Volume 14, 2008

Reflection on the Community Values Presidential Forum, Dec. 6, 2007

Don Elmer

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 Forum


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!

Having said 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 campaigns.

7) Convening the best organizers and leaders in the work.

8) 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 .