On August 12, 1998, almost 1000 leaders from 14 states gathered in St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Chicago, Illinois, for a one-of-a-kind meeting. This was the seminal moment in a yearlong campaign that had proactively amended national transportation legislation to meet the needs of low-income and minority communities. They were there to hold U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Rodney Slater accountable to democratic principles in federal transportation planning.
The campaign was noteworthy because it involved organizations from several national organizing traditions. The experience of the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), which convened the event, can serve as a model for national collaboration among community organizations seeking to advance local organizing.
In July 1997, the Center for Community Change, taking note of sizable organizing activity on transportation issues, invited several groups to Washington, D.C., to discuss how the upcoming reauthorization of the federal transportation bill, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) could be affected to advance local organizing.
The Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations (MAC), a Gamaliel Foundation affiliate in Chicago, attended because of the work MAC had done to get a foothold on the transportation planning body in the Chicago region. The Gamaliel Foundation’s interest in transportation issues stems from a larger analysis around regionalism, an understanding that the causes of urban sprawl and decaying central cities, lack of affordable housing, and poor schools must be addressed regionally in order to create equitable and effective solutions.
The Building Responsibility Equity and Dignity organization in Columbus, Ohio, affiliated with the Direct Action Research and Training Center, was most interested in a proposed program that would fund local initiatives to help get welfare recipients and other low-income people living in central cities to jobs in the outer suburbs. Philadelphia and National ACORN attended because of their local organizing work on similar access to jobs issues.
Members of Hartford Areas Rally Together in Connecticut, affiliated with the National Training and Information Center, attended because of their interest in connecting people in their job training center to better-paying jobs. They are currently pursuing opportunities in the transportation bill for funds for job training and related support services.
The Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition attended at an early stage in its campaign that later won a local hiring agreement with the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority. (See Shelterforce #100)
Together, these groups developed a national legislative strategy for the reauthorization of ISTEA, and with the help of dozens of other groups around the country they won the following new provisions:
- The Job Access and Reverse Commute competitive grant program, which authorized $750 million over 5 years to fund local transportation initiatives to help welfare recipients and other low-income people get to work;
- A requirement that Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), the governmental entities responsible for distributing federal transportation funds regionally, consult with representatives of mass transit users;
- A requirement that the public be involved in the MPO certification process, a measure that will give communities the opportunity to penalize MPOs for not adequately meeting the needs of all communities within its jurisdiction; and
- Language requiring MPOs to publish an annual listing of federally supported projects that, if implemented properly, will allow communities to determine how federal funds are spent by zip code. This disclosure provision will allow community organizations to track which communities have and have not benefited from transportation investment.
These provisions create significant room for local organizing groups to influence how the $217 billion authorized by the new transportation bill, named the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) over the next six years will be spent locally. Grassroots groups can capture some of these funds for jobs, job training, transportation and economic development initiatives. Organizing around transportation issues can also open doors to political processes that direct regional and local economic development.
For example, the MPO in Jacksonville, Florida is largely directed by Jacksonville’s economic development office. In many cases, Regional Planning Commissions are designated MPOs.
Since July 1997 dozens more organizations have involved themselves in TEN and local transportation campaigns. The Campaign for a Sustainable Milwaukee recently filed a civil rights complaint against the state of Wisconsin and the DOT for lack of beneficial transportation investments in poor communities of color. Interfaith Action and Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, Gamaliel affiliates in Minneapolis and Milwaukee respectively, have also engaged local transportation campaigns and have been key members of TEN.
National-scale collaboration is difficult and poses several logistical challenges. Though CCC staffed the national collaborative work, community groups were expected to participate in biweekly conference calls. Ensuring turn-around of notes and correspondence proved time-consuming and scheduling was often tricky. The collaborative work also proved to be expensive, not only because of the conference calls, but because it was necessary to convene leaders and organizers at different points in the campaign to discuss strategy. The local organizations remained committed to the campaign because the work they put into it could reap direct benefits for their communities.
CCC’s location in Washington proved strategic because it strengthened TEN’s credibility as a national network, and also provided for an effectively coordinated DC-based legislative strategy. While groups pursued local campaigns around transportation issues, CCC and the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a transportation-focused national organization, used their access in Washington to move the legislative details of the national campaign on TEA-21. And while grassroots groups lobbied members of Congress, CCC facilitated access to key federal administrators whose support could provide political leverage to local campaigns.
The turnout of 1,000 people at the August 12 meeting with Secretary Slater inspired everyone involved, from the secretary himself to policy advocates and grassroots leaders and organizers. Having the meeting in Chicago, where the broad-based MAC mobilized 80 percent of the assembly, was a critical strategic decision. At that meeting, 30 leaders from several organizations had an active role, but logistics never allowed the opportunity for a full dress rehearsal. Nonetheless, leaders did their part, thought on their feet, supported one another, and won.
For now significant work remains to be done to ensure that the grassroots victories in TEA-21 are fully realized in federal regulations and local implementation.
TEN’s victories in TEA-21 may well have been the only proactive progressive change in national policy in 1998. The experience of TEN demonstrates that a strategic collaboration among community organizations can move significant change locally and nationally.
- Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, 312-357-2639.
- Building Responsibility Equity and Dignity, 614-258-8748.
- Hartford Areas Rally Together, 860-525-3449.
- Alameda Corridor Jobs Coalition c/o Greater Bethany Economic Development Corporation, 323-753-8980.
- Interfaith Action, 612-333-1258.
- Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, 414-449-0805
CCC has published an action guide, Getting to Work, detailing the TEA-21 legislative victories and how grassroots groups can collect on them. To obtain a copy ($8 including postage), contact CCC, 202-342-0567.