Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Running to win: victory in the clean power campaign

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.
-          1 Corinthians 9:24

I love long-distance running. Ever since I started doing cross country during my junior year of high school in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, running has been one of the ways that I reconnect with the earth and my body. However, I occasionally run competitively as well, and that’s a different kind of running. I watch my pace more, put my head down as I ascend hills, and always save just a bit of extra energy for the “kick” in the last 400 meters.

I often compare long-distance running to organizing for social change. They’re both endurance sports, so don’t get involved unless you’re willing to commit a substantial amount of personal time, emotional energy, and physical activity to the point of exhaustion. Once you’ve gone on for a while, the fastest way home is just keep running. Victories usually come in the form of personal records, not headline-making races.

However, I recently saw a huge victory that made headlines in all the news outlets in Chicago. The Chicago Clean Power Coalition has been working to shut down or clean up Crawford and Fisk coal-fired power plants for 10 years. The group includes the environmental groups, student organizations, labor unions, and community based organizations. Bridgeport Alliance, the neighborhood group that my neighbors and I started with the help of the South Side network SOUL, officially joined the coalition as soon as we settled on a name last December.

I learned about Fisk power plant last July when a couple of Sierra Club organizers came to my near South Side church.  I learned about how Fisk and Crawford put deadly levels of particulate matter into the one of the most densely populated areas in the country—and Fisk was only about a mile away from my doorstep. I checked out the peer-reviewed articles from Harvard, and, having been sufficiently convinced of its evil, I started gathering petitions and going to actions.

Bridgeport organizing really kicked into gear when a Green Corps organizer was assigned to the neighborhood. Soon we had a visible base out in the streets, bars, and coffee shops and we were collecting signatures and photo-petitions challenging Chicago and corporate leaders to put people over their profits. Clean power came to mean more than only green energy but also a more transparent, inclusive decision-making process. Through these efforts, Bridgeport Alliance was born and was turning dozens of people to events.

It was an incredibly exciting autumn for me. Soon it became clear that we were part of marathon relay team, and we were running the last leg of the race. Today the Chicago Sun-Times broke the story about how Mayor Emmanuel and Midwest Generation had reached an agreement to shut down Fisk by December 31st of this year. Victory.

Of course, like long-distance running, after a victory, we can’t simply stop. That invites cramps, so runners need to run a cool-down. And then we still have miles to run to stay on track for our training regimen.  Too often our elected officials claim victory prematurely, and their constituents settle back only see the problem continue. Many community organizations accepted donations from Midwest Generation essentially as hush money, but that funding will disappear without a good community benefits agreement. And of course we still have hundreds of acres of contaminated industrial property in our backyard.

Though we still have a lot of work to do, a victory gives me some time to reflect on the race. The campaign has had a profound effect on me. Because of the neighborhood outreach we did, I fell in love with Bridgeport and committed to living there for another three years as I study theology at Chicago Theological Seminary. This victory wets my appetite to continue organizing my neighbors so that we can keep our unresponsive local government accountable.

I’ll be thinking about these things when I run the Shamrock Shuffle on March 25. I’ll be running for a prize.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

On power and repentance: community organizing during Lent

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing”
-          Joel 2:12-13

“We want to see our values in the world today. And how do we do that?” asked the trainer.

“By building power!” we responded.

“And what is power?” asked the trainer.

“The ability to act!” we responded.

“And what are the two sources of power?”

“Organized people and organized money!”

“How do we organize people?”

“Through their self-interest!”

This was an exchange that I participated in several times throughout last week at Cedar Lake, Indiana. It was probably the most intense training I’d ever done, a sort of community organizing boot camp. We came from all over the upper Midwest, and while we worked on a variety of campaigns—shutting down dirty coal power plants, fighting foreclosure of homes, divestment from the big banks—we did share a common goal that week.

We wanted to learn to build power.

The ironic part is that as I do my one-on-one meetings to identify my neighbors’ self-interest (more on that methodology here), I have ashes on my forehead. While I cut issues and do power-analyses, I contemplate my own mortality. As I plan effective meetings with my partners in the newly formed Bridgeport Alliance, I practice self-denial and penitence.

Like the season of advent, Lent is a Christian liturgical season of preparation, fasting, and penitence. It seems like an unlikely counterpoint to the community organizing that my neighbors and I are currently doing on the near South Side of Chicago. Often in organizing we tap into our anger about how the world around us is so different than the one we want desperately to see, but Lent is about seeking humility as we approach the immanent suffering of the cross of Christ.

However, Lent is also a season of repentance, or better said, metanoia, the Greek term that appears in the New Testament and for which English has no perfect, exact translation. I’ve heard that the concept goes beyond the guilt and self-correction that often goes along with repentance. Metanoia is more like a reorientation of one’s heart and mind, but it also requires action. It requires the changing of old habits so that we can begin the long sanctification process which, at least as far as I can tell, has no end.

