Discarding Sacred Cows: Faith-Based Community Organizing Grows Up

By Heidi Swarts

In his post Gary Adler argues that the congruence of “religious person” and “activist” cannot be assumed. Paul Lichterman also suggested that mainline Protestants and others who may not “make their Christian identity the center of their existence” may avoid framing issues of inequality in religious terms because they identify such framing as “what fundamentalists do.” In contrast, my and others’ research suggests that faith-based community organizing (FBCO) regularly articulates the faith and values basis of fighting inequality.[i] Two factors are its base in congregations as the fundamental unit of action and its use of broad “faith” and “values” language to name and create unity among its diverse congregations.

Ironically, however, this essay focuses on another vital set of beliefs, yea, even statements of faith: organizing principles inherited from Saul Alinsky through his Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), and his successor director of the IAF, Ed Chambers. The IAF developed the FBCO model—interfaith federations in which congregations, not individuals, are the member units. A new study shows that FBCO has grown 42% (56 new federations) since 1999.[ii] Just as important is its process of growing beyond some hoary ideological relics rooted in 1940s Chicago and 1960s America. It has gotten rid of some sacred cows

FBCO is not well-enough known by scholars, much less church-goers, activists, and ordinary Americans. Understandable reasons are that only a tiny percentage of American congregations are involved (3,500, and 1,000 other institutions). Unlike flashy movements such as Occupy Wall Street, little of their work involves mass demonstrations of rakish and colorful protesters. Yet few or no single other progressive religious activism involves so many congregations, and their achievements—billions of dollars in redistributive policy gains, significant roles in national coalitions, the political education of thousands and mobilization of millions of ordinary Americans—are not well-enough known. Furthermore, FBCOs have accomplished what every American progressive SMOs claims to want but typically fails to achieve: robust race and class diversity.[iii]  FBCO is likely the most cross-race, cross-class, and religiously diverse movement in American religion—and possibly in American progressive activism.

In the last decade or so, FBCO has significantly grown beyond the limitations imposed by some of its “sacred cows,” beliefs and norms born in a different time and place that inhibited its potential.  For brevity I use examples from one of the two largest FBCO groups, the PICO National Network.

All organizing is local. Community organizing naturally started out local. National conditions were easier to ignore when local problems could be solved locally. Organizers since the 1990s debated whether too much organizing at city and state levels would lose participants’ interest, as “the self-interest of people is, or starts [my emphasis] at the local.” Others responded that asking congregation members to identify “neighborhood” problems constricted their vision.[iv] Long-term federal cuts to state and municipal services made it clear that the origins of many local problems today are in state and national policies. Organizers increasingly realized the need to focus on higher levels of decision-making

PICO long had a significant state-wide organization in California. Increasingly, major campaigns drew it to the national level. A senior organizer said in 2007,

In Sacramento we’re trying to expand youth jobs. We could go beat the heck out of city council and almost every member would agree with us, but primary funding source comes from the federal level. Multiple years of conservative led- federal government has gutted funding for youth jobs. What’s happened in PICO is . . . we have to be a source of solutions, not just the confrontational politics.[v]

PICO launched its national organizing in 2002. It gathered its most senior local leaders several times a year in Washington, D.C. in a careful process of relationship-building, identifying shared priorities, and repeated congressional visits. Today many organizational functions have been reconceived nationally, with 28 staff working on national organizing and an office in the massive United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill. Immediately after President Obama’s victory in 2008, 150 grassroots PICO leaders met with his domestic policy director to initiate a relationship with the White House. PICO was a major coalition partner in the successful S-CHIP children’s health funding campaign, and then immediately launched work on the campaign to pass Obama’s stimulus package. Both of these were dwarfed by PICO’s national campaign to support the Affordable Health Care Act. National Policy Director Gordon Whitman directed this vertically-integrated campaign throughout the network, which used social media, national call-ins to PICO’s 50-plus locals’ members of Congress, and traditional on-the-ground organizing. Whitman said, “Children’s health initiatives haven’t been sustainable in California” without national policy change. However, winning local health campaigns gave PICO credibility in the national coalition working to pass the Act: in “big complex coalitional fights you learn what is your value. We have the ability to move large numbers of people. Being able to do public actions at short notice on federal issues is very useful to moving federal policy.”[vi]

