March 9, 2011 08:03

10 years of CHANGE in Winston-Salem

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photos by Lisa Deluca (mccarvillelisa@yahoo.com)

Rev. Kelly Carpenter speaks to the congregation at Green Street Methodist in Winston-Salem.

The Sunday service at Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem on March 6 celebrated the final Sunday of Epiphany. The service of music and worship could have taken place at any Methodist church in any city in the world. During the sermon on Christ’s transfiguration, however, the Rev. Kelly Carpenter made it clear why Green Street holds the distinction of being the epicenter of the local community organizing movement known as CHANGE. “We live in a world that is possessed,” Carpenter declared to the church congregation.

Carpenter went on to explain that the world is under the influence of powerful forces that try to keep us passive, apathetic, lethargic, unhealthy and overweight. Our systems of education and healthcare are not serving us as they are supposed to, Carpenter said. He called upon his congregants to help bring about change in the world by first transforming their own lives.

The Rev. Willard Bass, assistant pastor at Green Street, issued a similar call during the service.

“Help us, oh Lord, to be the change that we want to see in the world,” Bass said in prayer.

Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment, took root in the Winston- Salem community 10 years ago and Green Street has become the group’s unofficial headquarters.

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Steve Boyd (courtesy photo).

The Rev. Steve Boyd, a religion professor at Wake Forest University, is one of the people credited with bringing the Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF, to Winston-Salem and the subsequent creation of CHANGE.

The IAF is a national community organizing network established in the 1940s by Saul Alinsky. CHANGE is one of 57 IAF affiliates in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.

According to its 2010 annual report, CHANGE is a “501(c)3 not-for-profit organization that is grassroots, nonpartisan, multiracial, multi-ethnic and multi-faith.”

CHANGE’s membership is comprised of more than 50 dues-paying congregations, neighborhood associations and other interested groups that total more than 26,000 members. The report clearly states that CHANGE is not “a movement, a protest group, a political action committee or a service organization.”

“We do not run programs, endorse candidates or take government money,” the report states.

CHANGE defines its mission of building a stronger community in the context of developing relationships across racial, ethnic, economic, political and religious lines; cultivating the skills of leaders inside its member institutions; developing strong congregations and institutions; identifying concerns and needs; and acting together for the common good.

In the beginning

Twenty years ago, Boyd was one of several local clergy who were outraged by a vicious hate crime involving an African-American man and an incident where an African- American woman died in a holding cell of the Winston-Salem Police Department.

“For some people in the community that was inexcusable,” Boyd said. “There was the perception that African Americans were not treated the same as white people by our police department.”

Boyd said those two incidents spurred a number of local religious leaders to action with the hope of bringing reconciliation between two historically separate communities.

“It was a case of the white community waking up and seeing what racism looks like,” Boyd said.

As the clergy members began to address issues involving Winston-Salem’s criminal justice system, they began to see the connections between race and education, economic development and jobs. At some point, the challenge became overwhelming, Boyd said, and people stopped coming to meetings.

Boyd said he and his fellow clergy members realized they needed an organization that fully grasped the complexity of these issues.

“What I realized is that you need professionals who work on this full time,” Boyd said. “How do you do this in a way that cultivates trust along socioeconomic, racial and religious lines? Because you need a significant number of people to get involved to have any significant impact.”

The Winston-Salem clergy members looked at a number of models before coming across the IAF. Ten years ago, at the invitation of the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity, IAF representatives traveled to the city to teach community leaders the skills and strategies necessary to address issues of racial inequality. A year later, the group named itself CHANGE.

Boyd said his first experience as a community organizer in the early 1990s revealed to him why a group like CHANGE is absolutely essential to giving a voice to all citizens, regardless of race, class or social status.

Boyd led a group of concerned citizens who opposed the expansion of a landfill in the northern sector of the city.

“They were going to expand that landfill, which is inside the city limits and it was going to affect the property values of the people around it,” Boyd said. “It didn’t make any sense to us because it was a regional landfill. We began to wonder, why do we have a landfill in the city limits?” Boyd and his neighbors formed the Grassy Creek Neighborhood Alliance and as they delved deeper into the issue, they realized that the city’s utilities commission held an enormous amount of power and that power went essentially unchecked.

