A Call for Organizing, Confrontation, & Community Building
Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, Neighborhood Funders Group (NFG)
Boston Area Meeting; December, 1995.
I appreciate the invitation to speak with you today. I'm the pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York, Brooklyn; the co-chair of East Brooklyn Congregations, a fifteen-year-old organization of fifty congregations and associations built with the assistance of the Industrial Areas Foundation; and a key leader of Metro IAF, our new coming together of eight New York IAF organizations and the other IAF organizations in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region.
The theme of this luncheon program is "A Call for Collaboration, Coordination, and Community Building." I do believe in community building. I have spent my life doing it. As a pastor, as a minister who has spent intensive time ministering to black men, as a leader in a multi-racial and multi-faith organization, I'm in the business of building meaningful public relationships. And because I spend my life doing that and believe so strongly in building successful communities, I'm suspicious of most collaborations and partnerships. So I would title my remarks differently: "A Call for Organizing, Confrontation, and Community Building". Thirty Winters Ago--I don't know where most of you were thirty winters ago--I was still a teenager in a Roman Catholic high school in Louisiana, heading toward college and seminary, and a career in ministry. Wherever we were, we were all witnessing some of the key early struggles of the civil rights movement in this country. We were thrilled by the calls for wars on poverty and discrimination. In the summers before that winter thirty years ago, millions mobilized and marched, scores of thousands worked, and many decent men and women died for their beliefs. It was a time of disciplined demonstrations, civil and mostly civilized disobedience, and under-financed but independent freedom schools.
Thirty winters later, there is a paid pinstripe army of agency executives, economic development advisors, academic researchers, public authority bureaucrats. There are thousands of agencies and programs and development corporations and so-called job training efforts. There are hundreds of conferences and reports and studies. But no war, no battle, no front fully engaged against the forces of deepening poverty and hardened discrimination. Thirty winters later, what used to be called "pockets" of poverty are now wide swaths of cities, metropolitan areas, regions. And these swaths seem immune to the imagined magic of the market; immune to the supposed corrective effects of multiple government programs; immune to the newest placebo: a partnership of the failed market and failed government sector. Thirty winters ago, the aging cities of the northeast and rustbelt have replaced Appalachia and the Deep South as the most dramatic and most resistant homes of poverty, depression and isolation.
What is the response? We in the IAF have identified at least three that we believe don't work: One response is what we call the outside-in response. This response says that cities and regions can only be saved by those who don't live within them--by tourists, shoppers, sports fans, theatergoers, casino gamblers, and conventioneers. This response calls for cuts in social spending and hikes in subsidies and tax breaks to build the business and entertainment centers capable of attracting those who live outside the cities. One of the largest and newest convention centers in Philadelphia lost "only" 6 million dollars this year, was anticipating an even larger loss next year, and was reported to be "on a roll". (As a pastor, I marvel at this accounting and public relations miracle. If John Heinemeier (ed. note: former leader of EBC; now pator in Boston) or I got up and told our people we had lost only 6 million dollars last year, we, too, would be "on a roll"--rolling out of town!) People who promote this response see cities as museum districts, profit centers, pleasure places--their public faces grinning at commuters, their backs to their own citizens.
A second response says that we just need more and better programs. As a leader who has been familiar with the Job Training Partnership Act travesty for more than six years, I am as skeptical of this response as of the first one. A Federal study of JTPA showed that young, minority men (African-American, Hispanics and other ethnics) made seven percent less after participating in one of the JTPA programs than those who never did. Think of this: Young black men and Hispanic men make seven percent less if they go through one of these job training efforts. In New York, we have pressured for other studies. Each has shown devastating failure. IAF tried to bring this failure to the attention of both Bush's and Clinton's Labor Secretaries--Lynn Martin and Robert Reich--to no avail. The traditional liberal response to cities--multiplying and tinkering with bureaucratic programs--is dead, as dead as the Democratic party that still sometimes promotes this approach. The difference between George Bush and Bill Clinton, if you live in an impoverished community, is zero.
A third response is that we need more public-private partnerships. This response has a long history. Partnership and collaboration usually involves the private sector and the government sector, with a token community advocate or preacher on the board for window-dressing. This kind of response tends to be tame and non-confrontational. Let's not point fingers, we're told; let's get something done. It tends to be led by professionals and planners. It tends to be small in scale. It tends to be acceptable to funders and grant makers. And it tends not to have very much impact. (I know there are a few exceptions to what I've said, and I'm sure some of you will want to point them out to me; but, after fifteen years in the public arena, I stand by what I say.) Most of these partnerships and collaborations are feel-good, but of little consequence. And they are a far cry from the heart, soul, and guts of the civil rights work done thirty winters ago.
