Setting the Stage: Community Organizing

In the first edition of Making Housing Happen, the story of how Mark Fraley, a community organizer with IAF-Industrial Areas Foundation, working with  Action in Montgomery–AIM, helped organize twenty churches throughout Montgomery County, Maryland. They significantly changed the property tax structure so that now today there is a dedicated source of 2.5 percent of the county’s property taxes that serve to fund their Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

I have included this wonderful story here to inspire you and for your enjoyment. This story will give you an idea of how community organizing works. There are variety of ways that organizing is done, tenant organizing, neighborhood organizing, and more. But this story is about institutional organizing, and specifically organizing of churches. Many groups across the US have effectively organized to create affordable housing.

Community Organizing

Still Further up the stream, we consider why people to fall in to begin with. Nehemiah was both an excellent community developer and organizer. Our Lord himself was a master organizer, with clear goals and methods in training his disciples.
The previous chapter described organizing efforts in New York by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) with miraculous results. Other groups like the Pacific Institute for Community Organizing (PICO), Gamiliel, and Direct Action and Research Training (DART) have also made significant gains in issues like affordable housing, health care, and education. Here, we feature Mark Fraley, lead organizer of Action in Montgomery (AIM), an IAF affiliate.

[ Rather than seek to impose an outsider’s view of what a community needs, IAF helps citizens to organize into trusting relationships and to develop the tools they need to exercise power on their own behalf. ]

Mark’s Story and AIM

Community organizing became Mark Fraley’s ministry and calling—and how 2.5 percent of the property tax or $16.1 million (whichever is greater --in 2005 it came to 18.4 million) now flows each year into the Housing Initiative Fund of Montgomery County, Maryland. This annual sum preserves and expands the county’s affordable housing stock.

Raised in the church by a politically aware family, Mark first encountered intense poverty in high school while helping to build a home in Mexico. His teachers encouraged questions, and Mark had many, such as “What is the role of the church with the poor?” Majoring in political science and American Literature at Miami University, he learned much about the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. While teaching in one of the poorest schools in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mark learned of IAF, a pioneer in community organizing since the 1940s.Footnote 1 Later, attending graduate school in Delaware, he witnessed churches successfully bring more effective law enforcement to the city through organizing. Through his church, Mark attended IAF training sessions and spirited rallies learning  the organizing process, watching God bring justice to cities across the country. He joined IAF full time in 1997. Footnote 2

Concerned over numerous social justice issues, in the mid-1990s a core of seven pastors in Montgomery County contacted IAF. By February 1998, they invited Mark to be their lead organizer. Soon, Action in Montgomery (AIM) was established as an IAF affiliate—a grassroots network of twenty eight churches, synagogues, and other faith-based groups. To sustain AIM, each institution contributes one percent of its budget.

Building Relationships

The pastors gave Mark names of potential leaders within their congregations and spheres of influence. He met with these leaders, and just as Jesus expressed anger over injustices in his day, they shared their reasons for anger over injustice, and Mark told of his own. Those people then met with others, growing the network exponentially. A year long individual meeting campaign eventually identified 1,800 leaders from 40 congregations; these leaders in turn met with nearly 3,000 congregation members to discuss their concerns about the quality of life in Montgomery County. A retired woman described how her rent had jumped 30 percent in the last two years, while her income rose just 2 percent; a family shared that commuting to D.C. took an hour each way because housing costs forced them to live in a faraway suburb. Again and again, congregation members kept describing how extreme housing costs were creating financial and social hardships. “People don’t know how powerful their stories are until they are asked and can tell them,” Mark says with passion. “The power comes when we weave all the stories together to create a new story.”

Constant leadership development sustains community organizing. Mark defines leaders as “someone with a following.” Often, leaders are choir members, Sunday school teachers, or youth leaders, people with constituencies that reflect a congregation’s diversity. Leadership teams emerged from each sponsoring congregation. In early 1999, hundreds showed up for workshops to develop leadership skills. Soon, AIM held its first Internal Action—an organizational meeting attended by over 300 leaders. At this “Action” leaders agreed to have fifty house meetings where eight to ten people gather for ninety minutes. The rules are simple. First, listen and, probe for people’s concerns and stories. Deeper questions are raised: What causes such disparity between housing costs and income levels? Why can’t families afford housing? Second, evaluate each meeting. Third, identify more potential leaders. The campaign reached approximately 800 people in more than 80 meetings—exceeding their goal of 50! From there, eighty leaders attended a training retreat, where research-action teams met to explore emerging issues: housing, after-school care, quality of life for seniors, neighborhood issues, schools and education.

