Strength in numbers: The power of community organizing

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If a community wants things to change, sometimes they have to be willing to get together and track mud on the carpets of city hall.

While growing up in the Dominican Republic, Ana Garcia-Ashley lived on a dirt road that always had plenty of traffic, making it too dangerous a place for neighborhood children to play. One morning, her grandmother got fed up with the situation and decided to take action. She went door to door, rounding up other concerned community members. Together they created a human chain to block the road, stopping traffic in hopes of having their concerns heard. Garcia-Ashley recalls standing in the road holding the hand of her grandmother, who looked down at her and said, “This is what it means to be a Catholic.”

That was Garcia-Ashley’s first taste of community organizing, and it was a success. She learned that when people with a common cause work together, they can achieve great things.

Garcia-Ashley continued her activism after moving to the United States, and upon graduating from the University of Colorado she became a full-time community organizer for the Archdiocese of Denver. Eventually, her work led her to her current role as executive director of Gamaliel, a national community organizing network.

Through it all she has remained a fearless advocate who will take risks to help those in need, just like her grandmother taught her. “That’s how I have lived my life,” she says. “You have to put your values and your Catholic beliefs on the front line to get something done.”

What exactly is community organizing, and how does it work?

One of the stories that got me to really understand the role of community organizers, including church leaders, came when I was working in the Archdiocese of Denver. I was assigned to work in an area called Westwood, which is a low-income neighborhood of mostly Mexican Americans and African Americans in southwest Denver.

It was a very poor community, and one of the things I discovered is that it was always flooded. It didn’t have to rain a lot for it to turn into a river in all the houses. I was knocking on doors and found that people had just gotten used to this being the way it is in Westwood.

I remember asking an 80-year-old resident, “Has it always been this way?” He said no, but that the pipes were old and needed to be replaced. I started talking to him about trying to change it. I said, “Do you think there will be other people interested?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll talk to them.” And he did.

All of a sudden there were 11 or 12 people sitting around with me talking about their property, and what happened to their basements, and how they couldn’t plant anything in their yards. We started looking at what the solution could be. It was an $80,000 project to put the right-sized pipes along the street so that the water would drain correctly.

Believe it or not, that led to a massive campaign with hundreds of people from the community going to the city council and getting no results. They were trying to talk to the mayor and getting nowhere. We just kept pounding at it, and finally we came up with a great idea.

Somebody complained about how muddy their house gets when it rains. We said, “What if all of us walk all over in the mud, then we’ll take our shoes over to city hall and we’ll walk all over their carpeting.” They all looked at me and said, “This might work.”

So we showed up at city hall and we just created a holy mess. There was mud everywhere—in the mayor’s office, on the carpet. The kids got on the chairs. And all of a sudden, some way, somehow they found the $80,000 for those new pipes.

I think that those are the kinds of stories that said to me, “This is how people have to get out of the box.” You have to be willing to do things, kind of like my grandmother did stopping traffic.

Did that success lead to bigger projects?

It escalated into doing a campaign on public utilities in Denver, which is when I learned how to go up against big power. We did so many actions trying to keep the utilities low, especially in the winter in Denver, so that people, especially senior citizens, could afford to have heat.

The utility company got so used to us picketing them that on the cold days they would have hot chocolate for us. That made us realize we had to change our strategy. They were no longer afraid of us. So we took it to the state legislature.

That’s how I grew in understanding that you have to change policies. You encourage people to take responsibility, and you take it to the churches and make it institutional. We created the Concerned Citizens of Westwood, which included churches and dues-paying members.

But my salary was still paid by the archdiocese. There was never enough money coming in from the organization to pay an organizer. We connected with the Metropolitan Organization for People, which was a whole bunch of communities and organizers coming together.

That was my big move into state policy work in Colorado. Then when I came to Milwaukee, we took on the banks.

What happened in Milwaukee?

I was recruited to work for the Gamaliel network in Milwaukee with an organization called Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope. Coming in, I started doing one-on-ones, just interviewing people and listening.