“They are unelected, so not accountable to the public and they make decisions about how much we pay for trash, water and sewer and where water goes in the county,” Boyd said. “This was a real education for us.”

Ultimately, Boyd’s education with the neighborhood alliance taught him a valuable lesson.

“The business sector is well organized and well represented,” Boyd said. “They hire lobbyists; they give campaign contributions. It’s what we call organized money.”

Boyd said he and other community organizers found out the hard way that individual citizens do not have a voice at the table, but an organized group of citizens can make a difference.

“That’s what CHANGE does; it organizes people and that’s power, too,” Boyd said. “It’s a form of power, so what we’re trying to do is create a more balanced table. I think we’ve contributed to a more balanced table in Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.”

One of the major impact’s of CHANGE’s work over the past 10 years is folks in Winston-Salem have come to believe their voice matters, Boyd said.

Equally important, the inspiration for the beginnings of CHANGE are reflected in the group’s daily work.

“It’s basically white people and black people joining together, listening to one another, talking to one another, finding out what’s going on in the community,” Boyd said.

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Lily MacLachlan, 9, sings and plays the tambourine during worship at Green Street Methodist.

Culture of separation

One of the things that sets CHANGE apart from the 56 other member institutions of the IAF is its creation of the Institute for Dismantling Racism, or IDR. Bass, the founder of IDR, said the institute addresses social issues in the context of Winston-Salem’s racial history.

“The Winston-Salem culture is a deep one and it was established on this slave labor and then coming out of slave labor,” Bass explained. “You had [slave] owners who possessed most of the power and influence in the community. They supplied labor, and when there were problems, they could step in. They could provide these opportunities to [avoid] unrest by supplying better wages, but all the while, this culture of separation still existed.”

The IDR has created a way to move out of the culture of separation, and offered an alternative way for Winston-Salem residents to peacefully coexist while sharing their common issues and concerns, Bass said.

Reaching across racial lines has served as a primary theme of CHANGE since its inception as evidenced by the group’s successful efforts to help bridge the racial divide in Winston-Salem.

Boyd cited the group’s work on the 2005 school bond referendum that would’ve raised $80 million to mostly build new schools in the city’s predominantly white suburbs. CHANGE’s membership, which includes 53 local church congregations, created and executed a strategy to ensure that children who lived and attended school in the center city had a voice at the table.

“It never got to a vote because we turned out 400 people at a public hearing at Carver High School,” Boyd said. “It was very clear that people were very upset about the bond issue.”

CHANGE began its negotiations with Superintendant Donald L. Martin and in 2006, the school system agreed to put forth a $250 million bond referendum where 50 percent of the funds were earmarked for new schools while the other 50 percent was earmarked to rebuild inner-city schools. The school bond passed.

“That’s just an example of people who are organized and can turn people out to meetings,” Boyd said. “We weren’t opposed to new construction of schools in the suburbs; it’s just that you can’t spend all your money on that. It’s not about winning and losing. What we’re trying to do is have a more effective voice at the table.”

Boyd said the foundation for CHANGE’s successful negotiation of the school bond started in 2004 when more than 150 CHANGE leaders walked through every public school in the district and met with principals to document equity needs. As a result of the audit, CHANGE reached an agreement with Martin to fix 56 health and safety items and worked with school staff to create baseline equity standards for every school in Forsyth County.

However, not all CHANGE initiatives have enjoyed the same success as the group’s work on the school bond issue. In January, former Forsyth County Health Director Tim Monroe resigned after a controversy involving the department’s “anti-racism team,” a program led by Bass and the Institute for Dismantling Racism.

Former health department employees accused Monroe of reverse discrimination. Bass acknowledged that the IDR received criticism from some in the community but handled it by focusing on the achievements of the anti-racism team.

“CHANGE uses the same kind of approach,” Bass said. “Instead of responding to every negative news bite that comes along, we decided that what we would do is lift up the work that we do.

“The 10 years we’ve been in this community we’ve had results and very good results, so we’re not going to be responding to the negativism that these political groups throw at us,” Bass continued. “It’s designed to discredit us; it’s designed to take away whatever gains we’ve made in the community.”

