Friday, February 5, 2010

Main Problem for CCHD - Community Organizing Involves Lying

Around 2003, I was invited to cover a mayoral candidate debate in San Francisco sponsored, I was told, by a number of Catholic parishes and other congregations which had formed together as the Bay Area Organizing Committee (BAOC). When I got to the forum and found myself among a sea of purple jackets, I realized that BAOC was really SEIU.

One of the guys in a purple jacket took the mike for a pep talk before the candidates arrived and paraphrased for the assembled a lesson from Saul Alinsky, “Power is power, but the appearance of power is also power.”

The “debate” which followed consisted of candidates being read a list of union demands to which each candidate was allowed to answer only “yes” or “no”. They all mostly answered “yes,” with the exception of former police chief Tony Ribera who kept trying to insist that the questions involved were more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no”. He was repeatedly and firmly instructed to stick with a one word answer. There was one collar on the stage, but it was clear the debate was not organized or attended by disinterested “parishioners” from neighborhood parishes. This was pure SEIU.

I subsequently covered numerous activities of San Francisco area community organizing groups and these were far less odious. In fact, reporter duties aside, I would usually be personally supportive of the aims these groups sought to achieve on a local level. But a common feature of all these groups made me recoil a bit – It was that lesson from Saul Alinsky I heard in my first interaction with an organizing committee - “the appearance of power is also power.” It is a brilliant thought in its veracity and application, but its employment as a tactic involves lying.

The lie works like this. A community organizer will invite a pastor or parish leader to join a coalition in the pursuit of some worthy, and generally innocuous, local cause – say the installation of a stop light at a dangerous intersection. The coalition gets their stop light, and the pastor and few parishioners who were involved are surprised that they were able to get something done at City Hall. So they join the organizing committee.

Now the dishonesty begins. In every subsequent action of the organizing committee, the group will say that they represent the total number of registered families in the congregations which have joined the committee. So, for instance, the San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP) claims to represent 40,000 San Franciscans through 30 different Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations.

But only a very small number of parishioners from each of those congregations have had any involvement with SFOP. Many will have no idea that the organization exists and most would be surprised to know that, by virtue of their parish membership, they are among the 40,000 people who make up SFOP.

So the claim of a broad-based representation is false, but it is also absurd upon analysis. There is no likelihood that all the members of a particular parish would be united on any given political issue. There is no reason to think they wouldn’t be divided in the same proportion as the rest of the populace on many issues. And how likely is it that the members of a relatively conservative Catholic parish in western San Francisco would share the same political goals as the members of a progressive Reform synagogue in the Castro? Yet each and every member of each congregation make up the 40,000 people SFOP claims to represent. Frankly, this is a form of lying.

(I should note here that I’m not intending to single out SFOP, a number of whose initiatives I’d been supportive of over the years. It is the method I’m objecting to which is shared by all community organizing groups founded on the Alinsky model.)

Now the deception gets even bigger. Your local organizing group is an affiliate of a larger organization which lobbies on the state and national level. Examples include IAF, PICO, Gamaliel, Center for Community Change (CCC) and ACORN.

SFOP for instance is a member of PICO. PICO now aggregates all the congregations and people SFOP claims to represent with the numbers their other affiliates claim to represent. So when PICO goes to Sacramento or Washington, D.C. to lobby on budget and tax priorities, they claim to represent “one million families from over 1,000 congregations nationwide.” Again, the likelihood that they represent in budget and tax matters even the small number of people who signed up to get a stop light installed is slim. And they certainly don’t represent one million families. Only a tiny fraction of that amount has ever heard of them.

There has been much in the news lately as to whose interests these national groups represent and I’ll leave that to other commentators. Affiliates of all these groups have and are being supported by grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. CCHD has dropped ACORN affiliates. Now, CCC affiliates are under the microscope. But regardless of what one thinks of the aims of any particular community organizing conglomerate, should the Catholic Church be involved in any group whose central organizing tactic is lying about who they are?

CCHD makes two kinds of grants – for community organizing groups and for economic development projects. The economic development grants I’ve covered over the years have all been outstanding and actually do do the work to help the poor help themselves out of poverty. A smart and honest way forward for CCHD would be to sell itself on economic development and ditch community organizing. The dishonesty at the heart of community organizing has tarnished not only CCHD, but the moral authority of the conference itself.

As always, unless stated otherwise, posts here represent only my own thought.