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"Causa Justa :: Just Cause: Multi-Racial Movement-Building for Housing Rights,"

by Maria Poblet & Dawn Phillips March/April 2012 issue of Poverty & Race

While in the Bay Area recently, I met with several local groups doing PRRAC-like work. A very impressive bunch. One in particular struck me as a nice model for local/regional/national work in a range of areas, and so I asked them to describe their organization and the work it does. Herewith…. CH

Causa Justa :: Just Cause (CJJC) is a multi-racial, multi-generational grassroots organization building community leadership to achieve housing justice and immigrant rights for low-income San Francisco and Oakland residents.

In 2010, CJJC emerged from the strategic merger of two powerful organizations: St. Peter’s Housing Committee and Just Cause Oakland. These two organizations represent more than 30 years of combined experience working toward housing and racial justice for African Americans and Latinos. The primary goal of the merger was to build a more powerful grassroots force for justice in San Francisco, Oakland and beyond.

We saw that as small organizations, often working in relative isolation, our community-based work was deep, but the scale of our impact was limited. We saw the need for a stronger organizational vehicle in order to make a lasting and strategic impact on the social, racial and economic justice problems facing our communities in this time of economic and housing crisis.

We believed that a larger, stronger organization that effectively combines service, organizing and electoral strategies across a broader geographic and demographic reach results in a more cohesive and strategic justice movement, with more wins for our communities. And we thought that by consolidating resources and streamlining systems we would be able to build a more sustainable and effective organization in the long run.

Prior to the merger, St. Peter’s Housing Committee had been working for more than 25 years defending tenants’ and immigrant rights and fighting gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District. Just Cause Oakland emerged from a successful 2002 campaign to pass a tenants’ rights ballot initiative to restrict evictions and evolved into long-term organizing and policy advocacy to defend housing rights. Both organizations also had in common an active base of community residents who played key roles in developing and directing the work of the organizations.

Over the years, the two organizations ran parallel campaigns around housing, anti-gentrification and community development in our respective cities. We engaged in numerous discussions about our organizational models and our analyses of the problems in our communities. Our members have participated in joint actions, and they have built relationships at countless conferences and meetings. Through those years of shared work, we have built an incredibly strong foundation; we have a high degree of shared values, a solid working relationship, strong personal relationships and complementary organizational models. This foundation put us in an ideal place to take our work to the next level in this crucial historical moment.

About four years ago, we began a deliberative process to examine the viability of merging into a single organization. We spent one year engaged in research and discussions with our staff, members and key stakeholders and allies to thoughtfully examine the potential benefits, risks, challenges and opportunities of a merger. We concluded that turning two organizations into one would lead to greater impact for low-income communities in San Francisco and Oakland. We also believed that our experience could provide guidance to other organizations considering structural convergence of this kind.

Implementation of the merger began in earnest in January 2010, with restructuring of staff roles, opening new offices, developing our board, joint fundraising and administration, and beginning the on-the-ground integration of our programs. On July 1, 2010 we legally became a single organization.

Based on our analysis of the political moment and our organizational potential, we hoped to achieve four key outcomes from the merger:

Build power and scale

The enormity of the challenges that poor people face today—where injustices felt locally (e.g., the foreclosure crisis, cuts in critical social programs, etc.) are deeply connected to national and international dynamics—requires that progressives work in new and different ways, focused on building convergence and alignment, for greater impact. No longer can small organizations, working in isolation, have lasting and strategic impact on social, racial and economic justice issues that are degrading our communities. Not only does national and global interconnectedness demand that we become smarter, stronger organizers, but also that we collaborate to a degree we have not in the past in order to launch winning strategies for municipal, regional and even national change.

The merger allowed us to qualitatively scale up our work. We went from the original 500 members each previous organization had, to our current membership of 2,100. We now work with over 20 staff in 3 offices and in two languages (Spanish and English), and reach thousands more community members through our various programs and activities. Other aspects of our growing scale include adding foreclosure prevention and defense work with homeowners, engaging around municipal budget and revenue issues, and tripling the number of people we reach through our online and social media communications. As the crisis facing our communities worsen, we want to ensure that the level of support we can provide grows proportionally.