The IAF Response. If these three mostly don't work, then what? Here's the response we in the IAF in the north-east have developed: First, start inside, not outside. Start with leaders, ministers, pastors, rabbis, coaches, teachers, mothers, uncles, families of all kinds. Start with the institutions and associations that have remained through all the residents, political party shifts, Reagan fads, Bush fads, Clinton fads, Dole fads--parishes, congregations, and others. Build legitimate, independent, power organizations--as we have in East Brooklyn and Baltimore and San Antonio and Los Angeles. Train and develop local leaders. In short, build power in the third sector capable of dealing with the public and private sectors. In short, organize. Go back to many of the basics of thirty winters ago (adding in all we have learned in those three decades and remembering to do much of what others have forgotten or rejected). Children, families, congregations, cities--they grow, for the most part, from the inside out.
Second, redeem the notion of work from the social theorists and market fundamentalists, and demand that workers receive a living wage. Where we started in Baltimore is by pressuring cities and states that contract with vendors for various services to insist that those vendors pay their workers a living wage. In Baltimore, the first living wage bill was passed through the leadership of our IAF BUILD organization and AFSCME (American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO) last year, raising the wage of all city contract workers from $4.25 to $6.10 an hour, with increases each year (ed. note: $7.70 in 1996). In New York, we are fighting for the passage of a living wage bill that will start at $9.00 an hour plus benefits. A living wage paycheck is better than any program. A living wage paycheck is as good to a family if it comes from a public sector employer as it is if it comes from a private sector employer. As long as people do real work for a real wage, we are on the right track.
Third, increase the opportunities for ownership (of homes and businesses) and equity for working poor families. Our 2,200 EBC Nehemiah homeowners are all employed at a living wage, all paying less for a new home than they paid for their rental apartments, and all building equity. These three elements--the power of an organization like EBC, a regular paycheck at a living wage, and opportunities for ownership and equity--help expand what we in the IAF call "the critical mass class". They are the group in the millions, black and Hispanic, Asian and white, long-time resident and new immigrant, ready to move from poverty or semi-poverty to working-class status. If there are enough of them, they create a critical mass. When they reach critical mass, there are all kinds of other constructive chain reactions that counter the current chain reactions of poverty, violence, dependency, and death. These positive chain reactions include saving money, getting more education, finding stability, developing more self-respect, having time for organizing, praying, action, voting, thriving in the fullest sense. These positive chain reactions make us more than customers of the market or clients of the government. They make us full citizens of a decent society.
What's Next? This may seem too simple, too basic, for some of you. I don't know what to say about that. There are plenty of complicated battles ahead. In this region we have to attack and dismantle the great public authority racket--large authorities like the so-called Urban Development Corporation in New York which raises and squanders more than $2 billion each year. Up and down the northeast, these authorities have multiplied and grown and wasted money and allowed public and private sector executives to live off the remaining fat of the land. We have to attack and dismantle those government programs that do no good and use those funds to create dignified public work that pays a living wage. We have to pass living wage legislation in every major city and state so that the government does not subsidize worker poverty by allowing contractors to pay depression-era wages. And we have to find others where they are, I don't really know who, to begin to think strategically and creatively about this region of ours. We who live between Boston and Washington live in one of the world's great centers of education, technology, finance. Someday we'll make better use of our resources and see that the workers of this region are paid fairly and treated respectfully.
What do you as funders do? Be skeptical of anything with partnership or collaboration or collaborative in the title. Be skeptical of elaborate procedures and structures and bureaucracies--anything the Kennedy School finds attractive. Be skeptical of anything that sounds too good. Be skeptical of anything that doesn't create tension. Support those who do direct organizing with the unorganized, those who have talented leadership, those whose name and intent create discomfort and unease. If you were around then, remember what it was like thirty winters ago--exciting and dangerous, deeply challenging and stirring, full of tragedy as well as joy.
I thank you for your time today.
A Note: CSCO supports all four consulting networks which are the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation), the Gamaliel Foundation, PICO (Pacific Institute for Community Organizations), and DART (Direct Action Research Training).