In the Hispanic neighborhoods on the South Side of Milwaukee and in the African American neighborhoods on the North Side, there was a common theme of people not being able to afford a house, not being able to get a loan. I did not meet a single person in my first six months in Milwaukee who actually made it through a process of getting a loan. I thought that was so odd.

That’s where we started looking at what the banks were doing. It turns out 7 out of 10 people were being denied for loans. No reason—it’s just because of geography, race, where you live.

We got the Church of the Gesu to help. It’s a big Jesuit Catholic parish and it has amazing people. I did a bunch of one-on-ones and looked for retired bankers. If you ever want to go into a fight with a bank, get retired bankers on your side, especially ones who believe in Catholic social teaching, like Terry Cleary. Terry came to teach us about how to read bank reporting and how these people think.

We started doing research. We came up with this assessment for each bank—17 lending institutions. We were assessing them to find out, if they were to lend in a just, equitable way, how much would they be lending to communities on the North Side and on the South Side?

We came up with the figure of $500 million from these 17 lending institutions, if they were lending fairly. At our first meeting with the banks, they thought it was a joke because we had prepared commitment forms for them.

But because of our connections, we were able to have this meeting at the University Club. The bankers were coming to a place they were comfortable with: a wealthy club that was by the lake. But here they got hit with all these poor African Americans and Latinos and this crazy Dominican organizer.

When they heard our assessment, I’ll never forget it, Chris Bauer, who was then the CEO of Firstar Bank, was just like, “Who are you people?”

What was the outcome?

We had a four-year campaign to get them to agree to $500 million in loans. It went over $500 million after that, but 7,000 people got new homes because of it.

It was a campaign that empowered people because it took away the mystery and the secrecy and the complexity of banks. They were able to understand it: “This is just where I live. It has nothing to do with me. I’m not a bad person. It’s how they judge me, how the numbers stack up against me.”

We began to create change. Even with the housing bubble bursting and all that, you didn’t have that happening within this part of Milwaukee with that population because there were good loans that were negotiated. Oh, and the banks still made money, by the way.

How do you bring different groups together who might not otherwise associate with one another?

That’s a very good question because that was an experiment for Gamaliel. In 2000 we decided that we wanted to build metropolitan organizations, but we had to look at how you can build organizations that go across all of the different boundaries: economic, racial, class.

We decided to look at recruiting congregations, starting with those denominations with an agenda of social justice, eradicating poverty, empowering people, and providing quality education. Through those issues and the housing issue, we were able to build organizations. Now Gamaliel has statewide organizations, like WISDOM Wisconsin.

Before that it was really about trying to get people from the inner city to feel like it was in their self-interest to have a relationship with people in the suburbs, and to have people in the suburbs understand it was in their self-interest to make sure the inner city had resources. That happened by doing regional summits, and we did so many of them.

We brought in Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who studies urban issues. He said when you lead people in the inner city, it’s almost like they’re all sitting on an ice cube that is in the middle of boiling water. Then that spreads, so poverty is spread across regions.

We try art. We try religion. We try poetry, like Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” in trying to get people to understand why others look at this country differently depending on who you are and where you were born.

So we were trying to do a lot of education around how issues like poverty have an impact across regions. Then we began to look at statewide issues and how to organize statewide, but with local chapters. We still have a sense of community, but we’re not so parochial in our thinking and in our analysis of solutions. It’s like going from stop signs to traffic patterns to regional highway development to statewide resources and policy.

I think that we’ve made some progress in understanding how organizing needs to shift. Gamaliel now has a policy director in Washington, a Baptist minister, so we are now looking at workforce and labor regulations that have not been changed in 34 years, and how they affect women and people of color.

We now have leaders who actually understand regulations on the national level. They can tell you why, when Jimmy Carter was president, he worked with this regulation but nothing has happened, and how that affects unemployment of people of color and women. That is exciting. Now I’m not the only one that is a policy wonk. Who’s ever heard of a policy-wonky Dominican, anyway?

So it’s a work in progress, but I feel pleased that now the field in general is moving toward understanding more about why national policy is important to our local church. In the last 10 years we’ve made a lot of progress, but we’re working with churches, so everything happens in a period of 100 years [laughs]. Some people say 500 years.

