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Grass Roots Organizing: How Can We Do It?

General Assembly 2002 Event 2050
Presenters: Fred Seidl, Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Buffalo, NY; Rev. Sam Trumbore, Minister, First UU Society, Albany, NY; Kate Lore, Social Justice Director, First Unitarian Church, Portland, OR; Hilary Goodridge, Program Director, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Funding Program; Diane Olson, UUA Moderator; Rev. Meg Riley, Director of Advocacy & Witness, UU

Over 100 General Assembly attendees turned out to hear a panel of seasoned veterans of grass roots reform talk about their work in their communities, putting our UU faith in action through working with interfaith communities and neighborhood organizations to bring about social changes for a better world. Their work spans a variety of areas including soup kitchens, mentoring, after-school programs, living wage campaign, worker justice, reproductive rights, and gay rights.

Fred Seidl began with a social justice song written by a friend and led participants in the refrain, "People like you help people like me go on, go on…"

About 1% of all organizations are involved in grass roots community social justice efforts. Currently, about 70 UU congregations are actively involved in what Fred has named "Congregation Based Community Organizing" (CBCO), as distinct from President Bush's "Faith Based" organizing. There are about 143 such CBCO groups in the USA involving more than 4000 member organizations.

A congregation that involves itself in social justice projects with interfaith groups gains in various ways:

  • Developing leadership skills.
  • Providing training for congregation members.
  • Transforming individuals to become more effective.
  • Creating a web of relationship across theological divides.

Fred stresses the importance of finding commonality of interest with multi-faith groups on which to build the relationship. He avoids theological discussions.

Rev. Sam Trumbore found an outlet for his energies when he became involved in interfaith social action projects in Albany, New York, where he has been the minister since 1999. He has found this to be life-changing for him. He was almost immediately elected president of a 4-county interfaith social action group called ARISE, which is partially funded by the Gamaliel Foundation. Through his involvement with ARISE, not only has he has been transformed personally, but his ministry is also transformed as he brings his leadership and energy to his congregation.

Trumbore shared the following four points with the workshop participants:

  • Power is not necessarily bad. People power is different from money power. By organizing people power, we can direct their energies towards achieving great things.
  • Social actions are more effective done around mutual interest, not around ideologies. It's important to get to know one another and build relationship among people participating in the same project. Talk to people, rather than talk about issues.
  • The importance of leadership training and development: these help church members to make the change from congregational to public leadership.
  • Community-organizing is great for the congregation looking to reach out, to grow, and to become more inclusive and diverse.

Kate Lore is the Director of Social Justice, a paid staff position at the First Unitarian Church of Portland. She leads her congregation in a very active social action program that varies from peace work to economic justice actions to environmental lobbying.

When she first went to an "interfaith" meeting, she found out that the group consisted mostly of Catholics and a few Lutherans. By staying around rather than leaving, she was able to help the group become more diverse and to help shape how they were going to do interfaith work. The group, later renamed "Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good," now has Jewish and Muslims members. With involvement from 35 institutions and 30,000 people, it is a strong voice in the community. When it speaks out, the media notices.

Hilary Goodridge is program director of the UU Funding Program. Funds of up to $20,000 are usually awarded for the first year, sometimes for the second year but rarely for the third year. Congregations are encouraged to raise their own funds after that as fund-raising itself is an important part of organizing.

Diane Olson, before being elected Moderator of the UUA, was active in the Valley Interfaith Project in Phoenix, Arizona, a community of predominantly white Anglo-Saxons with a very small percentage of Native American and Hispanic people. Residents in the area didn't feel safe walking in the streets. One contributing factor was the slow police response to emergencies and street violence. The community, working together with police offices, was able to reduce police response time from 25 minutes to 5 minutes. The fire department followed suit. Police officers now walk their beat and the streets are safe once more. Other areas of improvement include reduced crime rate, reduced drug abuse, affordable after school programs and child-care facilities.

In cooperating with minority groups, one needs to remember to:

  • Slow down, listen sacredly and carefully.
  • Don't try to take over and assume leadership but be mindful of the partnership.
  • Know when it is inappropriate to speak up but become familiar with the people and the situations first.

During the question-and-answer session, participants sharing their experiences of organizing from scratch as well as joining already-established social justice organization, both of which have advantages as well as disadvantages. It was pointed out that many African American ministers from evangelical Christian churches often speak up for their congregations strongly on issues of importance, whereas most Caucasian ministers, especially UU ministers, will only speak for themselves and not their congregations, which dilutes the importance of their messages. There needs to be a balance between authoritative and democratic congregational polity when it comes to speaking out against injustices. Although lay leaders can, and often do, take the lead in social justice work in their congregations, it is so much easier if their ministers are also interested and involved. The work can change church members, transform congregations and feed the soul.

Reported byKok Heong McNaughton & Jone Johnson Lewis.

For more information contact socialjustice @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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