On Nov. 3, 2010, the day after the midterm elections, 30 leaders from PICO*, including homeowners struggling to avoid foreclosure, housing counselors and clergy, along with leaders from National People’s Action, Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, and SEIU, walked into the U.S. Treasury to meet with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to press for a new approach to the foreclosure crisis. Although the meeting took place around a conference table, it felt more like a public action.
The Rev. Lucy Kolin, a Lutheran pastor from Oakland, California, chaired the meeting and explained that 180 clergy and families from PICO had protested outside the Treasury in 2008 to press for the creation of a federal foreclosure prevention program, had stood alongside President Obama in Arizona in February 2009 when he announced the HAMP program, had brought homeowners to the Treasury in October 2009 to argue for changes to the program, and, with NPA, had organized eight large community field hearings on the HAMP program with Treasury officials in hard-hit communities.
Homeowners then shared emotional testimony about their experience trying to save their homes from foreclosure. Ken Kelly, a PICO leader from Antioch, California, described submitting his paperwork over and over, only to have it be “lost,” waiting in limbo for nine months for his loan modification, and only getting it in the end because sat across the table from the head of Bank of America’s mortgage division. The head of the largest foreclosure counseling program in the country described how his agency could double the number of people whose homes it helped save if only Treasury would enforce the existing rules. Flamonda St. Jean of Orlando, Florida, spoke of how her mother bought her first home in 1972 and was on the verge of paying off the mortgage when she was sold a predatory loan. She explained that her mother was now facing not only foreclosure, but homelessness, because St. Jean herself had lost her own home to foreclosure earlier in the year. She asked Treasury staff what they would do if it were their mother.
Secretary Geithner and the Treasury staff who run the HAMP program made almost no effort to defend the program. They essentially said they shared our anger at the banks for their treatment of homeowners. The heated argument came over whether the Treasury had more power than it was using to fine banks for failing to comply with the rules, require banks to reduce principal on properties that had lost much of their value, and extend payments for unemployed homeowners. Pastor Ryan Bell of Los Angeles pointed out to Secretary Geithner the moral hypocrisy that he had acted with speed and certainty when it came to bailing out Wall Street banks, but was telling us that he was uncertain about his power to help prevent more families from losing their homes.
At the end of the meeting Secretary Geithner said that he had been surprised that we’d come to the meeting not only with criticism but also with specific recommendations for making changes that did not require legislation. Perhaps Geithner hadn’t expected to meet with low-income homeowners who understood things like the divergent interests of investors and servicers in modifying mortgages. But this is exactly the point of good community organizing: it invests in the development of people.
People learn through taking action, often first on issues close to home, and then by having structured learning opportunities that help them connect their own experience to larger systems. That is what creates powerful spokespeople who can stand up and speak for their own interests, rather than having those interests mediated solely by advocates. As community organizing groups take on increasingly complex campaigns that involve action at the local, state, and national level, the need to invest in the development of volunteer leaders (and paid community organizers to support them) has increased exponentially.
The major community organizing networks in the United States were founded in the 1970s, in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement, at the tail end of a long post-war period of economic growth and increasing opportunity for working people. In the 1970s there were still many local ways people could meaningfully participate in political and economic opportunities.
When Congress passed CRA in 1977, the United States had an extraordinarily decentralized banking system that kept banks relatively small, prevented them from operating across state lines, and divided commercial and investment banking. Today, there are essentially four mega-financial institutions that dominate the U.S. banking market, taking deposits on Main Street and gambling them on Wall Street. Economic inequality is greater than at any point since before the Depression. African-American families have lost a generation of wealth creation as a result of the financial crisis. And political giving by corporate America is now almost entirely deregulated.
In the face of these enormous shifts in the political and economic context, some of the historic organizing networks have turned inward or imploded, while others are going through a process of internal revolution and generational change. Better on-the-ground training of staff and leaders, stronger networks, more collaboration, bigger vision, integrating online and face-to-face base building, and voter engagement are all part of the new equation. Through The New Bottom Line, organizing groups in communities across the United States are pressing for specific changes in bank policies and public policies that would end the dual credit market, reset the housing market by modifying millions of mortgages for underwater homeowners, and help address local and state budget crises by holding big banks accountable for the damage they have done to the economy.
Restructuring the infrastructure of social change to meet new conditions is never simple. But no significant social change has been accomplished without the active leadership of people who are most directly hurt by the injustice on trial. Social movements need moral leadership, and the families fighting to prevent their communities from being destroyed by foreclosures and the choking off of credit are providing our generation’s authentic voice of people standing up for their own future.
*Editor’s note: As of 2018, PICO is known as Faith in Action