How important are churches and faith leaders to your work?

I think in Milwaukee it was extremely important to have the big Baptist pastors with credibility in order to move any agenda, because in Milwaukee it’s such a polarized community and race is a big factor. I wouldn’t lead with a white Catholic Church. I had to lead with Providence Baptist Church, with Zion Baptist Church, with Pilgrim Baptist Church. I think that it was important to bring African American leaders into powerful positions along with white Catholics, Latino Catholics, Protestant churches, and progressive Unitarians and Quakers.

Part of the challenge is getting some of these big churches, the mainline denominations, to jump in. In Sacramento we’re having a hard time recruiting congregations into an organization that has a lot of NGOs and unions in it.

Now in Nashville, we just kicked off an organization that is the first model of unions, NGOs, and congregations, including Catholic churches and synagogues. It’s probably the first organization that was intentionally built that way.

Why are congregations sometimes hesitant to get involved?

I think that in some areas, some of the congregations have had bad experiences. Some of my Catholic brothers and sisters are risk averse these days. I think the American Catholic Church has been infiltrated by a very small group of people who are afraid to lose their power within the denomination, and that manifests itself into being very cautious about joining coalitions, taking risks, and moving on the issues of today.

They want to pray, they want to send money to causes. They think the way that I do things in terms of confronting the issue and demanding change is not the Catholic way, or it is not the Protestant way. That’s a challenge.

Why is it so important to join coalitions?

I think we all know that the issues we’re facing cannot be solved by Gamaliel alone. They cannot be solved by Catholic Charities alone. If they could have been solved by one institution—Sojourners, the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP—they would’ve been solved.

For those of us who believe that there are solutions and that we need political will, the real challenge is aligning enough of us so that we can have enough power to create that political will. It sounds so simple, but it’s not, because I think we have developed ourselves as territorial animals. It’s not just territorial by geography, it’s also the issues. Who owns the immigration issue, for example?

I believe St. Paul had it right when he said we must decrease so that all may increase. We all have to decrease our desire to control in order that our power may increase. Then we can actually create some political will.

In immigration we’re seeing that happen when you bring in the Sierra Club to speak about why immigration is good for this country, or when you bring in Greenpeace. It’s not just the National Council of La Raza; it’s not just Gamaliel with their Catholic social teaching and their theological statements and their churchy talk. This is good for the economy, for the environment.

That’s why I believe coalitions are important. But then when you bring in the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which is a powerful force in this country, that is a challenge for some of our denominations.

The Task Force has been able to organize power and to change some of the narratives around same-sex marriage. For us to bring that power into the immigration debate is very important. It’s good for immigrants, but at the same time people in the Catholic Church are asking, “Why is Ana hanging around with these people? That is anti-Catholic.”

How do you respond to that?

I know who I am. I know what my church teaches. I had a very good training in my religion. That does not necessarily mean that I have to impose that on others, or that I’m going to accept others’ way of life. I choose to live my life as a Catholic, but I believe that working with others, like the Task Force, is very important. I’m all for coalition building, and I’m not going to stop even though it’s challenging.

I was attacked in the Pittsburgh press by someone claiming that I intend to destroy the Catholic Church and that I have no respect for the church. I wrote a letter to the editor taking objection to it, but there’s only so much that we can do to go at those attacks.

When I first got this job, we were working on health care. We did a video on health care reform and someone tried to attack us by changing it. They took the video where we said, “Hear our prayer, O God” and they changed it to, “Hear our prayer, Obama,” and started sending out that version.

People came out everywhere to attack us, saying we’re heathens and we’re making a mockery of faith. Anybody could see that the tape was changed. Jon Stewart even came out on The Daily Show supporting us and saying how crazy it was.

We have tried to use different tactics. We have tried to ignore some of it. We have tried to take them on, but they have more money. It is amazing to see the lack of ethics and lack of truth that some people can get away with.

One thing we’ve done is we started our own campaign about our faith. Every week in Gamaliel we profile a Catholic leader from our organization and put it into a little booklet to give to bishops. We try to show the other voice, the voice of Catholics working with Gamaliel who support our work.

