Community Organizing

Published November 1, 2018 in Warp & Woof

Community Organizing

VOICE, the IAF in Northern Virginia

William Sundwick
Saul Alinsky and Bishop Bernard James Shell founded the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago in 1940. Their idea was to mobilize diverse faith communities of urban poor and working-class people lacking in political power.
It was a goal pursued by organized labor as well, but labor unions were based on employment in specific industrial sectors. Alinsky saw religious groups as the more fruitful partners in efforts to organize the marginalized for political action, regardless of employment status.  He was Jewish, and not necessarily religious himself, but Shell was a Roman Catholic prelate.
In time, the basic interfaith nature of their enterprise would also encompass African-American protestant churches. As it grew beyond Chicago, IAF had considerable success organizing in Texas and California, among poor Hispanic residents. New York City also became an early venue for IAF organizations. Other industrial centers in the Midwest, and Baltimore, came into the fold later.
The DC Metro area (DMV) is now represented by three separate IAF organizations: Action in Montgomery(AIM), Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), and VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement).
VOICE was founded in 2008. It includes over 40 congregations from Northern Virginia jurisdictions – Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Jews, Methodists, Muslims, Presbyterians, and Unitarians.
Administrative offices are at Arlington Unitarian Universalist Church (UUCA), one of the organization’s founders and primary supporters. In the last two years, enthusiastic engagement from two Northern Virginia mosques have provided many volunteers, and much financial help – Dar al-Hijrah in Falls Church, and Dar al-Noor in Manassas. Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church and Our Lady Queen of Peace in Arlington have also been active supporters since its beginning.
In its first ten years, the organization succeeded in obtaining relief for Prince William residents affected by the foreclosure crisis of 2007-08 by securing grants from Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and GE for victims of their predatory lending practices, via principal reduction and renegotiation of loans, as well as $30M in additional investment capital for the county. VOICE secured $3M from Fairfax County to improve parks and athletic facilities for low-income residents along the Route 1 corridor. And, it has helped Arlington and Alexandria save existing affordable housing units from upscale development, expanding their number by adding more than 1000 new units. Just this year, VOICE pressure on the Arlington County Board contributed to an additional $600K added to Arlington’s affordable housing trust fund.
Each year, VOICE has “asks” of local elected officials. For 2019, these include:

  1. Criminal Justice Reform – end cash bail and restore rights of returning citizens from incarceration (such as suspended driver’s licenses for court debts)
  2. Increase investment in school counselors, mental health facilities
  3. Invest further in pre-K for low income residents (already successful for some in PW County)
  4.  Keep families together – immigration and ICE enforcement (protect interests of U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants)
  5. Make Northern Virginia communities affordable for their own public employees (the rationale behind Arlington and Alexandria affordable housing)

On October 21, at Fairfax High School, VOICE held a major action with Governor Ralph Northam and AG Mark Herring, attended by 1400 enthusiastic VOICE members. The Governor and Attorney General were presented with VOICE asks. Both appeared to support the criminal justice reforms and promised to work with the General Assembly to end cash bail, and restore rights of felons. Additionally, they agreed to explore a program to reduce mass incarceration over a 5 to 10-year period.
Increasing investment in schools and mental health resources met with deflection by the Governor, as did the question about the state’s Housing Production Trust Fund. Instead, the governor crowed about the commitment of dedicated resources to Metro funding as his great accomplishment with the General Assembly this year (it was a VOICE ask last year).
The crowd in the high school auditorium shouted down his deflection on schools, “Answer the question!” The moderators, calm clergymen from member congregations, reminded the audience to be respectful of our honored guests!
Indeed, VOICE relies on clergy from its member congregations for leadership in all public actions. This was an important organizing principle taken from Saul Alinsky, identified in his manual for community organizing, Rules for Radicals(1971). It’s clergy who have the stature, the moral authority in the community, to really mobilize the people – their flocks. VOICE has been successful in its political endeavors only because of committed clergy. 
The co-moderators on October 21 were Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe from Temple Rodef Shalom, Rev. Rebecca Messman from Trinity Presbyterian in Herndon, and the inimitable Rev. Dr. Keith Savage of First Baptist in Manassas (a fiery speaker in the tradition of Martin Luther King).
Non-partisan GOTV canvassing (Get Out The Vote) is next on the VOICE agenda. VOICE was wildly successful when it did this last year for state elections. They identified certain precincts where there was historically low turnout for off-year elections. The results were spectacular. In each Fairfax and Prince William precinct where VOICE sent canvassers, turnout was up more than 10 per cent over 2013. This year, they will be concentrating on precincts in the VA-10 congressional district – Fairfax/Loudoun border (Sterling), and PW County near Manassas.
My wife and I have signed up for door-knocking in the Sterling area on Saturday, Nov. 3 and on election day, itself, for a three hour shift each day. Hopefully, VOICE can do as well as last year. It’s strictly non-partisan. We’re not hoofing for any candidate, just trying to get people to the polls.
Saul Alinsky hated both political parties. And still today, there has been absolutely no partisan grist to VOICE or any IAF organization. If one party wants to oppose organizing marginalized groups in the community, that is its choice. During Alinsky’s lifetime, and since, there has been much scorn directed at him and the IAF. But, let’s write that off to jaded cynicism about prospects for social change.
VOICE is an organization of religious people of different faiths who are willing to give it a try by working together. It will never work if you don’t try – even if sometimes it doesn’t work when you do.

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