Community Organizing

Hot Tea and Union Organizing

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a faith-based organizing network in Baltimore, won the first municipal living wage ordinance in the country in 1994. BUILD has gone on to unionize the workers employed by the city contractors covered by the ordinance. According to Paul Booth, assistant to the president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), "BUILD is the most complete, compelling story of organizing low-wage workers in the country." What makes BUILD so significant is that the impetus to do workplace organizing came from the community—in particular from BUILD’s black churches—and that BUILD and AFSCME have formed a partnership whose goal is to create fundamental change.

Founded in 1977, BUILD is now the largest mainly black local faith-based organization in the country. The decision to launch an organizing drive for a living wage ordinance came after member churches held one-on-one meetings with clients of their food pantries and discovered that many of them were working, but earned too little to feed their families throughout the month. This angered the churches because they realized that their volunteer services were subsidizing employers.

While living wage campaigns in a number of other cities have consulted with BUILD since their victory, none of the other campaigns have taken the next step beyond securing the ordinance. BUILD successfully organized the workforce of the city’s contractors into a newly created union local. For six months prior to the union organizing drive, BUILD clergy and organizers visited with workers to hear their stories. BUILD’s leaders dedicated one day a month to these visits. Often they would meet the workers at bus stops while they were commuting from one part-time job to another. BUILD served hot tea on winter nights at the bus stops, which proved to be one of the most effective ways of building relationships with the workers.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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Saul Alinsky Goes to Church

The origins of community organizing are generally traced to the pioneering work of Saul Alinsky, who built the first community organizing effort in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s. Alinsky created the early community-based efforts by organizing existing groups into collective action around particular issues.

Today many communities are much less cohesive, so it is necessary to build relationships first and then take on issues that grow out of those stronger bonds. In poorer communities, churches are often experiencing the same loss of cohesiveness as they struggle to survive in an increasingly barren environment. Thus, organizing becomes a means for such congregations to reconnect with their own members and with the broader community around them.

Congregation-based community organizing is the fastest growing form of organizing in the country, according to Doug Lawson of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD). "No one else approximates faith-based organizing," he says. The only non-faith-based organization that has built comparable power is ACORN (Association of Communities Organized for Reform Now).

In 1999, CCHD funded 89 different faith-based community organizations. In all of the local networks, the majority of the member institutions are churches. In some cases, synagogues and mosques have also joined along with other nonreligious organizations, such as unions, hospitals, and other social service providers. In Chicago, the Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations recently brought together 2,000 people to celebrate the creation of a partnership with 10 banks that have agreed to provide up to $1 billion in loans for 13,000 families between now and 2005. The churches will recruit, nurture, and train these families in home ownership.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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Healing Through Art

Evelyn came in at 9 a.m., all smiles and ready to draw even though class doesn’t begin until this afternoon. Evelyn usually comes for the Greeting Card class, where she quietly draws the same face over and over again: two circles for eyes, one for a nose, and one for a mouth. "Do you want to color them?" the instructor suggests. "No," Evelyn says. Today she is looking through old National Geographic magazines to cut out pictures that catch her eye.

Evelyn is diagnosed as mentally retarded and does not know her birthday. She sits near Teiko, a former medical researcher at the University of California at Davis who takes medication for paranoid schizophrenia and depression. Teiko has been coming to the Women’s Wisdom Project, a nonprofit arts organization in Sacramento, California, for five years. She remarks how lucky she is to have "psychosis" since it allows her to come to Wisdom.

The mission of the Women’s Wisdom Project is to provide a secure environment in which women can enter into a personal transformation process through the creative arts. Through this process they are able to experience self-worth and dignity in a creative community and are strengthened to shape their own lives and connect with the resources they need to break free from patterns of oppression. Classes at the Women’s Wisdom Project are free, supplies are provided, and no experience is necessary.

Wisdom has come a long way since its beginning in 1991. Originally held in a local homeless shelter and founded by Laura Ann Walton, a Sister of Mercy who realized that souls, as well as stomachs, needed to be fed, Wisdom now rents a building that has a small kitchen, kiln, and ample storage space.

In December 1998, Wisdom artists created a mural that spans one side of the building and reads, "‘Reflections,’ Created with Hope and Vision."

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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Taking Action

In Spanish, "Las Palmeras" means place of the date palms. At first glance, the small, southern New Mexican community of the same name seems far removed from that idyllic description. In summertime a hot sun beats relentlessly down on old mobile home trailers and treeless corners. Windstorms kick up dust and sprinkle passersby with specks of sand. But here, only 30 minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border, neighbors are realizing their own vision of paradise.

Roberto Cornejo, a six-year resident of the unincorporated community known as a colonia, reflected on how his participation in a community development project helped him cope with personal depression. Cornejo, a roofer and construction worker by trade, was among community members who pitched in their labor to install a new water and sewer system for the 35 or 40 low-income families who inhabit Las Palmeras. Many survive by working in nearby onion and chile pepper fields. "I feel so great like this. I feel something real helping people," said Cornejo.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than one million people live in colonias in the border region. Like countless others, Las Palmeras lacked, or still lacks, paved roads, running water, utility services, and schools. What sets the New Mexican colonia apart from many others is that Las Palmeras' neighbors have organized to take charge of their own destiny and collectively improve their common lot in life.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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To Follow the Carpenter of Nazareth

"Religion," declared Karl Marx in 1843, "is the sigh of the afflicted creature, the soul of the heartless world....[I]t is the opium of the people." Ever since his day, ideologues on both ends of the political and religious spectrums have likewise dismissed the ability of Christianity to say much to the economic struggles of ordinary people.

