CCHD supports community organizing as one means to address injustice
By Dennis Sadowski Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Inez Killingsworth thought something was up when people from around her east-side Cleveland neighborhood stopped coming to community meetings. The talk was they had moved, forced out of their homes by predatory lenders.
It was 1999, long before the home foreclosure crisis made national headlines. A longtime community activist, Killingsworth got busy.
She began talking with those who remained in her neighborhood network. The stories were the same: People were suddenly confronted with a huge balloon payment or a threefold or fourfold boost in their monthly mortgage payment. Unable to keep up, they lost their homes.
So Killingsworth began to organize the community with the help of the East Side Organizing Project. In the last nine years, the organization funded by the U.S. bishops' Catholic Campaign for Human Development has led one of the nation's most aggressive campaigns to head off home foreclosures by confronting lenders and their predatory practices. The work revolves around classic community organizing techniques by bringing together people with similar concerns and then developing a plan of action to right a widespread wrong.
In the case of one company, Killingsworth and her friends hung large banners on boarded-up, foreclosed homes suggesting that they were the lender's idea of the American dream. For another, it took a more confrontational tactic involving stuffed toy sharks, comparing the company's practices to the loan sharks of a previous era.
In the case of the banners, it didn't take long for the lender, Countrywide, to respond. The banners were taken down within a week, after the company agreed to meet with community representatives. Jenelle Dames, the East Side Organizing Project's lead organizer, now holds up Countrywide as a responsible company working with homeowners to rework mortgage contracts.
With an empowered membership, the project is looking at the practices of other lenders, which they said have devastated large swaths of once family friendly, working-class neighborhoods in Cleveland.
Killingsworth said that because people came together to develop a plan of action around the issue they have been able to secure agreements with several lending firms in recent years. If they hadn't come together, she said, individual homeowners would have been no match for any lender.
"Community organizing empowers people to take ownership of your own issues, your community," Killingsworth said. "It allows people to go out and confront the issues and help us to help others."
Community organizations such as the East Side Organizing Project like to point out that some of the country's most important campaigns for justice revolved around organizing: the labor movement, the drive for civil rights, women's suffrage and even the American Revolution.
Ralph McCloud, CCHD executive director, said the Cleveland organization's long-running campaign is a prime example of people working to better their communities and deserves the support of the bishops' program.
"We're proud of our engagement in community organizations and community organizing because we know it's worked," McCloud said. "We know firsthand that communities know best what solutions will solve their problems and because of that we support and give license to the fact that that's a viable way of problem solving.
"Community organizing has a time-honored history of being able to convene people, listen to what issues and problems they have in their day-to-day lives," McCloud said. "It's folks whose voices have been squelched and quieted by oppression, fear and hostility."
To be sure, community organizing does have its detractors who accuse organizers of imposing their own biases against government or other institutions. Some in the profession took offense when the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke critically of the early career of the Democratic presidential hopeful, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who worked as an organizer in Chicago's neighborhoods in a program partially funded by CCHD.
Such comments, community organizers say, are unfounded and reflect a basic misunderstanding of the important role organizing plays in marginalized communities across the country.
Sarah Nolan of the San Francisco Organizing Project, which has roots in several Catholic parishes and draws active support from the Archdiocese of San Francisco and funding from CCHD, said community organizing is deeply rooted in American democracy.
"Without communities coming together, people don't have a voice," she said. "For democracy to truly function we need a society that's educated about what's going on around them and (people who) feel they have a way to influence the policies that affect them.
"I feel (organizing) is deeply rooted in the language of creating the kingdom of God," she added. "Even if we're not creating a huge kingdom that's spoken about in the Bible, we are creating these small relationships one by one by one."
At Metro Organizations for People in Denver, Mike Kromrey and Marilyn Stranske find the work of organizing to be key to correcting society's inequalities. "It's the right thing to do for our democracy," said Kromrey, executive director of the 31-year-old organization founded with the help of several Catholic priests.
Earlier this year, the CCHD-funded Denver organization was prominent in a campaign challenging the Colorado Legislature to expand the state's health care coverage to 55,000 children in low- and moderate-income families. Even with the support of key political leaders, Metro Organizations for People and the statewide coalition it helped build faced a tough fight in the legislature before the bill was passed, Kromrey said.
One of the Metro Organizations' leaders, Rich McLean, a parishioner at St. Therese Church in Aurora, Colo., said getting health care coverage for more than one-third of Colorado's 159,000 uninsured children was a good first step. The campaign's goal is for all uninsured children to be covered by 2010 and McLean thinks it's possible.
"Community organizing is fundamental involvement, that's what's key," he said. "We elect the rascals and we should hold the rascals accountable. If we don't, there's a vacuum and the rascals will fill it with someone who's not necessarily in your favor."
© 2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops