Community Organizing

Maria J. Stephan 12-19-2016

AUTHORITARIANISM is on the march. The rise of right-wing populism in Hungary, Poland, the Philippines, and now the United States highlights the fragility of democracy. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has propagated anti-immigrant sentiment while cracking down on independent media. Poland’s nationalist party has challenged judicial independence while asserting state control over media. Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to strip civil liberties and employ violent vigilantism to address drug problems. In the U.S., Donald Trump mobilized a largely white base while railing against societal groups, including Muslims and immigrants, to win the election.

Authoritarian figures elected in democratic contexts often ignore constitutions, gut institutions, consolidate power, and snuff out domestic dissent. Dictators are often vindictive; they put themselves above the law and thrive on fear and popular apathy. Their toolkit includes ridiculing and delegitimizing protesters, pitting societal groups against each other, and coopting potential challengers.

But authoritarian figures have an Achilles’ heel. To stay in power, they depend on the obedience and cooperation of ordinary people. If and when large numbers of people from key sectors of society (workers, bureaucrats, students, business leaders, police) stop giving their skills and resources to the ruler, he or she can no longer rule.

Historically, the most powerful antidote to authoritarian figures has been strategic organizing and collective action. That includes civil resistance, employing tactics such as marches, consumer boycotts, labor strikes, go-slow tactics, and demonstrations. In democracies, civil resistance has often been used alongside institutional approaches (elections, legislation, court cases) to defend and advance political and economic rights.

Franklin Golden / RNS

Children sing at the community-organizing camp in Durham, N.C. Photo via Franklin Golden / RNS

Instead of the traditional vacation Bible school, this downtown church partnered with seven other congregations — black, white, Baptist, Jewish, Episcopal, Pentecostal, and nondenominational — to put on a community-organizing camp for kids aged 4 to 12.

Catherine Cuellar 9-23-2015
courtesy of ARSE and LUPE

courtesy of ARSE and LUPE

SIRI CANNOT TAKE you to the South Tower Estates in the southernmost Texas border community of Little Mexico. Among the more than 1,200 recognized colonias in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, South Tower is one of the more established: Streets are paved and lots have curbs, if not sidewalks—amenities that were required for colonias only after the adoption of model subdivision rules in 1989. A few solar-powered light fixtures even dot the streets at night.

But the neighborhood still is without city council representation. All residents are connected to the main thoroughfare between their homes and jobs by a single intersection. A dead dog in the middle of the road bakes in the hot summer sun.

Colonias began around the 1950s as semi-permanent camps in southwestern border states—Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—developed by private landowners to house the farm workers they employed. Once the land was paid off, an owner was relieved of any responsibility to further maintain, much less improve, their property; many landowners didn’t fix or change a thing for decades. Today, amenities in colonias vary dramatically from one to the next, and many lack wastewater management, trash collection, and street lights.

Eva Carranza lives in South Tower Estates with her 15-year-old daughter. Like many families in their neighborhood, they have mixed documentation status. Eva’s daughter is starting to think about college, but it’s tough to get information about different schools’ standardized test and GPA requirements, applications and deadlines, or available scholarships and loans. Though some families in their neighborhood have cell phone and internet access, few have a computer. Libraries offer web access—but there aren’t any libraries in the colonias.

So Carranza turned to ARISE (“A Resource in Serving Equality”), a grassroots organization that helps youth and women who live in colonias through leadership development and education programs. Inspired by Luke 4:18—“God has chosen me to bring good news to the poor”—Catholic Sister of Mercy Gerrie Naughton founded ARISE in 1987. Since then, ARISE, which is co-sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, the Daughters of Charity, and the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, has supported preschool education and summer reading programs for children in colonias. ARISE has also organized parent-teacher associations that give parents confidence to engage with their children’s teachers and help area students matriculate and graduate.

I think we all know that the issues we’re facing cannot be solved by Gamaliel alone. They cannot be solved by Catholic Charities alone. If they could have been solved by one institution—Sojourners, the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP—they would’ve been solved.
Julianne Couch 6-03-2014

From Orange City, Iowa, to York, Nebraska, and across the Midwest, young organizers are cultivating hope in rural places.

Eboo Patel 1-07-2013

The stories we tell today are simply the next chapter in an overarching narrative of hope, justice, and pluralism.

Kendall Clark Baker 11-27-2012

Building community and clout through congregation-based organizing.

Beth Newberry 11-27-2012

A small congregation in Kentucky demonstrates how your church may have more money—and power—than you think.

Betsy Shirley 5-01-2012

Gamaliel's Ana Garcia-Ashley is the first woman of color to lead a national community organizing network, faith-based or otherwise. And she's pulling no punches.

Timothy King 4-03-2012

In an attempt to discredit the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a young conservative activist created a fake Facebook page and website for a non-existent environmental group. Then, posing as someone interested in organizing a union, tried to get a local organizer to give him tips on shaking down politicians. The New York Times reports:

At this point, Rhea Byer-Ettinger, an organizer for Manhattan Together, felt her internal baloney detector go on red alert. “Beep, beep, beep,” she said. “I said to him: ‘Well, that’s not how we work. Tell me, why are you asking me about that?’ ”  

As a former employee of an IAF affiliate in Chicago, I’m really not sure what this young guy was hoping to find. I’m sure in any large organization you could find someone to secretly record who might say something that could sound unflattering. But, was he really expecting a nationwide crime syndicate that uses collective bargaining as a tool to extort money or favors from politicians?

Passionate and sincere disagreement about politics is a good and healthy thing but tactics of this young activist and others like James O’Keefe show something dangerous. It’s the assumption that those who disagree with you politically aren’t just wrong, but evil.

On the other end, this means progressive activists should ask themselves if folks like the Koch brothers are “evil” or just some really rich dudes with politics they don’t like. 

Denali DeGraf 1-01-2012

Indigenous communities -- and local church leaders -- stand against open-pit mining that threatens to despoil Patagonia.

Patty Whitney 4-18-2011
For three months last year the Gulf Coast oil spill was the major topic of news reports all over the world. From the explosion on April 20, 2010, until the capping of the gushing well on July 15, 2010, the headlines were consumed with images and dialogue about the tragedy unfolding before our very eyes. Shortly after the news of the capping, the government reported that “most” of the oil was gone, and that things were getting back to normal. The camera crews packed up. The reporters turned in their hotel room keys and gathered their deductible tax receipts. And they all left. Kumbaya, the oil was gone, and the world was normal again. The world could move on to other, more pressing interests. That is … the rest of the world could move on to other, more pressing interests.
Jeannie Choi 4-06-2011

It was announced today that Glenn Beck will end his program on the Fox News Channel later this year in order to create a "variety of television projects for air on the Fox News Channe

It is time for those of us who have been advocating for comprehensive immigration reform to rethink our strategies.
Allen Johnson 1-05-2011

This past Monday, January 3, anti-mountaintop removal activist Judy Bonds exhaled her last breath from the homeland she loved.

The Main Reason: They upend the power structure to give people at the bottom a better chance.

Chris Butler 4-27-2010
As an urban minister and a political professional, there have been two big news stories that I have followed with some level interest recently.
Eboo Patel 3-01-2010

'Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together.'