on the Community Values Presidential Forum
, Dec. 6, 2007
This is the slightly revised text of a letter written
by Don to Hugh Espey of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement on the occasion of the Heartland Presidential
Thirty five years ago, the year Saul Alinsky died, NPA (National People's
Action) was born and held
itís founding convention at St. Sylvesterís School hall in the old Northwest
Community Organization turf in Chicago. The birth of NPA was nurtured by two
organizations Tom Gaudette formed in Chicago: Northwest Community
Organization (with the help of Saul Alinsky and Msr. Jack Egan) in 1961 and
Organization for a Better Austin in 1966. Shel Trapp worked with Gaudette
for four years at Organization for a Better Austin and then took over
Northwest Community Organization in Sept. of 1970. Gaudette, Shel Trapp, and
Al Velto, among others put together the West Side Coalition just previous to
Trapp being hired by NCO. The coalition took on issues like panic peddling
by real estate companies, and FHA abuse of new homeowners, mostly people of
color. NCO, with Shel Trapp as director worked the issues of panic
peddling, slum lords, FHA abuse of homeowners, and launched
a campaign against what is now
referred to as the redlining of low income areas by banks and insurance
companies. NCO and the West Side Coalition together highlighted the push to
pass anti-redlining legislation and legislation to reimburse homeowners for
being sold substandard homes which FHA was to have regulated, but didnít. I
remember a staff meeting at NCO (I went to work for Trapp the day he began
as director of NCO) where this crazy guy from out east somewhere said we
ought to go national and pass federal legislation. We laughed him out of the
room and a few staff meetings later decided he might not be as crazy as we
thought. We decided to call a national meeting on housing before the 1972
Presidential Campaign and form National Peoples Action. Truthfully, most of
the power was in Chicago with groups that had been influenced by NCO and
OBA (Organization for a Better Austin), but interestingly enough there were others who had worked with Gaudette
and Trapp at NCO and OBA that were spread out in a few areas around the
country like NECO (Northeast Community Organizatoin) in Baltimore, and PACE in Providence Rhode Island that
agreed to attend that first meeting.
So before the 1972 Election, we
held the first NPA convention and invited the Presidential Candidates (again
only the Democrats came) and launched the effort to pass federal
anti-redlining legislation and what we called FHA payback legislation
(reimburse homeowners who had been sold substandard homes). NCO organizers
led by Trapp did the bulk of the staffing for the meeting (they included
organizers like, Roger Hayes, Oscar Lopez, Susan Sims, Helen Murray, Gerhard
Letzing, myself and a host of others). A thousand people showed (thatís all
the hall would hold!) and we were on our way. Trapp (he left NCO at the end
of 1972 to lead NPA and I took over at NCO) and Gail Cincotta, a leader from
OBA headed up NPA/NTIC, we formed Metropolitan Organizations for People (25
Alinsky groups in Chicago), and mapped out a strategy to pass CRA (the
Community Re-investment Act) and FHA Payback. In 1977 (when I was director
of MAHA) the Community Re-Investment Act was passed (At the end of 2005 or
06, $1.2 Trillion had been invested in low income communities throughout the
country that would not have benefited otherwise). In the process, FHA
payback passed as well.
The organizing field was shocked (One famous
network said we should wait 20 years until we had the capacity before we
went national!) and to tell the truth so were we. But that Presidential
Forum has had a lot to do with a huge number of victories over the years
(for NPA and for organizing in general) and keeping the dream of building
real and sustained power alive and kicking. Much has been built since, in
terms of spreading organizations into almost every imaginable place,
building networks to support the work, finding new and creative ways of
organizing all kinds of constituencies. But itís also harder now to have an
impact on the country. Our targets have moved further and further away, not
only out of our cities, but out of state, and even out of the country.
Organizing has had to deal with more and more complexity and has had to
adapt to the realities of the 21st Century.
Letís jump to the present.
