith-based organizing is the idea that relationships, not issues, come first. Therefore, the groups give the highest priority to leadership training that focuses on how to build individual relationships with each other as the basis for public action on behalf of their communities. Then they encourage leaders to develop campaigns out of issues that arise in conversations about their values and immediate concerns. IAF organizers in Los Angeles spent over a full year holding literally thousands of “one-to-one” relational meetings before launching any issue campaigns. Job training campaigns like Project QUEST emerged out of discussions about the need for good paying jobs for low-skilled adults, as well as a broader theological understanding that meaningful work is fundamental to human dignity and community well-being.

Multiracial approach. Strong communities can be closed-minded, narrow in orientation, or simply isolated. Although American society remains highly segregated along racial lines, faith-based groups are one of the few places where whites, blacks and Hispanics (and smaller numbers of other groups) work together for common goals. They typically bring communities together across a whole metropolitan area. Leaders have to do the difficult work of collaborating with people different from themselves, but they gain from the broader base of power generated.

Independent power. Faith-based organizations explicitly seek to build power on behalf of their communities. They mobilize through their member institutions to back up initiatives with the demonstration of broad support. This often appears as combative and abrasive tactics towards public officials, but organizers and leaders also spend the quiet time to build alliances that support their efforts.

Professional organizers. The final key to faith-based groups’ ability to generate community participation and leadership is that they are staffed by a small number of professional organizers whose job is to recruit and train leaders, not to run issue campaigns or administer programs. The local leaders they train run the campaigns, and new programs are usually spun off as separate entities. Faith-based groups represent perhaps the only political institution in the country whose professional staff is devoted to cultivating democratic participation. The dynamic energy of these groups comes largely from the interaction between professional organizers and the people of faith who emerge as leaders.

The Challenge of Faith and Politics

The interfaith prayers at the Southwest IAF 25th anniversary convention illustrate the powerful contributions that faith makes to politics, providing energy, passion, and vision to democratic action. But faith-based organizing also continually struggles with faith institutions to make their theological commitments real. Some congregations resist the overtly political stance of organizing groups. Many, but not all, evangelical groups remain other-worldly focused.

There is also sometimes tension between the goal of fostering participation and empowerment among the broad ranks of lay leaders, especially women, in religious communities and the traditional authoritarian role of male pastors. In general, however, those pastors who get involved in faith-based organizing groups tend to be relatively more open to collective forms of leadership – or at least open to struggling with the issues that arise when power is shared.

Despite Americans’ famed individualism and distaste for authority, the kind of authority that religious leaders wield is not all negative. In fact, authority is critical to democracy; without it, there can be no leadership. The real struggle is developing leadership that is accountable and closely tied to the concerns of families and communities – both within our community-based institutions and in the broader public realm. That is no easy task, as traditionalist pastors are not the only ones who resist sharing power. With its emphasis on developing such leadership, faith-based organizing is working to develop new models for combining participation and authority.

Going National

Faith-based organizing is on the rise in America, sinking roots into more and more of our nation’s communities. Increasing numbers of the groups have also reached beyond the local level, where so much of community development is limited, to achieve statewide campaigns for ambitious goals in school reform, workforce development, healthcare and regional equity issues. Local faith-based organizations have collaborated on such initiatives in Texas, California, Louisiana, Arizona, Maryland, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Colorado. As these regional and statewide projects expand, achieving national significance and power lies within reach for the first time. The federated networks of the IAF, for example, offer a promising organizational structure that can strengthen civic participation locally while addressing issues that can only be solved nationally.

To achieve true national significance, however, will require expanding the field’s organizing base and finding ways for groups to collaborate with each other and with other institutions. In this way, faith-based groups can build the broader power needed for national level action. Although critics sometimes suggest that these organizations prefer to go it alone, faith-based organizations in fact frequently collaborate and have begun reaching out to more secular institutions and to faith communities beyond their historic base, beginning with Jewish congregations. The next step will be Muslim communities and the faith traditions of growing Asian-American populations. Such a diverse involvement not only strengthens an organization’s base, but also keeps the focus on democracy building, thereby avoiding the appearance or reality of trying to impose any particular dogma.

Because of the faith-based organizing field’s focus on democracy building, expanding its institutional base could be an important opportunity to construct an organized base for a national public agenda for poor and working families and their communities. Such a base could move beyond short-term issue coalitions to establish long-term partnerships based on an exploration of common values and interests.

Standing Together

Americans have diverse value commitments and express them in many ways, although there is more common ground than our political discourse recognizes around broadly shared values of family integrity, healthy communities, social justice and economic fairness. There will always be controversy. But there is also the potential for cooperation. American democracy needs to seek ways for its citizens to discuss their deeply held views within the context of an effort to establish the public good. The diverse efforts represented by faith-based community organizing can provide a starting place.

As the delegates to the COPS and Southwest IAF convention said, drawing on Jewish tradition to close the celebrations, “We stand together as citizens. We work within our communities. Our feet may be tired. But our souls are rested. Our faith will give us strength to mend our world. Tikkun olam. Let us mend our world. Tikkun olam. Tikkun olam!”

Copyright 2001

Mark R. Warren, Ph.D., (warren@fordham.edu) is assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University in New York City and author of Dry Bones Rattling, a forthcoming book on the Texas and Southwest IAF networks.


Resources

Faith-Based Community Organizing: The State of the Field, Mark R. Warren and Richard L. Wood. Interfaith Funders. interfaithfunders@yahoo.com.

Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy, Mark R. Warren. Princeton University Press, May 2001.

Commonwealth: A Return to Citizen Politics, Harry C. Boyte. New York: Free Press, 1989.

Cold Anger: A Story of Faith and Power Politics, Mary Beth Rogers. University of North Texas Press, 1990. (About COPS and IAF).

Organizing the South Bronx, Jim Rooney and Nathan Glazer. State University of New York Press, January 1995.



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