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Beyond Advocacy

Excerpts By Gordon Whitman in Social Policy Winter 2006

 "On the big questions of how people can systematically hold large institutions accountable, how America can live up to its promise as a nation, community organizing has important experience and wisdom to offer. ...

Some people refer disparagingly to congregation-based community organizing as "stop-sign organizing" because of the willingness of organizations to take on seemingly small issues that come up when you put ordinary people in a room and ask them what they’d like to see change in their community. But what organizing has learned as a network over the past thirty years is that the best way to build deeply rooted organizations is to start with people where they are at, not where you want them to be. If an organization wants to engage large numbers of people in significant long-term social change, it has to go out and build honest relationships; connect with people around their values not just their anger; listen to what people think and want; and then walk with them to find solutions to the problems and issues about which they feel most strongly. ...

History suggests that purely secular social change efforts are unlikely to succeed in the United States. To engage a broad cross section of working families in social change, community organizing needs to be rooted deeply in faith values and institutions. One of the strengths of congregation-based organizing is that it operates outside the current debate over faith-based politics, having been engaged in the complexity of religious experience in the United States for more than two decades. ... Congregation-based organizing can do this because the entry point for engagement and leadership is local community pressures – not ideological positioning.

For people rooted in the Judeo-Christian faith tradition, the Exodus story provides an important template for present day liberation from an unjust social structure, a template that follows the idea that before people can liberate themselves, they need to be engaged first in their own immediate reality. When Moses and Aaron first meet with Pharaoh to discuss God’s intention to liberate the people of Israel from slavery, they make a simple actionable demand that the slaves be able to go out for three days to pray in the desert. Although Pharaoh rejects this request, Moses and Aaron have created a cycle of negotiation, leadership development and organizing that ultimately results in the exodus from Egypt. Yet even when the people physically leave slavery, we realize that they are just at the beginning of a journey, during which they will repeatedly question their own power and regret having left the certainty of Egypt. In the end, the Exodus story suggests that people find liberation and redemption not just by ending the oppressive structures, as important as that work is, but also in an unfolding understanding of their own power, a journey taken in relationship with others. ...

National elites often neglect the importance of local action for social justice. In the U.S. federal system, many of the most important public decisions about housing, education, criminal justice and other fundamental family needs are made by local government based on local political and economic interests." 

Gordon Whitman serves on PICO’s national staff, as Director of Communications and Public Policy. He is also the Executive Director of Flint Area Congregations Together, a new PICO affiliate in Flint, Michigan.

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