Faith-Based Organizing and Low-Income People Speaking Up for Themselves
Updated: Jan 21
Long-term polling data indicates that political participation among low-income and less educated voters has been consistently low for decades, but recent experiences suggest that poor and near-poor Americans are beginning to speak up for themselves more than before.
In my last years at Bread for the World, we shifted much of our grassroots organizing to low-income communities and communities of color. People in those communities responded and helped to achieve legislative results. I don't think this shift in strategy would have been nearly as successful 10 or 15 years earlier.
On a larger scale, the Trump and Sanders campaigns of 2016 both drew millions of formerly disengaged voters into the political process. Lots of Americans who felt left out and left behind voted for a big change, either Trump- or Sanders-style. There was also unprecedented voter turn-out for both Biden and Trump in 2020.
The faith-based community organizing movement has been a significant contributor to the growing power of low-income and working-class people, but the prevalence and power of faith-based organizing is not well-documented or widely-known.
Ana Eng, a senior regional organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), explains the organizing system of faith-based organizing in this week’s webcast.
The movement has an impressive record of winning change on issues that are important to people in need, especially at the local and state levels. Their method is rooted in relationships with individuals, and they focus on issues that emerge from the experiences of people in the community. Their methodology doesn’t shy away from conflict (which religious people usually tend to avoid); it addresses conflict by building power and negotiating. Anna speaks with particular eloquence about the increased confidence and self-respect she has seen in many of the people who participate in community-led policy change.
The faith-based community organizing movement began with Saul Alinsky, an organizer on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s, and then Ernie Cortez, who adapted Alinsky’s methods to South Texas. Its main external funders over the decades have been church bodies, led by the Catholic bishops.
The funders have together commissioned two studies of the movement as a whole (1999 and 2012). The 2012 study found that IAF, Faith in Action, and several other networks have built community organizations in 189 communities across the country. The community organizations in turn have 4,500 member institutions, including 3,500 religious congregations (mainly Catholic, mainline Protestant, and African American).
The ongoing impact and growth of this grassroots movement is a great story, but has received little publicity. The organizing networks would all benefit if they would communicate about the movement as a whole, rather than only about their own efforts. This is also a good-news story for religious leaders to tell: churches strengthening the capacity of low-income people to speak up for themselves and improve their communities.