We don’t do electoral politics. This sacred cow goes back to Saul Alinsky’s Chicago.[vii] Alinsky saw his “people’s organizations” as pressure groups, interest groups for working-class Americans. The goal was to get a seat at the table where the real political deal-making was done in Daley’s machine. Alinsky didn’t want his organizations co-opted by politicians and vigorously guarded their independence. But politicians are indebted to those who help them win.

As 501(c)3 nonprofits, congregations and FBCOs cannot make partisan endorsements or run candidates. But they can conduct unlimited voter education on issues, and register and mobilize voters. Given the epochal conservative resurgence, FBCOs have become fully engaged in electoral mobilization as well as their more longstanding work on ballot measures and legislation. A PICO bulletin after the 2012 presidential election celebrated its work:

Across the network, PICO federations ran large-scale non-partisan campaigns to register voters, to inform and educate on economic and racial justice issues, and to get faith voters to the polls. Combined, PICO federations trained 3,200 grassroots volunteers, registered 54,000 new voters, knocked on 200,000 doors, had more than 600,000 face-to-face and on-the-phone conversations, and made 3.9 million phone calls. On Election Day, more than 500 PICO-trained poll monitors observed election activities in eight states . . .In the swing state of Ohio alone, PICO volunteers and staff made more than 400,000 phone calls and nearly 72,000 home visits, talking with Ohioans about jobs and economic justice.[viii]

My organization vs. your organization.  For many years, the Industrial Area Foundation and ACORN had the reputation of leading the field in their insistence on going it alone.[ix] This was possible if a group restricted itself to local fights. When ACORN worked in coalitions, it often tried to control them.[x] Historically, all the networks feared losing control of their disciplined process if outsiders came inside their federations, although they increasingly worked in alliances with schools, unions, and others. Competing for scarce foundation resources probably provided the biggest incentive to build distinct organizational identities.

In the past 10-15 years the overwhelming imperative to build powerful coalitions to fight the right forced the groups to grow up. Not only have the DART, PICO, and Gamaliel networks collaborated in various configurations (and with ACORN), they have worked in broad coalitions with diverse groups. PICO staffers organizing for the Affordable Care Act worked with powerful national lobbies such as the AARP. State-level PICO organizations now routinely work in broad coalitions such as the Florida No on 3 Campaign, which defeated a TABOR-like revenue limit that would have put human services funding at risk.[xi]

Organization vs. movement. Seeing beyond one’s own organization to work with diverse allies is the result of FBCO leaders understanding that only a national movement of progressives could take on the conservative movement. This seems obvious. To understand this dichotomy requires historical knowledge of Saul Alinsky’s frustration with the countercultural student movements of the 1960s. Alinsky believed they were alienating the blue- and white-collar majority—a group essential for a majoritarian social change coalition. Alinsky correctly predicted the defection of many white working-class Americans from the New Deal coalition and the rise of Reagan Democrats.[xii] He wrote:

There are rules for radicals who want to change their world. . . . These rules make the difference between being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one who . . . calls the police “pig” or . . . “motherfucker” and has so stereotyped himself that others . . . promptly turn off. This failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp . . . that one communicates within the experience of his audience—and gives full respect to the other’s values—would have ruled out attacks on the American flag.[xiii]

Alinsky certainly sought a national movement of people’s organizations.[xiv] But after his death in 1972, this aversion to “movements” became ossified in FBCO trainings and ideology. But also, FBCOs’ limited organizational capacity made building a “movement” seem out of reach.

Later generations of organizers grumbled that the dichotomy made no sense. One commented:

 Martin Luther King [was] very much focused on engaging people at the level of high moral ideals and Alinsky came with this kind of ridicule of that.  I think it’s a lot more constructive when those two modes are held in tension with one another. . . Alinsky was a mouse in the world of social change. The Alinsky world is so inbred, we get in little tussles over how we view the world and ignore the fact that history’s moving along.