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Rev. Willard W. Bass Jr. (left) and Rev. Kelly P. Carpenter prepare the Holy Communion.

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Choir Director Kevin Mundy leads the choir into song.

Stirring up passions

CHANGE is no stranger to criticism from the more conservative voices in the Winston- Salem community. Often, debates over the group’s merits take place on the editorial page of the Winston-Salem Journal. In the Feb. 25 edition of the Journal, William A. Goins, the husband of school board member Jane Goins, referred to CHANGE as a “farleft group” with a liberal agenda.

Anne G. Wilson, a member of CHANGE and Green Street United Methodist Church, responded to Goins’ letter with a letter of her own published in the March 1 edition of the Journal. Wilson took issue with Goins’ characterization of CHANGE as a “far-left group.”

“I don’t know of a ‘far-left’ group in all of Forsyth County, and certainly would not be a member of one,” Wilson wrote. “The majority of the members of CHANGEare also members of local congregations. We worship in Forsyth County We work, shop and enjoy the arts in Forsyth County We pay taxes. We work hard to improve our community. We are everyone’s neighbors.”

Wilson defended CHANGE and rebuked Goins’ assertion that the group has a partisan agenda.

“Perhaps Goins would be enlightened if  he encouraged his church to join CHANGE” Wilson concluded.

In a telepone interview, Wilson said conservatives critics of CHANGE are simply uninformed about the group’s mission.

“The conservatives, they feel that CHANGE is about social justice — CHANGE is about social justice, not for liberals or conservatives but for the common good,” Wilson said. “Any time social justice comes up, you think Democrat. I think the whole concept of grassroots is threatening to this conservative group.”

The leaders of CHANGE, however, are adamant that the group is not a political party nor a political action committee. In a statement, Boyd said CHANGE does not express an opinion on every electoral or political issue that confronts the community.

“We work on problems/issues that concern our member institutions, develop particular goals, engage the public, including public officials, and then negotiate solutions to those problems/issues,” Boyd stated.

CHANGE became involved in the push to make the local school board elections nonpartisan because the issues the school board deals with are nonpartisan, Boyd said.

“Partisan elections required candidates to either submit to a partisan vetting process or obtain 8,000 signatures to appear on the ballot,” Boyd stated. “We believed that dampened the interest in running of potential candidates, with expertise in education and a passion for children.”

In 2009, CHANGE scored a monumental legislative victory when the NC General Assembly passed HB 833, which made Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education elections nonpartisan. CHANGE spent months lobbying state senators and representatives to get the legislation passed. Reps. Larry Womble and Earline Parmon, who represent Forsyth County, served as the bill’s co-sponsors.

A record-high 26 candidates filed to run for the nine seats on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education during the filing period last year. Representatives of CHANGE attributed the dramatic spike in candidate filings to the race being nonpartisan.

Prior to the 2010 elections, CHANGE submitted three questions to school board candidates regarding increased family engagement, bringing an end to the general practice of out-of-school suspension and a formal public exploration of alternative student assignment plans to increase diversity and improve student achievement. CHANGE published the results of the survey, which revealed that the majority of incumbent school board mem bers

did not fully support all three tenets of CHANGE’s education agenda.

The Nov. 2 election brought no change in the leadership of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board. Bass said the results of the 2010 midterm elections were an eyeopening experience for many members of CHANGE.

“What I have come to understand is that because of the type of issues we’re dealing with — where we’re looking at equity, where we’re looking at fairness in providing resources and influence — that we as an organization do not have the relationships with our grassroots members that we should even though we thought we did,” Bass said.

“As leaders of CHANGE promoted the group’s education agenda, it might have made assumptions about people’s attitude toward education equality.”

“In the work we did, we assumed that folks understood what diversity meant or what equity meant,” Bass continued. “We go forward now trying to figure out ways that we can really be in relationships with people across the community so that as we organize, we can all have an understanding of what the deep concerns are, what the issues that lie behind the major issue of equity, because I don’t think a lot of people experience equity in a fair way.”

