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"Organizing for Regional Equity: The Gamaliel Foundation,"

by Jill Mazullo Where can you find the crux of the Civil Rights Movement today? Some say it’s emerging in the Gamaliel Foundation and the work of its affiliate organizations, such as MICAH (the Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope), the Jubilee Interfaith Organization in New Jersey, or MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy for Enabling Strength) in Detroit. They are just 3 of the 55 such grassroots, multi-racial organizations that operate as affiliates of the Gamaliel Foundation, an organizing institute headquartered in Chicago.September/October 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

Where can you find the crux of the Civil Rights Movement today? Some say it’s emerging in the Gamaliel Foundation and the work of its affiliate organizations, such as MICAH (the Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope), the Jubilee Interfaith Organization in New Jersey, or MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy for Enabling Strength) in Detroit. They are just 3 of the 55 such grassroots, multi-racial organizations that operate as affiliates of the Gamaliel Foundation, an organizing institute headquartered in Chicago.

When executive director Greg Galluzzo came on board in 1986, he charged the foundation with training new leaders in the style of Saul Alinsky, the famed father of community organizing who emerged a leader in the tough stockyard neighborhoods of Chicago. While Alinsky had worked on a neighborhood scale, empowering residents and workers to demand social reforms such as better housing, safer working conditions and lower crime, the Foundation has broadened its organizational emphasis to a regional scale—lately even tackling policy issues that are national in breadth.

Following the lead of Minnesota organizer Pamela Twiss, Gamaliel staff became familiar with the work of urban affairs specialists like David Rusk, Myron Orfield and john powell, all of whom conduct research in the areas of social and fiscal equity, land use reform and regional governance. Gamaliel staff members quickly saw ways that the academics’ arguments for regionalism could be applied to their community organizing model.

As a result, Gamaliel asked Rusk, Orfield, powell and George Ranney to serve as ongoing strategic partners. Gamaliel taps these regional affairs theoreticians and academics and puts their analyses into the hands of organizers who can effectively move from theory to practice.

The Gamaliel model generally works in the following fashion: A handful of concerned grassroots activists from anywhere in the U.S. will contact the Foundation to discuss a regional problem they’re facing. The issue may be school funding, or sprawling development, or providing adequate mass transportation to low-income residents. The citizens may have been meeting independently for months, even years, and seek assistance in building a broader coalition. With Gamaliel’s help, the small band of activists learns that the issues concerning them are likewise of importance to churches throughout the region, in the core city as well as older, low tax base suburbs. Even organizations in property-wealthy suburbs have self-interest in joining such a regional coalition; their faith requires that they serve those with little means to protect themselves.

By re-framing their arguments from a regional perspective, these individuals move from a powerless position where they are talking amongst themselves into a diverse coalition of churches, synagogues, neighborhood organizations, leagues of cities and other like-minded organizations operating under one banner. Together, the coalition can lend a moral component to many social policy arguments, such as demanding affordable housing in affluent suburbs, better bus service for low-income neighborhoods, and adequate school funding so children throughout the region have access to a decent education.

The new organization then hires a strong community organizer who can train people to conduct surveys of the coalition members. Ultimately there may be up to 2,000 surveys collected asking for core issues the individuals want to see addressed. The results are boiled down into the three issue areas for reform that emerge from the survey. The organizers work with leadership at Gamaliel to draft an agenda for reform on the three emerging issue areas. The organizers then host large meetings with upwards of 1,500 people, where strategic elected officials are in attendance. The organizers and the meeting attendees aim to hold elected officials accountable by asking them to commit publicly to voting favorably on regional bills forthcoming in their legislature.

This model has worked many times in metropolitan regions throughout the U.S. and produced successful legislation embraced by the Gamaliel coalitions. The affiliates have organized successful, racially integrated coalitions for broad reforms on land use, transportation, fair housing, tax equity, school funding reform, health care and immigrant rights. Here are just a handful of reforms they’ve helped achieve:
  1. Passing a fair housing bill: Minnesota state legislator Myron Orfield was determined to pass a fair housing bill in the early 1990s to take the pressure off the central cities to house all of the region’s low-income population. He argued that suburbs ought to provide a portion of affordable housing based on the regional need. Orfield pursued the bill three years in a row. The first year, the tenor of the debate was just plain ugly: Legislators from wealthy suburbs could hardly conceal their disdain for the low-income people who might relocate to their community. But the second year, a number of faith-based organizations associated with Gamaliel spurred priests and pastors to turn out at legislative hearings. The pastors also paid personal visits to outspoken legislators, challenging them to defend their basest comments. The presence of men and women in pastoral garb brought out the best in the legislators, and the debate became more substantive, and more polite as well. The third year, a housing compromise passed, allowing the seven-county Metropolitan Council to negotiate housing goals and withhold regional services to cities that did not participate in the regional housing fund.

  2. Siting a landfill: A landfill was originally proposed to be sited within the city limits of Gary, Indiana. Initially, even elected officials in Gary wanted the waste dump to be located in their city for the sake of economic development. But the Interfaith Federation (IF), a Gamaliel affiliate, said the proposed site was irresponsible because the waste dump would be situated in a low-income, largely black neighborhood. IF argued that placing the dump in a rural location removed from densely populated urban areas was a better approach. The key for IF was repositioning the issue from a single-minded focus on economic development to the moral issue of who would have to live with the nuisance of the waste dump itself. IF was successful in framing the issue, and the waste dump was ultimately built in a rural locale.

  3. Creating a regional transit authority: Transit in the Detroit area has been conducted piecemeal for decades, lacking coordination from one county to the next. Transportation activists in Michigan thought this was inefficient, since mass transit is regional by nature and crosses many jurisdictional lines. MOSES pressured local and state politicians to think beyond their borders and consider coordinating the transit systems. With Gov. Jennifer Granholm on their side, the three-county Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority was founded. This and other organizing successes led Gamaliel to name MOSES the organization of the year in 2002.

These policy wins and many more by Gamaliel affiliates across the country are a real testament to the organizing model at the heart of the institute. The coalitions bring people together around seemingly intractable policy issues. The organizers choose their issues carefully, zeroing in on winnable battles for which they can provide workable solutions their members agree upon.

Gamaliel is notable in its ability to attract and retain people from all faiths, all races, all classes; the affiliate organizations consist of workers, students, ministers, laypeople and more. Gamaliel is very intentional in its promotion of people of color, working hard to ensure they have prominent leaders of all races. Galluzzo says it’s important that newcomers to the organization see diverse leadership so they can envision themselves moving up the ranks into key roles in the future.

Gamaliel leaders have challenged themselves to grow in response to shifting policies in the U.S. Their current push is a national campaign for civil rights for immigrants called Rolling Thunder, with dozens of large meetings planned for this fall across the country. Galluzzo says it’s a difficult path since the organization is currently better tooled for regional reforms, but the leadership clearly stated they need to defend the rights of immigrants who cannot speak for themselves out of fear of deportation.

In many ways, Gamaliel is the Civil Rights Movement of today. They can rally a crowd as few can, and are multiracial in thought and deed. Watch what they can do in your region.

Jill Mazullo is a research fellow at the Institute on Race & Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School, which is directed by Myron Orfield. jmazullo@umn.edu
 
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