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Local activist leaders consider joining forces under umbrella organization

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On a giant drawing pad, Chris Baumann, executive director of Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment (CHANGE), sketched a three-legged stool to represent democracy.

One of the legs symbolized business, another stood for government and the third was for civil society.

‘“The government is organized through parties,’” Baumann said. ‘“And businesses use political action committees, lobbyists and chambers of commerce. When you get to civil society, is there an organization that has as much power?’”

The answer, for Greensboro at least, was a resounding ‘“no.’” But the five community activists who sat around a conference table Feb. 15 came to hear about an organization that has been gaining ground in other North Carolina cities and offers such a voice.

The Industrial Areas Foundation is a national organization founded in the 1930s by Saul Alinsky. Local affiliates like CHANGE use Industrial Areas Foundation methodology to organize community groups ranging from congregations to neighborhood associations. The groups then converge for structured meetings where they set priorities.

The goal is to hold government and business accountable, not to provide services already offered by member organizations. For instance, CHANGE conducted neighborhood and school audits and demanded that local officials fix problems. They did ‘— to date 96 percent of the items identified in the neighborhood audit have been repaired.

‘“Power is the ability to act,’” Baumann explained. ‘“We have a healthy skepticism of it. Power itself is neutral but it can be used for good or bad.’”

Some of the groups boast impressive gains. Communities Organized for Public Service in San Antonio formed a job-training program and exerts considerable political power. The East Brooklyn Congregations built a low-income housing development called Nehemiah Homes.

The idea is that by representing a cross section of society, an Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate would have more pull than any single voice. It is not an organization geared toward grooming political leaders, and employees are expressly barred from pursuing political office.

Similarly, their budget comes from dues paid by member organizations and a handful of grants. Affiliates take no money from corporations or government.

Deborah Kelly, executive director of Centro Latino and a board member of the Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated North Carolina Latino Coalition, said turf battles occasionally surface between member organizations. By the time meetings have concluded, the organizations have agreed on a number of goals beneficial to all.

Around the country 65 affiliates associate themselves with the umbrella organization. Besides CHANGE, Charlotte has Helping Empower Local People (HELP) and there’s the Metro Durham Sponsoring Committee.

Organizing in Greensboro has been going on for more than a year. Those interested in the project are still networking in small groups and holding house meetings with community leaders. So far, a small pre-sponsoring committee has formed.

The next step, if sufficient interest forms, is to organize a full-fledged sponsoring committee that will recruit member organizations.

But whether Greensboro will join the ranks of cities with Industrial Areas Foundation affiliates is yet to be seen. The orientation meeting piqued interest, but the attendees made no commitments. Kelly and Baumann urged attendees to share their handouts with anyone else who might be interested.

‘“I want everyone to know there is an open invitation for whoever,’” Kelly said.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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