Organizing Nationally to Win Locally: Faith-Based Community Organizing’s New Frontier

Over the past few years faith-based organizing networks have broken onto the national organizing scene, adding grass-roots power and issue expertise to some of the biggest problems of the day.

Simultaneous Local, State, and National Campaigns

Social scientist Theda Skocpol has written about the decline of federally organized veterans, fraternal, and civic organizations with mass memberships. She argues that, unlike Washington-based “checkbook membership” organizations, the mass bases of organizations like these — mobilized through local, state, and national offices so they could target government at all three levels — leveraged enough power to make policies such as the GI Bill more generous and inclusive. While FBCOs, ACORN, and others cannot boast the base of these “old-fashioned” groups, they are developing a similar federal structure. They align campaigns so that each level energizes the others. One common tactic is holding simultaneous local actions on the same issue.

The synergistic relationship of local to national strategy is illustrated by a PICO staffer’s comments about its Denver local, MOP (Metropolitan Organizations for People):

“Organizations that have big capacity like MOP in Denver can do a lot at once. It has a budget of $600,000 to $700,000, a staff of 8 to 10 people, a paid lobbyist at the state level, strong political relationships with the mayor and governor, and a strong internal capacity and relational network. They are seen as the strongest civic organization in Denver. They played a big role on S-CHIP: their Congress member was vice-chair of Energy and Commerce [a committee responsible for health care] … A lot of the work is local, I guess that’s the lesson.”

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Heidi J. Swarts is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University, Newark, and the author of Organizing Urban America: Secular and Faith-Based Progressive Movements.

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