A Response From Civil Society

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Our vision at Illinois People’s Action (IPA) is to live in a state where our shared core values of justice, empowerment and family become the norm. To bring this vision into reality, we engage in faith-based community organizing and leadership training with congregations, labor, ethnic and grassroots groups across the state of Illinois.

Is there a shared language that business and community leaders need agree upon in order to serve the interests of both groups in ways that ensure growth; provide a well-trained workforce; build good reputations; and that will provide an inclusive, webbed-infrastructure that develops leadership capacity among historically marginalized groups? Will this language require more than good intentions, demanding a high level of skill, a frank acknowledgment of power disparities, and a major investment of time and effort? And, if there be such a language, how receptive will it be to the huddled masses?

George Hegel proposed that the truth is found neither in the thesis nor antithesis but in an emergent synthesis that reconciles the two. My friend and colleague, Vince Martin (author of Blessed are the Peacemakers), penned; “Synthesis was Dr. King’s great strength in philosophy, theology and civil rights issues. He had the ability to pick out valid elements of seemingly mutually exclusive points of view to reach a higher degree of truth.” Richard Niebuhr framed King’s dialogue, responsible action in society, as the response to the other person within a community context; and, theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer called it, “living for the sake of others,” that spoke to the humanity within each of us.

Unlike the synthesizing approach of King and others, the contemporary political philosophies known as liberalism and conservatism-born of socialism and capitalism respectively-appear more interested in “beating” the other side than in coming to a higher, more complete truth. This higher truth reconciles the dichotomy of man being both steel and velvet; who at times can be quite stern, but as resiliently needed, also be sensitive to the needs of others. I can embrace my enemy in love and I can still abhor his aberrant societal behavior that seeks to tear asunder the bonds of the human pact.

Becoming that man or woman of steel and velvet prepares one to face today’s headlines replete with a buffet of issues ranging from the subprime debacle that has resulted in mass foreclosures to record unemployment exacerbated by the foregoing. Through it all we have come face to face with the demon in the abyss that lets us know that no one is coming to save us but we, us! What is the character of civic engagement in a democratic society and what is the common currency that compels us to buy into this debate? Robert Putnam highlights the reliance of representative government on a healthy civil society, yet the inability of government to address fundamental social problems continues to gnaw at the heels of our consciences. There has to be a response from civil society and that response must address the inadequacies of the present pattern of unmet responsibilities.

Community organizing, that “living for the sake of others,” solicits a membership base from a broad spectrum of the community that is concerned with the well-being of the community rather than a specific issue. Community organizing believes in building its leadership from the bottom up and through a prescribed methodology, transforms its citizenry into an urban taskforce for change. New skills are learned, abilities are honed and couch-potatoes become advocates. Cardinal to organizing is the belief,
“Never do for others what they can do for themselves.” Rev. Eugene Williams, former union organizer and founding editor of Organizing Magazine believes that all Americans have the right and responsibility to participate in the public policy and program decisions that affect their daily lives. He envisions a time when congregations/community organizations commit themselves to building broad-based, multi-issue organizations to revitalize, protect and service the communities where they live, work and worship. Enter National People’s Action (NPA) and its branches all across the country.

Over the last year, NPA called for actions in Chicago, New York City and Washington D.C. that turned out 30,000 people and led to negotiations with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, FDIC Chair Sheila Bair, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, and U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Issues ranged from financial reform, worker rights, immigrants’ rights, to affordable housing. Together with allied community organizing networks, unions and local organizations we held more than 100 actions in 2010, including an action that led to the 60th vote in the Senate for financial reform, and helped pass the biggest overhaul of the financial system in 75 years.

We need a growing and united movement that is about fighting FOR a new economy that works for everyone, a democracy of the people, and racial justice. The NPA is one example of the ways we can come together. In the battle of big ideas we believe in community over individualism, a fair market over free market, equality and equity over the belief that equality already exists, and a government of the people instead of limited government. Those that have been left out in the past must be lifted up in the future. Governance is not just for the government; there has to be a response from civil society and civic engagement means more effective governance from we the people. Examples like the NPA demonstrate that the average citizen can challenge entrenched power brokers and claim a victory.

For information and questions, please visit us at Illinoispeoplesaction.org or info@npa-us.org. Join us as we hold our national conference March 5-7 in Washington, D.C. This year’s theme is Taking Back Our Democracy.

About Rev. Dr. Eugene Barnes

Rev. Dr. Eugene Barnes is board president of National People’s Action, Vice-president of Illinois People’s Action and Executive Director of Metanoia Centers in Champaign. He can be reached at Info@metanoiacenters.org.
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