Community Organizing

'This Is What Power Is'

I was born and raised in public housing projects in the South Bronx. My mother and father are Puerto Rican immigrants who came to the U.S. when they were 16 and 17. My father was homeless for a while, and then got a job as a deli man, a dishwasher, and ultimately moved up to becoming a maintenance man in the public housing projects we grew up in.

When I was growing up in the South Bronx, it was dark times. It was the ’60s and the ’70s, and if you know your history, you know that the South Bronx was devastated and burned. Later I learned that the fires were due to “planned shrinkage” and “urban renewal” plans, which proposed that if you closed down public services, ultimately you could come in and rebuild a community, but it didn’t work like that in the South Bronx. As a little girl, I’d be perched on my washing machine, looking out from my ninth-story window, watching my community burn.

Nevertheless, I had tremendous love for my family and community until the outside world began to tell me that I was poor, that I lived in poverty, and that I was a child of the ghetto. As a result, I was a whole list of “at risks.” I was at risk of violence, and at risk of dropping out of school, and at risk of getting pregnant. While I defined myself as a beautiful brown girl with beautiful parents and a wonderful family, the rest of the world would define me and the measure of my success not by how I lived and thrived within my own community, but by how far I could escape from it. In my 20s I made a successful career for myself doing other things, forgetting about the poor, and becoming a conscientious objector to my own story and to the story of my family. Despite the fact that my family was still in the South Bronx, I was in a nice apartment in midtown Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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Why Stories Matter

Rawpixel / Shutterstock
rawpixel / Shutterstock 

I grew up in Bakersfield, California, where my father was a rabbi and my mother was a teacher. I went to Harvard in 1960, in part because it was about as far as I could get from Bakersfield, which was the terminus of the dust bowl migration that John Steinbeck made famous in The Grapes of Wrath.

I got my real education, however, when I left Harvard to work in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. I went to Mississippi because, among other things, my father had served as an Army chaplain in Germany right after World War II. His work was with Holocaust survivors, and as a child the Holocaust became a reality in our home. The Holocaust was interpreted to me as a consequence of racism, that racism is an evil, that racism kills. I made a choice to go to Mississippi.

I also was raised on years of Passover Seders. There’s a part in the Passover Seder when they point to the kids and say, “You were a slave in Egypt.” I finally realized the point was to recognize that we were all slaves in Egypt and in our time that same struggle from slavery to freedom is always going on, that you have to choose where you stand in that. The civil rights movement was clearly about that struggle. It was in Mississippi that I learned to be an organizer and about movement-building.

I went to Mississippi because it was a movement of young people, and there’s something very particular about young people, not just that they have time. Walter Brueggemann writes in The Pro­phetic Imagination about the two elements of prophetic vision. One is criticality, recognition of the world’s pain. Second is hope, recognition of the world’s possibilities. Young people come of age with a critical eye and a hopeful heart. It’s that combination of critical eye and hopeful heart that brings change. That’s one reason why so many young people were and are involved in movements for social change.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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Breaking Boundaries

The Jesus movement included everyone from tax collectors to sex workers; it truly was a movement of diversity. In today’s world, I am encouraged to see a movement of Christians who want to “preach good news to the poor.” But all too often, well-meaning progressive Christians from privileged backgrounds attempt to speak for or bring God to the poor. This is a mistake: The poor can speak for themselves, and God is already present in their communities.

As someone who experienced poverty while growing up in an inner-city community in Brooklyn, I know there is a great deal of strength among the poor; it takes enormous tenacity and resourcefulness to survive in an underserved community. I have experienced well-meaning Christians from more privileged backgrounds who feel called to serve poor people, but instead end up negating their autonomy and enacting charity, as opposed to justice.

I have also been blessed over the past few years to be part of organizations that follow a justice model for ending poverty—groups such as Union Theological Seminary’s Poverty Initiative, which is dedicated to “building a movement, led by the poor, to end poverty.” It includes both poor people and those who are not from poor backgrounds at every level of leadership, from speaking and writing to on-the-ground organizing. Based on my experience, here are some practical ways to build a multiracial, multiclass, progressive Christian movement.

1. Make a habit of supporting indigenous leaders. If you are called to relocate to serve a different community, first seek out existing local leaders in that community. No one can be “given” a voice; instead, those of privilege must step aside so that everyone’s voice is heard. In the Poverty Initiative, when we take students from Union Theological Seminary on immersion trips to poor communities in Appalachia or elsewhere, we do not come to lead, but to listen to leaders of indigenous organizations.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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