Community Organizing

Palin Owes Some Good People An Apology

Wednesday morning I got an e-mail from a former member of our Sojourners community. Perry Perkins is now a community organizer in Louisiana with affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). "Perk," as we used to call him, reported on the enormous consequences of 2 million people being evacuated because of Hurricane Gustav, much of the state now being without power, how hard cities like Baton Rouge were hit, the tens of thousands of people in shelters and churches, and the [...]

Green Hair, Gray Hair

On a grocery delivery day last year for “We Are Family,” a small interfaith initiative serving the elderly, volunteers gathered to fill bags and take them to residents of the North Capitol neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

One of the volunteers, a young punk rocker, had shaped his hair into three mohawks standing on his head. Mark Andersen, 46, We Are Family director and co-founder, said he remembers “the interesting conversations with the seniors as they tried to figure out how in the world he got his hair to be so stiff.”

We Are Family—part of the Northwest Settlement House, an organization with a long history in Washington, and Faith in Action D.C., a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—draws many of its volunteers from the D.C. punk scene and the global justice movement, known more by the broader public for protest and rebellion.

“One of the things I’m interested in is drawing people from all these faith-based communities into relationship with not faith-based and sometimes anti-faith-based activists to find common ground,” Andersen said.

Community activist and poet Lucy Stokes, 68, said she welcomes visits from young punks involved with We Are Family through “Positive Force,” a punk activism group started in 1985. “They dress a little funny, and wear their hair a little funny, but they are wonderful. Once they get in and you start talking, the fact that they got green hair, blue hair, just disappears.”

Andersen said he found common values between seniors he works with and punk philosophy. One of those common values is a “do-it-yourself attitude,” he said. “I don’t know how much more do-it-yourself you can get than the seniors of the Shaw neighborhood,” he said, given their history that includes struggles against segregation, limited rights for women, and the challenges of raising a family on a limited income in an expensive city.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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Revealing Hidden Histories

In addition to providing services to the elderly, We Are Family helps volunteers tap in to the history of African-American communities in Washington, D.C. Through casual visits as well as oral history projects, volunteers sometimes are able to uncover accounts of major events in U.S. history.
We Are Family volunteers have given Belva Simmons, 78, who lives in D.C.’s North Capitol neighborhood, a chance to tell the story of her career as a congressional staff person and her role in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“I came here from St. Louis to pass the civil rights bill, to work with my senator, Sen. Thomas C. Hennings Jr., who was the chair of the constitutional rights subcommittee,” she said. Several senators changed the name of the subcommittee—which was under the judiciary committee—from civil rights to constitutional rights, Simmons said, to try to reduce attention from groups like the Ku Klux Klan. She began work as a Senate staff member in July 1955, and stayed for more than 10 years.

Simmons remembers many late nights researching and negotiating provisions of the legislation. She recalls phone calls from the offices of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. “John F. Kennedy had me on everything under the sun,” she said. “Then Lyndon Baines Johnson became president, and one of the first things he did was pass the civil rights bill. July 2, 1964—that’s also my birthday, July 2.” The Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation, stating that people of all races, religions, genders, and nationalities should enjoy the same rights to use public facilities, gain employment, and vote.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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The Woman Who Planted Trees

Catholic Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize—a first for an African woman and a first for environmentalism—for her work with the Green Belt Movement, the largest community-based environmental organization in Africa. Maathai, the first Kenyan woman to earn a Ph.D., is particularly known for leading poor Kenyan women in a reforestation movement that has planted 30 million trees.

"This award is given to those who have fought the good fight and prevailed," Green Belt Movement board treasurer Lilian Njehu told Sojourners. "It not only recognizes the environment, but also the critical importance of the work of women." Maathai worked with the World Council of Churches on faith and science issues and led the Africa campaign of Jubilee 2000, the faith-based debt relief movement. "When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope," Maathai wrote in response to receiving the Nobel Prize. "We also secure the future for our children." After learning about the prize, Maathai planted a Nandi flame tree at the foot of Mt. Kenya.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2005
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Who Answers at 2-1-1?

Who do you call when the marshals have tossed all your belongings on the sidewalk and you need a place to spend the night? Or when you want to volunteer at a shelter, soup kitchen, or tutoring program? In 17 U.S. states and several Canadian provinces, just dial 2-1-1.

The easy-to-remember number will help callers connect with community-based organizations and government agencies. In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission, with leadership by the United Way, assigned 2-1-1 for human services information and referral nationwide. For information on how to be listed as a community partner on your local 2-1-1 service, go to www.211.org.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2003
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Self-Interest, Solidarity, and Power

These days all four of the big Alinsky-style associations are doing some version of church-based organizing, and yet there is very little theological reflection engaging this effort. Hence, Dennis Jacobsen's interesting-and probably important-Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing is a book wanted and long overdue.

Jacobsen, director of the Gamaliel National Clergy Caucus (one of those four associations) is himself an extraordinary urban pastor, tough to the powers and vulnerable to the pain in his own Milwaukee neighborhood. The illustrative stories are personal, even pastoral and confessional, populated with lives and faces from his own parish. Hence interesting.

However, the theological illustrations are populated by the likes of Merton, Dorothy Day, William Stringfellow and the Berrigans, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Martin King, and Francis of Assisi-not the ordinary pantheon of heroes for an Alinsky organizer. Something very interesting is going on with this book. One wonders if it isn't actually as much a conversation with organizers as it is a theological manual for church people becoming such. On a certain level the conversation is framed between two towering figures.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 2001
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Communities of Character

When faced with contemporary social justice questions, churches are called to reflection and action based upon their Christian story. The Christian community is necessarily a body politic that is marked by Jesus Christ and is not a community that identifies itself with any particular socio-political philosophy or culture.

When faced with ethical dilemmas, a danger therefore lies in silent submission to activist voices laden with political ideology. A reasonable believer may appropriately feel uncomfortable when "activist" colleagues strain to gain the communal acceptance of their perspective by masking it as the only Christian thing to do. Rather than taking up the issues of the day as social causes, we are called as communities to witness lives of hope and love in Christ.

Broad-based organizing is one way to address ethical issues without falling prey to inaction or divisive activism. Broad-based organizing recreates a public by bringing together a mix of ethnicities, faith communities, and social classes—an infrequent achievement in our nation. People respond to this organizing because it does not equate Christianity or any faith tradition with the liberal democratic social system but instead organizes people around common values.

In a society where dominant ethics perspectives have focused mostly on means (rights-talk, for example), this developing model is helping people to discover ends (goods in common). While many activists’ demands for action on political identity issues often lead to immediate polarization and dissension, broad-based organizing raises up common values and virtues that communities embrace by their faith stories (Christian love of neighbor, for instance).

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2000
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