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.

Strategic Capacity, Including Flexibility and Openness to New Tactics and Alliances

The IAF is a unique case: although a national organization, its four regional groups do not work together, so it would seem unable to conduct coordinated national organizing. However, the IAF’s history, achievements, and seasoned senior staff may enable one IAF region to do national-level work. The IAF’s Metro East division has begun an experiment not only in national but international organizing that kicked off in summer 2009. Though a relatively small group, it seized a historic opportunity and identifed powerful sources of leverage and may potentially be able to use them to accomplish multiple and overlapping goals. Its success remains to be seen.

The Metro East IAF, which spans the eastern corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston, with 17 locals, has joined its 3 IAF affiliates in the United Kingdom, which have been organized for twenty years, on a “10 Percent Is Enough” anti-usury campaign. According to organizer Arnie Graf, “When the economic crisis hit and we were doing house meetings, we got stories about foreclosure, layoffs, their budget squeeze. The whole issue of debt came up, through payday loans, skyrocketing credit card rates, “rapid refund” loans on tax returns, and auto loans that ultimately required 660 percent interest.” A common theme was usury — exploitive interest rates.

The 10 Percent Is Enough campaign is strategically shrewd because it is relevant internationally. The issue has historical and cross-cultural resonance: the United States had usury laws from its founding until 1980, usury is condemned throughout the Bible, and any interest is forbidden by Muslim banks. (IAF Metro East is recruiting many Muslim mosques.)

The campaign has near-endless ways to leverage organized money. It can demand that “bailout banks” cease financing usurious lenders and restrict their credit card interest rates. Religious denominations can move their money into low-interest credit unions or banks. Campaigners can demand that the people’s budgets — state, city, and county — not pay excessive interest rates.
Potential allies extend beyond the usual suspects to include the retail sector which itself pays a fee for every credit card transaction. 7-11 stores are already running a consumer campaign to lower credit card fees 7-11 must pay, arguing that they are passed on to the consumer.

A U.K.-U.S. campaign highlights the multinational nature of banks as corporations. The campaign will target the Bank of Scotland, which owns Citizens Bank and others in the United States.

As ACORN and other FBCOs have done, the 17 Metro-East IAF affiliates held decentralized actions on one multinational firm (Bank of America) at the same time, demonstrating their breadth and unity.

Organizing costs are low, since the Metro-East locals are in one region: members can use cars, buses, or trains to come together.

Legislators have expressed interest in this as a potential campaign issue. Senator Bernie Sanders got 33 votes for a bill to cap interest rates at 15 percent, and support is growing. The “10 Percent Is Enough” campaign is still in the research phase, and doesn’t plan to compete with health care, a consumer protection agency, or immigration reform on the legislative agenda. Meanwhile, that allows time for a movement to develop. Graf acknowledges that if the campaign targets Congress, that Metro-East IAF, like PICO, would mount a significant shift in scale.

Unprecedented Alliances

As FBCOs go national, they are also forming new alliances. As a step toward cooperation, ACORN and PICO directors in the same cities agreed to meet with each other in 2003–2004, but at the time a PICO staffer commented off-handedly, “We’ll never get to a point where we’re going to work together.” Five years later, on July 27, 2009, I watched PICO and ACORN collaborate on their first event in 37 years of coexistence: a press conference launching Americans for Financial Reform, where both PICO and ACORN members shared personal stories of financial disaster. Tragically for movement-building, ACORN was severely harmed by the now-infamous secret videos by right-wing activists that captured a few Baltimore ACORN staffers giving advice on how to break the law.
Through numerous alliances, PICO national organizing director Gordon Whitman explains, “You learn these are big, complex coalitional fights. You learn your value. We have on-the-ground local experience, the ability to move large numbers of people.”

The Risk and the Reward

PICO and IAF top organizers repeatedly express fears that the all-consuming (and glamorous) lure of national organizing could drain resources from FBCO’s traditional strengths: developing leaders, retaining local organizing depth, and delivering on local issues. This is partly a financial issue: national organizing of this style requires having the funds to hire enough local and national organizers.

I propose that it is also a “framing” challenge. National organizing delivers on local issues: otherwise, FBCOs, ACORN, NPA, and others would not have pursued it. It’s up to organizers and leaders to keep making the links clear.

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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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