The only biblical word to the poor articulated by prominent Gilded Age pastors such as Henry Ward Beecher was one of condemnation. "No man in this land suffers from poverty," he pronounced, "...unless it be his sin." Not surprisingly, many working people rejected the institution represented by wealthy ministers like Beecher. One anonymous worker informed a Massachusetts sociologist in 1870 that "the church has, as an organized body, no sympathy with the masses. It is sort of a fashionable club where the rich are entertained and amused, and where most of the ministers are muzzled by their masters and dare not preach the gospel of the carpenter of Nazareth."

Yet there is another side to the historical record. While some have offered up Christ's message as a numbing narcotic, for a century and a half people of faith have been integrally involved in the efforts of working people to organize against the concentrations of wealth that Beecher lauded and Marx despised. Labor activists have repeatedly drawn from the deep wells of biblical imagery to lead the struggle for economic justice. They have been able to do so because a great mass of U.S. workers have held religious convictions that were not easily stripped away or transmuted into mindless obeisance to the power of the wealthy.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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Turning Tragedy Into Triumph

During a funeral in 1992 gang members invaded a church in Boston, shot up the church sanctuary, and eventually stabbed a boy there nearly to death. Some ministers took this as a sign that if the faithful do not go out of the sanctuary to meet the needs of youth in the streets, then our young people would be coming in—with devastating consequences. A group of us took to the streets at night, and in helping drug dealers and gang youth created the National Ten Point Leadership Foundation.

The year we began our work, Boston experienced more than 150 homicides and 1,100 gunshot injuries. Dozens of youth crowded emergency rooms in hospitals every night, screaming in pain. By 1997, however, we experienced a 60 percent reduction in firearm incidents; the city had gone two-and-a-half years without a juvenile homicide.

On December 11 the peace ended when 16-year-old Eric Paulding was shot to death in the Franklin Field section of Dorchester. During the next 24 hours, Boston showed why it has become a national model for crime reduction: partnerships, communication, hard work, and prayer. In the hours following the shooting, we spoke to the mayor, the police commissioner, city and community agencies, and the private sector. All were ready to mobilize against the potential retaliation that loomed ominously. We joined the Paulding family in urging community calm. The police worked swiftly to isolate and pursue suspects. The Franklin Field youth center kept its doors open late into the night during the holiday season, and youth workers were on the street around the clock. Corporations committed themselves to investing capital in the neighborhoods.

Five years ago these actions would not have happened. The killing would have signaled a return to the "Wild West" in Boston. Instead, we struggle to turn this tragedy into a triumph, an opportunity for community healing, and a sign of communal determination to keep building.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1998
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Urban Peacemaking

"I miss having my children do the things that I used to do." Members of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) heard sentiments like this one over and over again as they canvassed their "target" neighborhood in Washington, D.C. Whether it's going out in the evenings, trick or treating on Halloween night, or walking down to the Boy's and Girl's Club alone, current urban reality often does not allow activities that people outside the inner city take for granted.

CPT's Project in Urban Peacemaking is an effort to help neighborhoods reclaim such everyday freedoms. The project is sponsored by the Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, and General Conference Mennonite churches of North America. From September through December 1994, team members Jeff Heie, John Reuwer, Tammy Krause, and myself worked with local people in Washington, D.C., to create solutions to problems of violence and security. Two team members spent much of the previous spring searching for local peacemakers interested in applying their lessons from the peace movement to dangerous urban situations. Several groups in Columbia Heights, including the Sojourners Neighborhood Center, invited CPT to join them.

Columbia Heights is a predominantly low-income neighborhood in the heart of the diamond that the District of Columbia forms. It is in transition, with many white, Latino, and Asian people moving into what was not so long ago an almost completely African-American neighborhood. An increasing number of middle- and upper-income homeowners are moving in down the block from subsidized apartment buildings.

In spite of five schools and several GED and educational enrichment programs in an eight-block radius, at least 48 percent of its adult residents have less than a high school education. In a recent 18-month period, according to police statistics, there were 12 homicides, 257 assaults, and 75 other drug-related crimes in a 12-square-block area.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1995
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A Community of Integrity

Streets of Hope is a great book not only because it tells the inspiring story of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI); it's also instructive for organizers and activists who know the importance of working with, not for, people-a difficult distinction for many organizers. And even when we think our group or coalition represents all constituencies, the fact is it often falls far short.

DSNI is a truly unique, participatory, community-based organization initiated in the early 1980s. The Dudley Street neighborhood in Roxbury, Massachusetts, is one of the nation's oldest neighborhoods (dating back to the 1630s). Today it is home to approximately 15,000 African Americans, Latinos, Cape Verdeans, and a few whites. During the 1970s, the neighborhood experienced severe economic and political disenfranchisement. Land prices plummeted, buildings were abandoned, and fires raged, often set by absentee owners to collect insurance.

When the fires stopped, there were about 1,300 vacant lots, representing the largest single concentration of vacant land in Boston. These lots became unofficial city dumps, a breeding ground for rats and a hiding place for criminal activity. The neighborhood was "redlined" (denied loans) by banks, while ill-conceived housing projects fell into disrepair.

DSNI, a joint effort of community service organizations and the Riley Foundation (a charitable trust), came on the scene in 1985. The organizers of the first meeting almost blew it: They presented a plan for revitalization to almost 200 residents in attendance, most of whom felt powerless to make changes, but hoped they were wrong. Rather than thanking the planners, residents told them, "We don't see the community here." They wanted to know why they should trust the organizers, and particularly the Riley Foundation.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1995
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