Going Public

In 2000, AIM research teams met with housing experts, for-profit and nonprofit developers, and government officials. Their goal: to understand why there was a lack of affordable housing. They learned of the lack of capital to build it and that the zoning process was too long and cumbersome—it took eight years to get a proposal off the county desk! They decided to focus on the first item. So, at AIM’s founding convention—boasting 800-plus leaders—they finally publicly unveil their four fold agenda. One item was for a dedicated affordable housing trust fund of 5 percent of the annual property tax.

[ The Founding Convention
It rained all day, stopping just before the meeting. One A.M.E. pastor reads about it in the Washington Post and decides to attend. Figuring a small crowd, he and his wife arrive only five minutes early. With so many cars, they park a mile away, walk up to the large tent, and are shocked at the size of the crowd. Each congregation accounts for their numbers. The goal of 500 is exceeded with 726, including the County Executive and three out of nine County Council members. People are still arriving. The chairs run out.

Community members begin with their stories. One couple can’t afford the $4,000 per month for their parents’ assisted living costs. A police officer serves in Montgomery County but must live in Prince George’s County due to high housing costs. At the end, an altar call is held for those interested in being trained as leaders. The goal is 50 new leaders, but 150 come forward! ]

AIM leaders presented their proposal to Doug Duncan, the County Executive who designs and proposes the County budget—subject to approval by a nine-member County Council. They ask, “Will you commit to this?” When Mr. Duncan asked for a month to think it over, in their debriefing they decided to trust him and wait, but, prepare Plan B. Mark describes the follow up with Mr. Duncan a month later, “Twelve pastors and a rabbi were around the table. ‘What do you think?’ Mr. Duncan asks as he passed around a document, asking our leaders to carefully read it… he had taken our proposal word for word and was sending it to the Montgomery County Council for a vote! AIM had secured the most powerful political figure in the county as its major ally.”

To secure sufficient votes, AIM’s efforts snowballed in a flurry of meetings with stakeholders, testifying of the county’s housing needs. Momentum and enthusiasm grew as people gained clarity on what they wanted and how to ask for it. At the group’s second annual convention in May, over 800 leaders challenged council members to support the proposal. Mark recounts, “As each council member comes forward, we ask ‘will you commit to a dedicated funding of $15 million?’ With a giant scorecard, a stoplight, and a roving microphone, we scored each “yes” or “no.” Each councilperson had two minutes to talk, stopping when the red light went on.  Eight of approved a one-time $15 million contribution into the trust, but only one support a dedicated funding source.” The lack of council votes for a permanent funding source forced developers to piece together funding packages every year, taking an enormous amount of time and additional expense. After listening, checking and rechecking, the people of Montgomery County still wanted a funding source that wouldn’t require annual renewal. Winning the $15 million alone wasn’t enough.

Election Year

In response to the previous year’s defeat, in 2002 AIM launched a Sign Up and Take Charge campaign, recruiting 7,600 county voters to support the dedicated trust. Meanwhile, AIM leaders held individual meetings with each of the thirty candidates running for the County Council. The candidate received the signed petitions in front of 750 AIM members from their districts. The power of people’s stories was evident that night. In five of the nine council districts, publicly pledged to dedicate 2.5 percent of property tax to the housing fund and AIM’s other agenda items.

2003—The Win!

After the election, AIM leaders met with Council President Silverman asking him to introduce the joint resolution for dedicated funding to the newly elected council.  Over the next month eighty AIM leaders met with County Executive Duncan, Mr. Silverman, and five council members, and attended council hearings. But, the Management and Fiscal Policy Committee voted the proposal down, two-to-one.

With AIM’s resiliency, like the woman in Luke 18 who kept knocking on the unrighteous judge’s door until she finally got what she wanted, they were not about to give up. At a County Council meeting later that month, fifty AIM leaders again asked for the dedicated funding. Finally, the resolution passed a six-to-three! Through steadfast resolve and tireless labor, AIM brought more affordable housing to Montgomery County residents! Just as important as the win, is the process—engaging people of faith to acquire and practice leadership skills, and come together in a powerful democratic process transforming them and their county. Everyone wins.

Footnote 1: IAF, Industrial Areas Foundation, founded by Saul Alinsky in Chicago in 1940, now a national network of multiethnic, interfaith affiliate organizations in primarily poor and moderate-income communities across the United States and beyond. IAF affiliates are coalitions of local faith-based organizations. Each is involved with renewing democracy by fostering the competence and confidence of ordinary citizens to take action on problems facing their communities. To that end, IAF provides leadership training for more than 60 affiliates, representing over 1,000 institutions and a million families, principally in New York, Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nebraska, Maryland, Tennessee, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. By thus reshaping the power base in politics, IAF transforms the civic and physical infrastructure of communities.

Footnote 2: Books Mark recommends:
Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy by William Greider; Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann; Going Public: An Inside Story of Disrupting Politics as Usual by Mike Gecan; Roots for Radicals by Edward T. Chambers; I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle by Charles M. Payne; Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination by Walter Wink.