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Think political power is reserved for the well-heeled and well-connected? A new grassroots group in Durham wants you to think again.

Building Blocs 

Think political power is reserved for the well-heeled and well-connected? A new grassroots group in Durham wants you to think again.

Their motto is "No permanent friends, no permanent enemies--permanent issues."

Their members are whites, blacks and Latinos who count themselves and one another at meetings in celebration of the strength in their numbers.

Their agenda tackles broad issues such as housing and education with specific proposals like testing all pre-1978 homes for lead paint and providing free after-school programs in every neighborhood.

Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN) has been sowing the seeds for a new grassroots effort for nearly four years, working quietly to build coalitions among church memberships, political action committees and neighborhood groups. The group has slowly cultivated political power using the Industrial Areas Foundation model created by legendary organizer Saul Alinsky.

After years of groundwork, the group began holding "house meetings" around town last February. With input from 1,600 Durhamites, the group crafted and ratified an "agenda for change" last summer, forming four committees to study and take action on particular issues later in the year.

Alinsky's primary organizing philosophy was to teach average citizens how to get and keep political power by building multi-racial, interdenominational alliances within their community and tackling large problems one specific solution at a time.

"We're teaching people to take a problem that's general and goes on forever and turn it into an issue that's specific, immediate and winnable--and more importantly, has a face to it," says chief organizer Chris Bishop.

Throughout the fall, Durham CAN members conducted two "neighborhood audits" in low-income sections of the city, documenting 518 instances of street-level problems such as abandoned cars, poor lighting, and drug-trafficking corners. They forwarded the findings to the mayor and city council for action, and are scheduling a half-day retreat with city leaders this spring. As another project, members of the jobs and economic development team visited 14 public and private job-training centers in the city, documenting gaps in the offerings available to residents looking for job skills.

"We want to tell our political leaders and our business leaders what hurts the people of Durham. Not only tell them, but work with them to make it better," says Father David McBriar of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, one of 25 institutions that belong to Durham CAN.

There are about 60 IAF-affiliated groups based on the model first used by Alinsky, a Chicago-area organizer in the 1940s, '50s and '60s and author of Rules for Radicals.

The IAF groups around the country vary greatly because their agendas are tailored to local priorities. For example, a Charlotte group called Helping Empower Local People (HELP) successfully defeated a referendum to spend $200 million in taxpayer money to fund a new Charlotte Hornets stadium after city leaders refused to pass a "living wage" law that would ensure workers at the publicly funded stadium earned at least $9 an hour.

But one trait all IAF groups share is incorporating and building bridges among existing diverse organizations in each community, predominantly religious institutions. Churches of different denominations are among the members of Durham CAN, as well as organizations like the Catholic Social Ministries, El Centro Hispano and the People's Alliance political action group.

Group members say Durham CAN involves and empowers low-income and working-class residents who have been locked out of politics by the traditional power structures.

"Persons who live in this community, who are impacted by problems in this community, can have a voice," says the Rev. Kenneth Hammond of Union Baptist Church. "This is a coalition of commitment, not just of agenda, but a commitment to change the lives of people."

One key to the IAF approach is to draw a large number of people of diverse backgrounds into the agenda-setting process by slowly building long-lasting relationships among them. That's why the Durham CAN group has been slow to formally organize. Led by Gerald Taylor, the IAF's southeast regional supervisor, leaders have been carefully cultivating the organization since 1997, though they didn't adopt a name or an agenda until last summer.

Healthy, strong working relationships among members of the group create a foundation that withstands issue debates, says Taylor, a 30-year veteran of grassroots organizing who believes in "agitating within a framework of trust."

"The overwhelming majority of residents of a city don't participate in public life. They get mobilized around a particular issue, usually against a development, which is a temporary debate," he says. By contrast, the IAF model uses its network of relationships to tackle a wide variety of issues across the political spectrum. "Some of the issues look liberal. Some look moderate. Some conservative. Eventually, we will all be at the table."

Take Durham CAN's multi-racial membership, which includes several large black, white and Hispanic church congregations as well as community groups of all three races. It will be a key to overcoming the racial tensions that often decide Durham's political games, Taylor says.

"There are people in this town who want to continue to play the race card," says Taylor, who is black. "They're going to look bad when there's a group of black, white and Hispanic people willing to step over that."

The Charlotte group provides a good example of the IAF process. There, the group HELP began building relationships in 1992 and became publicly active with its agenda in 1996, says organizer Chris Baumann. The stadium referendum defeat last summer generated much conflict within the group as well as external criticism from black leaders, but ultimately the HELP members unified and ran a powerful campaign on the argument that the city shouldn't give free money to millionaire professional ball club owners if it wasn't willing to provide some benefits to working-class citizens in the process. In addition, HELP has been deeply involved in Charlotte's school desegregation debate, get-out-the-vote efforts and a drive to provide health insurance for low-income children.

"It used to be, a few corporate leaders and the city council would get together and decide what would happen in Charlotte," says Baumann, one of two full-time IAF organizers there. "HELP has been able to push average citizens to the table."

Efforts are also under way to start an IAF affiliate in Winston-Salem, and Taylor says he will turn his attention on Raleigh and Chapel Hill now that the Durham effort is up and running.

In the Bull City, the new group is gearing up for its second election cycle this May, when voters will elect members to the embattled Durham school board. Durham CAN plans to build on its experiences from last November, when it held "candidate accountability" meetings for the mayor and city council seats.

The "candidate accountability" sessions illustrate the organization's grassroots approach to politics, Bishop says. Unlike Durham's established political groups, which hold forums or do straightforward endorsement interviews, Durham CAN asks each candidate to state publicly whether they agree or disagree with their group's specific agenda items. Last fall, the group's list included initiatives such as hiring bi-lingual city staff and establishing free after-school programs in all neighborhoods.

At a gathering 10 days before the Nov. 6 election, the format didn't sit well with Nick Tennyson, the incumbent (and now former) mayor who'd come prepared to give a campaign speech to the 300 Durham CAN members gathered in the church basement that Saturday morning.

"If I need to say yes or no, there's no reason to go through this. I'm real sorry about the way this is set up," Tennyson said when moderator Ivan Parra began asking Tennyson to state his position on such questions as whether he would commit to provide funding to test pre-school children for lead poisoning. "This presupposes a lot of flexibility that doesn't exist and a whole lot of funding that doesn't exist."

Parra pressed on through the agenda items anyway, eliciting responses such as "that's an interesting concept, but I can't comment specifically" from Tennyson. The caustic tone of the then-mayor (who was unseated by challenger Bill Bell the following week) drew surprise and more than a few indignant glares from the audience, where parents shuffled baby strollers and a large group of Latino members listened through headphones to a Spanish translation of his comments.

"People said to me afterwards, 'He doesn't have to respect me, but he doesn't have to be rude to me. How dare he come in and behave that way?'" Bishop says, admitting that the format was a change for the candidates. "They're used to walking in and running the show."

Durham CAN used the candidate responses to draft a "report card" that went out to roughly 10,000 people in about 30 different organizations, Bishop said. Group members will repeat that process this spring and step up its voter-participation drive. Last fall, group members called about 100 voters in five precincts with traditionally low turnout, particularly among minorities, and reminded them to vote on Election Day. Bishop says they hope to increase the number of precincts and phone calls and have more impact on voter turnout next time around. More neighborhood audits and continued work to improve local job training programs are also on the agenda for 2002.

"A democracy has to be held accountable," Taylor says. "It can't be left up to the politicians." EndBlock

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