Have you received support from leaders in the church?

Absolutely. Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, who is the head of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development committee, has been very supportive of our organization. He came and talked to our leaders. He is an amazing bishop.

Then there’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory in Atlanta. He’s just amazing. He came out in support of our organization and has been with us on the issue of immigration. He’s taken a beating because, of course, he’s the one who started Barack Obama working for Gamaliel. He’s the one who gave Obama a grant to make him an organizer.

Instead of being proud of the fact that our church gave the first African American president his start because Catholics had a vision of supporting a young organizer, we are made to be ashamed. It’s a bad narrative.

Where does that narrative against community organizing come from?

I went through a period of organizing in the Catholic Church where there were dominant people who acted like the Second Vatican Council never happened. You have to understand, I’m coming from a very dark place [laughs].

There are people who felt we never had any Catholic social teaching. We were never supporting unions. We never took the lead in stopping child labor. They basically burned all those books.

What I have seen since Pope Francis has come on board is almost a revival of those of us who have been beaten down. We’re feeling like there’s a leader who recognizes that we led in creating unions for workers. We led in stopping child labor. Our people gave their lives because of where we stood. We have never been a safe church; we were always about taking a stand. Archbishop Óscar Romero would be alive today if he would have just sat in his office sending e-mails.

But now I see the spirit that is coming, that it’s OK for us to be a radical church again. I feel better. We should be focusing on the poor, on economic issues. That’s what Francis is saying, and there is hope.

I love my church. I don’t want to take a negative spin. I love being a Catholic, but I know the challenges in my position and where my church is right now.

How can the church spread the message about its social teaching?

What we need to do is go outside of our comfort zones. Like myself, I go to a progressive black Catholic church. It’s like preaching to the choir to talk about social justice there.

We don’t do enough to go outside of our comfort zone and challenge people in Jonesboro, Georgia or Waukesha, Wisconsin. We need to go to more of our brothers and sisters in other denominations and try to challenge some of the narratives they’ve been carrying on. We absolutely need to do more.

I think Francis is doing quite a bit to change the narrative. He is forcing us to look at who we really are, what we really believe, and what’s really important for the church. But all of us have to take that responsibility. I have to ask myself, “What else could I be doing to educate people about what it really means to be a church in the world?”

What are some of the narratives that need to be changed?

Some people mistake charity for justice, and that is an obstacle for change. If you get too comfortable giving somebody food you never actually ask the question, “Why can’t they buy their own?” Why is it that they can’t get to a job? Why is it that some communities do not want public transportation and fight it? Why does Gov. Scott Walker send the money back to expand the transit system? Why are people like Rep. Paul Ryan accusing parents of not loving their children because we give them free lunch in school?

People inside Milwaukee cannot get the jobs in the outskirts because we don’t have transit. Maybe people don’t feed their kids in the morning because they don’t have any food.

I’m not against charity. When I was an organizer in Denver, the people who ran the food bank saw me as an enemy. They always felt that I was trying to shut down the food bank, which I was, ultimately, because I figured that if everybody gets a job and can buy their own food, then you can just go do something else as your ministry because we won’t need the food bank anymore.

But I think that I’m not the enemy. I think people need to be fed today, but they need to be empowered to feed themselves tomorrow. I really believe that, and I believe that’s what my church teaches me. That’s what our church is really about.

It’s not about always having to feed the same people. It’s demoralizing for people. It really is. I had to go and get help as a child when we lived in a housing project and our building burned down. It wasn’t really a good thing for my parents to feel that they couldn’t clothe us and feed us. They were very happy when they got back into a job and we were able to take care of ourselves.

Gamaliel’s vision is based on jobs for all and a dream for all. It’s about 11 million people becoming documented and employed. Our vision is for jobs, for people becoming full citizens, and for providing quality education.

That’s where we keep our focus. We stand in that little place, and it’s amazing how much chaos it creates.

This article appeared in the July 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 7, pages 24-28).

Want to read more from Ana Garcia-Ashley? In this web-only sidebar, she discusses organizing for immigration reform.

Image: Flickr photo cc by SocSol