Itís interesting to me to see how the traditions that created NPA, have
nurtured a new dream to enable networks to go national, for networks and
independents alike to band together to build genuine power, for all of us
together to foster a new world view that binds us together rather than rends
us apart, and for us to really challenge the way our country worships its
ďfree market systemĒ at the expense of all but the few. And finally, Iím
convinced that that dream transformed Center for Community Change into a
genuine organizing partner, with a huge boost from Deepak Bhargava. For all
of that, I am deeply grateful Ė it is a gas to work with the Center now!
So thirty five years later we launch the Heartland Presidential Forum,
hosted by Iowa CCI in partnership with the Center for Community Change. What we
did on Dec. 1st in Des Moines is in the same tradition of that first NPA
Presidential Forum, but in a whole different realm! It crossed organizing
networks, it included a host of independents, it embraced movements
(especially the immigration movement), it staked out a values agenda that
takes on the present power structure, it dared to be a political player and
built a relationship with the most likely next president on our values and
our issues, it built an incredibly diverse constituency, it pulled off a
media and bloggers delight, and it pulled together almost 4,000 people on
day when the airport had to close down due to snow and ice. But there were
two more things that really stand out in my mind: our leaders bonded in a
way that made their stories and questions more important than the
candidates, and we gathered an incredibly diverse set of organizers, which
for the first time in history were led by a majority of organizers of color.
Who woulda thought? Iíve never been more proud of being an organizer and
never more proud to just be a part of such a stunning event!
all that, none of this would have happened without the staff and leaders of
Iowa CCI and their loyalty and affection for the legacy and present work of
NTIC. I have watched CCI for years and have never seen a better organization
in terms of pushing itself to new heights. You are famous for your
commitment to action, but you have an equal commitment to organizational
development (i.e. Ė a membership and dues strategy that goes way beyond your
tradition). Congregation based community organizations have a value for a
relational culture, you may not talk a lot about it, but you live it
impeccably. It showed in the way you welcomed us into your midst, it showed
in the fact that there was no evidence of ego and backbiting. Furthermore,
you pay attention to the self interest of CCI without being exclusionary or
myopic Ė no small feat! I want to say something about NTIC as well. It has a
great future ahead of it with groups like yours and with George Goehl who
brings a mixture of toughness, efficiency, warmth, and vision. NTIC is
poised for a great leap into the future.
I think that Iowa CCI, the
Center for Community Change, and the partner organizations of the Community
Values campaign were all transformed by this event. Here are a few of the
things we all may be able to pull off together:
1) Expanding our breath and
depth as organizations, networks, movements, and beyond.
2) Fostering the
development of a powerful base in the African American, immigrant, Native
American, and low income white communities.
3) Passing possible federal
legislation on immigration, health care, jobs, environment and agriculture
policy with our collective power and a little luck on the Presidential
Campaign and Congress.
4) Becoming a place where all in the organizing
community can thrive (independent organizations, networks, movement
organizations, and the Center as well).
5) Putting together a Voter Work
System that matches our organizing muscle.
6) Putting together a simple
structure for the organizing community to use on local, state, and federal
7) Convening the best organizers and leaders in the work.
Nurturing a Values and Spiritual underpinning for the work.
9) Fostering the
development of a whole new organizer base that reflects our constituency.
10) And a bunch of stuff that we havenít even dreamed of yet!
About the Author
I got into organizing right out of seminary in 1970. I worked as an
organizer & director of Northwest Community Organization well into 1975
(NCO was started by Alinsky & Msgr. Egan) in Chicago. I was the director
of the Metropolitan Area Housing Alliance (25 Alinsky groups in Chicago)
during the time the Community Re-investment Act was passed (1977). I
founded Washington Innercity Self Help in 1978 & was the first director
of Metro Organizations for People in Denver from 1981 through 1984. MOP
is now an affiliate of PICO. I started working for Center for Community
Change in 1987. For more detail, look at my work history on the
Community Organizer Genealogy website at