While coalitions, alliances and networks have played an important role, yielded results and built strong relationships, they are often impermanent and subject to the unpredictable capacity and shifting priorities of member organizations. Most fall short of arriving at meaningful long-term agreements, political alignment, strategic allocation of resources, sharing of staff and claims of leadership. This limits our collective impact. In spite of good intentions and rhetoric, at the end of the day it is nearly impossible for groups to prioritize what is best for all the partners, and for the movement as a whole, rather than for their own organization.

The majority of today’s generation of progressives have not seen a grassroots movement that can operate on a large scale and where sacrifices for the whole are readily made. Our vision is that this merger can be part of a larger trend towards convergence, alignment and greater impact among grassroots progressive organizations in the United States. Realizing this vision means that it will not be enough to just build up and advance the work of our individual organization. We have to actively participate and in fact lead the development of new formations that can create this type of national and international connections with our local work and programs. In the last few years, CJJC has committed heavily to building up the Right to the City alliance (RTTC) because we think that it has the potential to promote this type of dynamic movement convergence.

Right to the City is a national alliance of almost 40 racial, economic and environmental justice organizations located in 9 national urban centers. Through shared principles and a common analysis of gentrification, the alliance is providing local organizations like CJJC a way to engage in national work around housing, land use and anti-displacement issues. RTTC supports grassroots groups, who are deeply grounded in the frontline struggles and needs of working-class communities, to summarize and lift up visionary solutions and policy alternatives to address the various aspects of the housing and economic crisis. The alliance allows organizations like ours to come together with similar groups nationally, and fight at a scale much larger than we are individually able to. What is even more exciting is the ability to re-articulate the wisdom we have accumulated from deep, local work into viable national policy. A vibrant national housing movement needs formations like RTTC.

Build a stronger organizing model

St. Peter’s Housing Committee developed out of a service provision model into a model that brings together services and organizing. St. Peter’s had been running a tenant counseling clinic helping tenants advocate for themselves around issues like rent increases, evictions and harassment. These counseling services served as a mechanism for building a membership organization that can, in turn, organize fighting campaigns around issues of gentrification and displacement. Just Cause Oakland, on the other hand, developed out of a more traditional community-organizing model that prioritized door-to-door outreach to recruit large numbers of members to participate in fighting campaigns. This organizational merger offered an exciting opportunity to build on the best capacities of both organizations.

Our merged model has also integrated an electoral organizing aspect focused on using election cycles and relevant ballot issues as a way to engage our membership and community base. We have dramatically increased our involvement in sweeping outreach to our neighborhoods to engage residents in crucial civic processes that impact their lives. We have developed the skills, team and technology to reach out to thousands of people in a matter of weeks, in both San Francisco and Oakland. Our civic engagement work is ensuring that our communities count and are counted around the key political issues and processes that affect their lives.

At its core however, community organizing is fundamentally about building relationships and developing leadership. Causa Justa :: Just Cause has invested deeply in developing resident leaders from the neighborhoods where we work. A large part of our work is about creating the spaces for members to engage with each other around political discussion, learn about issues affecting their communities, and support them in developing both the analytical and “hard” skills necessary to be effective organizers and political actors. Our members serve on committees that develop our campaigns, they support each other in fighting the banks and landlords, they raise funds for the organization, and they push themselves to be leaders of the organization, their communities and a broader movement for social, economic and racial justice.

Build multi-racial alliances

An important motivation for the merger was our shared commitment to building solidarity between Just Cause Oakland’s African-American base and St. Peter’s Housing Committee’s large membership in San Francisco’s Latino community. While systematic racism has created many divisions between these two groups, we believed, then as now, that an equally strong basis and need for unity exists. Building a multi-racial organizing model is about answering the question of how to simultaneously build the strength and position of each group while advancing an agenda of mutual interest.