If we look at Lent as a season of metanoia and sanctification, then really organizing for power in my South Side neighborhood is an appropriate response to the imposition of ashes. Towards what end are my neighbors and I oriented? Is this same end that the residents of the metaphorical Clout Street?
Methodists’ ancestor is faith, John Wesley, stressed how while Christians must be disciplined in our quest for personal holiness, we must also always be just as disciplined in our quest for social holiness.

I learned some things about that discipline at that powerful training in Indiana last week. After all, if I will return to the dust anyway, what will I lose by running the race to win the prize (1 Cor. 9:24)?

On the contrary, we have a pretty good shot at winning.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Crossroads of America: faith, labor, and "right-to-work" in Indiana

Most of the folks that I worked with in Indianapolis went through the day at an absolutely break-neck pace, but that was inside the political vortex that had engulfed the Indiana statehouse for nearly a year. Outside the vortex, I found a different pace and different perspective that perhaps was best encapsulated by a two-minute conversation with a custodian.

When my coworker and I explained our role in organizing faith-based opposition to Indiana’s “right-to-work” bill, the custodian grinned at us and said, “You know, right-to-work sounds really good, but if the politicians want it so badly, it can’t be that good.”

After several weeks of speaking with clergy, labor officials, juridical leaders, and lay members, no quote better voices the popular ambivalence to the so-called “right-to-work” law that the Indiana General Assembly recently passed.

To give just a bit of background, “right-to-work” refers to a kind of state law that bars labor unions from including provisions in their collective bargaining agreements that require their members to pay dues. It originates from section 14b of the Taft-Hartley Act, a union-reform bill which was passed in 1947 (and needed Congress to override President Truman’s veto). Since then, 22 states have enacted such laws, most of them in the virulently anti-union South. Indiana is the first state in more than 10 years to pass a right-to-work law, and it is the first Midwestern Rust Belt state to do so.

I think we can confidently say that America is at a crossroads in Indiana, just like the state motto proclaims.
I came to Indiana to help engage faith communities in the opposition effort against “right-to-work”. It can be a hard issue to explain quickly, and given the crisis-level activity in the legislature, including a 5-week walk-out by Democratic representatives in 2011, faith leaders often regard the right-to-work issue as “too partisan” to bring up in their community. The interesting part is that when I talked with “just-folks” Hoosiers, they were always very interested in the subject, even if they disagreed with my politics. However, in our sound-bite news cycle, people couldn’t find a place to talk about right-to-work without shouts or threats from either side.
For this reason, the local interfaith coalition set up several public forums where folks could learn about the right-to-work issue. We always made sure to invite representatives from both sides to participate. I, for one, am confident that in an open, honest debate people will realize how harmful and, as one South Side Indy resident put it, anti-social right-to-work is.

One of the best faith-based analogies goes like this: One day after a worship service, a man greets the pastor and tells her how much he likes the church—the worship service, scripture study, fellowship times, outreach—all of it. In fact, he likes it so much that he wants to be a deacon of the church. The pastor says, “Well, that sounds like a great idea. Let’s sit down later and see how we can make that happen.” But the man interrupts her. “Just one more thing that I think you should know, reverend. I don’t feel that members of church need to tithe, so don’t expect me to give any money.”

It’s an imperfect analogy because faith communities and labor unions obviously operate differently, but it shows the basic conflict that the right-to-work laws introduce. Right-to-work justifies the concept of a free lunch. Labor unions spend a great deal of money in organizing workers and in collective bargaining, money that comes from members’ dues. According to federal law, labor unions still must represent members even if they do not pay dues, and that slowly but surely eats away at the effectiveness of the union.

Proponents claim that right-to-work frees workers from having to financially support a union that they don’t politically support, which is superficially true. Then again, going back to the “tithing-optional” analogy, that is also like refusing to financially support their faith community for that same reason. It’s all well and good—until the building’s roof caves in.

We live in a cynical time, and unions and faith communities alike are suffering materially from that cynicism. The caretaker for one of the venues where we held a public forum was seriously afraid that the participants would “tear the place up” because there were union activists in the audience. In the public forums we held, more than once I heard someone snarkily quip about Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

The folks I worked with in Indianapolis were not all like the former Teamster president. In fact, they were very much like the church folks I worked with—honest, hard-working, compassionate, concerned for the future. Inside and outside the vortex of activity that is the Indiana statehouse, that concern for the future resonates in a most non-partisan way.

Faith communities responded almost always in positive ways when I asked them to act in opposition to the right-to-work bill. People of faith, while not always having a deep understanding of labor law, have an intimate understanding of mutual care, what Christian traditions term loving your neighbor as yourself, and of unity through faith. Right-to-work effectively drives a wedge between workers, weakening all of them. When people of faith understand that, they respond as their faith compels them—to action.

I remember a man at one of the public forums we held—the same guy who was afraid that the union folks would “tear the place up”. When my colleagues and I went to leave for the night, Thomas held us up, sharing with us how his view of unions and the right-to-work bill had changed. He linked his new understanding  to his own testimony as a Christian and to his conviction that God empowers the weak to do awesome things.

Amen, brother Thomas. Nobody inside the Indiana political vortex could say it better.