Faith-based community organizing is the intentional development of power and relationships through congregations and other institutions. Churches often work collaboratively through an intermediary like Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches. In organizing, the churches put faith into action to bring about social change. They serve as community advocates and developers to improve or create critical programs and services.
The following is an excerpt from a Marguerite Casey Foundation report on LAM. It provides a good picture of faith-based community organizing and the planning and action processes it involves. See Resources
to download the full report.
A dozen LAM members, half of whom are pastors, sit in an upstairs Sunday school classroom on a Thursday night. Seated beside them are their “guests"—two representatives from the Los Angeles School District, plus the police officer responsible for safety in the particular schools of concern. The topics on tonight’s agenda are school suspension and expulsion. The meeting begins with a prayer, and then the guests are asked to leave the room for a few minutes. They politely leave, and LAM members review the meeting purpose and their roles.
A LAM staff member is leading the meeting. She is well-prepared and shares her process and findings with the LAM members. The school district officials and police officer wait in the hallway. The LAM staff member has researched the minutes of past school board meetings to find instances where suspension and expulsion were discussed. She also found statistics showing that most of the youth expelled from school are African American boys. In addition, she explains that research has shown a relationship between being out of school and criminal behavior. LAM member congregations are concerned because it is their sons who are often expelled on the basis of so-called “zero tolerance” behavior rules.
In advance of the meeting, LAM staff members prepared questions for their guests. Consistent with their organizing model, there will be no one spokesperson. Instead, various LAM members have volunteered to ask one question. After the questions and roles are reviewed, the school district officials and police officer are invited back to the meeting.
The school district representatives come armed with their own statistics and view of what has been going on in the schools. “Suspensions have actually declined,” they explain, “and there is no such thing as zero tolerance.” They say that is a “political term” and has never been school policy.
The school district officials are fully engaged. They provide email addresses and direct dial phone numbers so that LAM members can follow up with them directly. They answer the questions politely, but they also stress the constraints under which they operate. They rely on an antiquated database that inhibits their access to current and accurate data, and they are responsible for 70,000 kids. Furthermore, many key decisions are made at either a lower level—left to the discretion of individual school principals—or at a much higher level—in the state legislature or governor’s office.
Towards the end of the meeting, LAM members dispense with the pre-rehearsed questions and start asking questions of their own. Their questions suggest that they are not convinced that they are getting the full story. They ask about their rights as parents and wonder out loud why the schools do not do more to inform them of these rights.
The meeting lasts an hour and a half. Once the guests have left, the LAM staff member conducts a debrief. There is consensus in the room that the school representatives, despite their polished
statements, have not been forthcoming—parents must have access to the numbers and the data.
The group discusses their next community meeting, scheduled for later in the month with the school district superintendent. It will require the same careful preparation.
To close the meeting, a woman, the group’s one female pastor, rises to her feet. Heads bow, and she leads them in prayer.