Bass said a fresh approach to engaging the 26,000-plus members of CHANGE will help build a deeper and wider base of support.

“It’s going to take authentic relationships to do that,” Bass said.

In the meantime, CHANGE must take steps to ensure its members do not become discouraged by the outcome of one election, Bass said.

“When you start reaching across racial lines, there is this experience of inequity, things just not happening and we seem to come back to this same place,” Bass said. “The thought that we can’t make it because there isn’t any real proof that a significant difference can be made for people of color, black people in Winston-Salem.”

The new face of activism

Bass cited the thousands rallying in Madison, Wis. to defeat an anti-union bill proposed by Gov. Scott Walker the past several weeks and similar solidarity protests around the nation as evidence of a new kind of activism blossoming in 2011.

“There seem to be a lot of organizations that are coming forward that are really beginning to speak out about these [social] justice issues,” Bass said. “As far as the black community, they have always been there. Whether it’s jobs, education or healthcare, there have always been disparities that have existed. Because now that they’re beginning to affect more than communities of color, you’re having more of a folks who have not been affected by income reductions, budget cuts now being affected by that sort of thing.”

In this climate of social activism, CHANGE has an opportunity “to take advantage of the action by these various other social action groups to show and give evidence to the community as a whole that there are a lot of groups involved that can make a difference,” Bass said.

CHANGE is constantly in the process of reorganizing and 2011 will be no different, Boyd said.

“One of the aphorisms in church history is the church is always in the process of reform — one way we talk about it is we are always reorganizing,” Boyd said. “In terms of the reorganizing, we feel like we need to know each other better. There’s always a process of relational work. Where else do you see people in the city, Latino, black, white, Asian coming together and talking to each other?”

As CHANGE moves forward, the group will continue its work on issues of education, healthcare and jobs as the group continues to unite people whose social networks would not otherwise bring them together, Boyd said. “My hope is the conversations will be deeper and broader among those folks who aren’t usually involved in conversations about their common interests and that could be because of religious diversity, because of racial ethnic identity, socioeconomic dif- ferences — all these things tend to put us in social groups or clubs,” Boyd said. “In CHANGE, we try to create a space where people who are not used to talking to each other in a meaningful way have an opportu- nity to do that.” The Rev. Darryl Aaron of Highland Avenue Baptist Church in Winston-Salem said CHANGE’s future is bright due in large part to its adherence to its core principles. “The beauty of CHANGE is it´s an organi- zation that gives people who see the disparity, the injustice and gives them a framework by which they can organize and fight that  injustice,” Aaron said. “It’s not politically driven; it is strictly about organizing people to exercise their full potential so all persons in the community might get the right piece of the pie.”

CHANGE draws people from all facets of the community regardless of political affiliation, reaching out to “everyone who wants to participate in eradicating justice and seeing the community live out its ideals,” Aaron said.

Marina Skinner, associate pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, said her vision of CHANGE’s future includes the extensive use of social media to reach out to broaden its base of membership among young people.

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Sharee Fowler (courtesy photo).

Sharee Fowler, a founder of CHANGE, said the to fully understand the ethos of the group, it is important to listen the voices of its members. Fowler related the testimony of several CHANGE members during a recent retreat.

“Attending his first delegates assembly, one leader said, ‘It was the largest gathering of diverse people I had ever seen in my life and the joy I felt was overwhelming,’” Fowler said.

“Another leader said, ‘CHANGE was my place of growing up and under- standing this call and being around a group of people who nurtured that.’” Fowler said a member of CHANGE’s lead- ership team summed up their experience in the organization by stating, “Understanding this isn’t you and me, this is us. We are doing this together. I have this wonderful sense that we are in this together.” Fowler said the training she has received as a leader of CHANGE has transformed her into a better teacher, professional and community member, and that is why the organization will remain viable and deeply engaged in the issues that affect all Forsyth County residents for decades to come. “I am a better everything because of CHANGE,” Fowler said. “I am a more engaged citizen, and I am more committed to the future of this community because of this organization. CHANGE has profoundly impacted my faith journey and my sense of hopefulness for the future. To be honest, I’m not sure I would have stayed in this community had it not been for CHANGE.”

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