The traditional way in which we’ve pitted ourselves against movements . . .doesn’t make sense to me. Organizing has always existed in context of larger social movements; you look at what Alinsky was doing in the 60s; a lot of it occurred [during the] civil rights movement and Alinsky benefited from it.  Major conservative social movements . . . have been winning the day in this country from Reagan to the present, so for us to take such a shallow and a kind of narrow-minded view of movements seems to me to be really stupid.[xv]

The false opposition between organization and movement has died a long-overdue death, aided by the FBCO sector’s growth, so that fully national organizing—a national movement—now is possible. The now-dominant form of community organizing still has a lot of growing to do.  But the good news is that it has already done a lot of growing up.

[i] See Heidi Swarts, Organizing Urban America: Secular and Faith-Based Progressive Movements (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press, 2008), Richard L. Wood, Faith in Action (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), Mark Warren, Dry Bones Rattling (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), Stephen Hart, Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). FBCOs are local or regional interfaith federations primarily of religious congregations that organize to empower low-to-middle-income people in campaigns to protect and increase majority-serving policies. An FBCO may include from one to several dozen member institutions, and hires staff organizers. Though some are independent, most FBCOs are affiliated with a sponsoring “network” which provides and supervises organizers, conducts national trainings for grassroots leaders, and coordinates network-wide campaigns.

[ii] Richard L. Wood, Brad Fulton, and Kathryn Partridge. Building Bridges, Building Power: Developments in Institution-based Community Organizing. Interfaith Funders, 2012. http://www.interfaithfunders.org. The authors argue that FBCO should be referred to as “institution” rather than “faith”-based because the proportion of non-religious member institutions (schools, unions, neighborhood associations, other faith-based organizations) has grown to over one-fifth.

[iii] This is well documented, but for the latest data see Wood et al., 2012.

[iv] Interviews by the author, 1998, 2000.

[v] Interview by author, anonymous senior PICO organizer, May 9, 2007.

[vi] Interview with author, July 23, 2009.

[vii] See Sanford Horwitt, Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy (New York: Vintage, 1992).

[viii]From PICO bulletin sent out Nov 7, 2012.[ix] ACORN, which was not faith-based, was the other most successful community organizing model. Founded in 1972, ACORN was attacked and destroyed by a right wing campaign in the 2008 election. for the story of ACORN including it demise, see John Atlas, Seeds of Change (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2010).

[x] For an example, see Swarts 2008, chapter 4.

[xi]TABOR is an abbreviation for Taxpayer Bill of Rights, provisions that require placing tax increases greater than inflation and population growth on voter referenda. The “No on 3” coalition included Florida AARP, the League of Women Voters, the Florida Parent Teacher Association, the Florida Education Association, Florida New Majority, SEIU, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, Mi Familia Vota, the National Council of La Raza, and dozens of other groups.

[xii] See Alinsky, Rules for Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1971).

[xiii] Alinsky 1971:viii.

[xiv] (1971)

[xv] Interview with author, May 9, 2007.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Religion and Activism

One response to “Discarding Sacred Cows: Faith-Based Community Organizing Grows Up

  1. “Humanity Walk With Messiah” on June 16th 2014 at Vatican City, Italy.

    “It is time for all paths of worships of the creator on this planet to unite and under the banner of peace and servitude to call themselves one body and one human race.”

    Whe all meet on the 16/06/2014 at 11:00 in Vatican city Italy.
    When man meets man thy understand each other not in any rope of any kind.

    Blessed are those spirits who understood very well the language of the future time to come: all humans will be equal and that the man in himself will find all attributes of the creator. He is God and will discover that be a servant of God – given that all are God and each one is God – is to serve completely to all mankind.

    “We call upon all religious leaders of all sects of the man to denounce war and violence and to participate in these acts to be a punishable offence.”

    MT Keshe
    Humanity Walk With Messiah


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