Both communities share a common experience of disenfranchisement, permanent second-class citizenship, racial discrimination and oppression, as well as having been deeply impacted by state violence and policing. Effective multi-racial organizing has to just as accurately articulate the specific and unique ways in which these conditions are affecting each group. CJJC’s work is about supporting African Americans and Latinos to name the specific conditions impacting their individual community, to understand the basis of their shared struggle, and to develop campaigns that speak both to specific community interests as well as the shared interests of both groups. This is challenging and complicated work that since the merger we have strived daily to be better at.

By bringing African Americans and Latinos together to address these conditions, we hope to contribute to building the foundation of a vibrant national grassroots movement. African- American and Latino unity is one part of a broader front, made up of other low-income and working-class communities of color, who have to be at the forefront of any successful effort to address inequity and injustice. Multi-racial alliances are foundational to movement-building, and our experience has shown that unity can’t be built in the abstract. It has to be forged through real relationships and shared work. Through our work, we are committed to building on and creating a truly multi-racial organization and movement.

Build a more sustainable organization

While increasing political impact and effectiveness was the core motivation for the merger, we did want to become better positioned to respond to the economic crisis threatening the viability of many social justice organizations. We also wanted to alleviate having two organizations duplicating the tedious work of fund-raising, administration and management, and instead put that time and resources into the direct organizing and movement-building work.

In the first phase, the merger allowed CJJC to develop a more efficient organization where we have been able to do more work with the same amount of financial resources. In the current phase, we have worked on growing and diversifying our organizational resource base. As of this year, we have grown our overall budget by approximately 20%, and among other successes, completed an inspiring effort that raised $100,000 from individual donor contributions alone.

The merger has allowed us to effectively use economies of scale to our organizational benefit. As a larger organization, we have been able to improve everything from our level of technology, to our financial management system, to increasing our organizational presence by expanding into more neighborhood offices. Growing our organizational infrastructure has boosted our organizing capacity. We can now more closely track the level of participation of our members in the work, improve the level of media coverage around our key issues, and provide community residents with more physical access to our work and services.

For small organizations such as we used to be, we strongly feel that considering a strategic restructuring creates the possibility of both realizing the potential for large-scale change and a creative approach for dealing with this challenging economic environment.

This process has not been easy or simple. We merged two organizations with very different practices, cultures (literally and figuratively), languages, histories and roots. It took a great deal of commitment for everyone involved to go from a place of comfortable familiarity with doing things a certain way and with folks we knew well, to diving into unknown territory with new and different people. While there was widely held belief in the strategic opportunities the merger presented, there were also serious challenges, including the departure of some who felt that their interests were no longer a fit with the organization’s new direction.

As our experiment continues to evolve, we are committed to ensuring that being “bigger” is not just about increasing our size. That it is much more about growing the quality and impact of our work. That “more” actually means more justice for more people in more places. And that fundamentally, we remain grounded in our core political commitments, even as we encounter more opportunities that could take us away from our roots and community base.

We want our work to contribute towards building a broad social justice movement that can wrestle our communities and this country back from big banks and corporations, corrupt politicians, and those that keep racism alive and well. As a growing regional organization, we will continue to anchor and advance key efforts around housing and immigration statewide and nationally. We will support sister organizations working on other issues, in other areas, so that the momentum of our collective efforts results in a just and equitable future for all people.

The change we want cannot be achieved through the passage of legislation, or by electing a new person into political office, or by becoming a better-funded organization. The change we want to see requires us to develop new political, economic and social relationships from the blocks in our neighborhoods, to cities across the country, and nations across the globe. The change we want to see requires us to build a real peoples’ movement for justice, human rights and democracy.

Maria Poblet , Executive Director of Causa Justa :: Just Cause, was formerly on the staff of St. Peter’s Housing Committee and currently serves on the Coordinating Committee of the Grassroots Global Justice alliance.
Dawn Phillips , Co-Director of Programs for Causa Justa :: Just Cause, was previously the Director of Programs for Just Cause Oakland and is a Steering Committee member of the Right to the City alliance.

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