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Durham CAN shepherds a successful agenda 

A grassroots group that's been sowing seeds across many facets of Durham reaped two big victories for low-wage workers in the last two months, persuading county commissioners to adopt a living wage of $9.51/hour for their employees and to look into expanding the standard to outside contract staffers as well.

"The mix of people and institutions there was just outstanding, and the show of our people power was really present," says Chris Bishop, the organizer of Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods. Durham CAN, a local chapter of Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation, packed the commissioners Jan. 12 public hearing with a standing-room only crowd to support the proposal.

"We cannot have real justice until we have economic justice," the Rev. Cornelius Battle, a CAN member, told commissioners as his colleagues stood quietly along the side aisle holding posters of quotes from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The living wage for full-time county workers, which equals roughly $19,800 in annual salary, takes effect July 1. Commissioners also agreed to hire a consultant to study how to apply it to salaries of those who work for the county indirectly, under 545 contracts.

The living wage victories marked yet another milestone for Durham CAN, a multi-racial, multi-denominational, multi-lingual organization that focuses on empowering a diverse group of average citizens to make a difference in their community. The group launched its public agenda about two years ago after quietly building bridges among churches, political action committees, Latino centers and other community groups. So far, Durham CAN has led efforts to raise emergency funding for low-income families who were about to lose their child-care allotments last year; conducted a comprehensive study of lead poisoning among Durham children; evaluated the job-training options available in the Bull City and revealed an empty building at one site; and, for each election cycle over the last two years, held candidate forums to elicit commitments to specific action items on the CAN agenda.

"We've got volunteers who are learning about how to govern our city and our county," Bishop says. "We've got folks looking at local politics in a way they never have before, and they're really excited."

The Durham branch of the IAF was the second one formed in North Carolina, following a group in Charlotte calling itself HELP, or Helping Empower Local People. Groups in Winston-Salem and Raleigh have since followed. Raleigh Organizing for Action and Results (ROAR) went public with its agenda last May, and organizers are now beginning to lay some groundwork in Orange County, says Gerald Taylor, the IAF's southeast regional coordinator. Nationwide, there are about 60 such groups under the IAF umbrella.

The Raleigh group swung into action the same way Durham's did, with "neighborhood audits" tracking street-by-street issues like junked cars and prostitution activity. Next on ROAR's agenda: evaluating the Community Development Block Grant program to see how public money is being spent; a look at job training programs; and an audit of public schools in the fall, Taylor says.

The 14 IAF groups throughout the south--four in North Carolina, three in Tennessee and five in Mississippi--will gather in Nashville in March to look at national issues and meet with presidential candidates, while Durham will host a statewide conference for the four N.C. IAF groups in April, to which gubernatorial and statewide candidates will be invited.

"Our work in the South is certainly moving forward," he says.

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