In his new podcast, “Listen, Organize, Act!” Luke Bretherton steps back from his usual role as the expert to share the stories, tactics and strategies of community organizers.
The podcast, which he describes as “a 101 course” in community organizing, was developed in collaboration with the Industrial Areas Foundation and features conversations with people who have on-the-ground experience.
“Listen, Organize, Act!” began in part as a way to continue the IAF’s teaching and training during the pandemic. Bretherton suggested a podcast as a way to introduce their ideas and methods. Each episode also includes suggested readings for deeper learning about community organizing.
Guests have included California farmworker-turned-organizer Maria Elena Manzo, Los Angeles-based organizer Robert Hoo, executive director/lead organizer at Greater Cleveland Congregations Keisha Krumm and Baltimore pastor and community leader Bishop Douglas Miles.
“It’s a tradition of getting people to think about their social, economic and political conditions and then think critically about the problems they face. It’s very much based around solving concrete community problems,” said Bretherton, a professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School.
“How do we bring faithful change politically in a polarized world -- and what does that look like in practice?”
Bretherton also is a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. His books include “Christianity and Contemporary Politics” and “Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy.”
He spoke to Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about the podcast, why he thinks the church should engage with organizing, and what Christian leaders can learn. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: What is community organizing, and what is its connection to the church?
Luke Bretherton: It’s what we might call small-d democratic politics and is rooted in the idea that people can come together to solve their own problems. It’s a very American tradition, and I would say it’s what Alexis de Tocqueville is talking about in “Democracy in America.”
We might need to hold the mayor or the senator or the congressman accountable for why they’re not fixing a problem. Or we might say we need to hold some corporation accountable for how they’re treating their workers or why they’re dumping all their stuff in this community or whatever it is.
It doesn’t work through individuals; you can only be part of a coalition as part of an institution. The majority of institutions have been churches of all stripes.
The Montgomery bus boycott was a form of community organizing. You wouldn’t have had the Montgomery bus boycott without, not just church leadership, but the institution of the church.
It’s a coalition of institutions in a specific place. All over the country, there are these coalitions of institutions. But it’s not just churches. It’s synagogues and it’s schools and residents associations and block clubs and football clubs -- where people gather, there’s a shared ethos, and it’s locally rooted.
So they come together, and there’s a recognition that there are certain things that I call “the politics of a common good.”
The kids don’t have anywhere to play that’s safe. What are we going to do about that? Whether I’m going to the synagogue, the teacher of the school or the church pastor, all our families are affected by the lack of safe places to play.
So we come together. We might get the mayor’s office to build a playground; we might fundraise to build a playground; we might get sponsorship from the local businesses to build a playground -- whatever it is. There’s a mutual recognition, and the organizer works with the institutions to identify issues, build relationships between them.
Now the point of community organizing actually is not the campaigns. It’s most famous for the campaigns, but the real point of community organizing is to reweave civil society. Unless you have a strong civil society, you are dominated by the market or the state. Again, this cuts against left and right.
The left want to say the problem is just the market, and the right want to say the problem is just the state -- and community organizing says, “You’re both the problem.”
Unless you have a strong civil society, active institutions building trust between each other, the market can run amok and the state can run amok. So you need accountability.
F&L: In theory, this could happen spontaneously in a community. But the folks you’re talking to are professionals -- what’s the role of their organization?
LB: It can happen spontaneously. But generally in history, that doesn’t happen. Generally, what happens is that either it is a political party organizing you or the mafia or the corporation -- and they’re not necessarily doing it for you. Any of those examples don’t have your best interests at heart.
In middle-class communities in the suburbs, homeowners associations are a form of community organizing. But that generally happens in communities where someone has time and agency and resources to do that work. A lot of middle-class folk learn in college or places like that how to organize among themselves.
Particularly in poor, marginalized communities, often there aren’t the resources. That’s predominantly where community organizing happens. It doesn’t happen spontaneously because people don’t have the time, money or skills to do that. Community organizing is just a way to craft that.
If you live in a food desert and you want to organize for a decent grocery store in your community, the market is not going to solve that problem. It’s not interested in it. The mayor is not going to solve that problem, unless you agitate him to change zoning laws to allow that or unless you pool your resources to actually buy a building to have a farmers market there.
So the professional community organizers are paid to train people how to organize themselves. They teach them in the craft of organizing so that they can change their communities for the better and ensure that they’re not always acted upon.
An essential commitment of democracy is that people should have some say in their living and working conditions.
Churches are involved, because these are their people. If you’re a pastor or involved in a church and you see the impacts of poverty in diminishing people’s self-respect, their agency, their ability to put food on the table, the quality of their jobs, the quality of their schools, their kids not having anywhere to play, well, pastoral care is not sufficient.
There’s a parable often told about the babies in the river. You can keep fishing the babies out of the river, but at a certain point, if you’re at all attentive, you’re going to ask yourself, “Who is throwing these babies in the river?” And you’re going to walk upstream and try and stop whoever is throwing the babies in the river.
You have to step beyond the ministry of mercy to actually address the causes.
F&L: You do this podcast with the Industrial Areas Foundation. How does the organization work? Do they find out about a controversy and then offer their services?
LB: They’re invited in. Normally, you would have a group of institutions. They’ve tried to address a whole bunch of problems through philanthropy, through service provision, and they’ve gotten to this point when they’re asking themselves, “Who is throwing the babies down the river? Let’s try and solve the baby-throwing problem.”
Then they think, “How do you do that? We want to do this more broadly, without getting caught up in partisan politics” -- and that’s when they call a network like IAF.
Then [IAF] says, “You’ve got to form a sponsoring committee. This is your organization. You just hire us to train you; you will have to do the work.”
It’s not us doing the work. It’s the iron rule of organizing: never do for others what they can do for themselves.
You’ve got to raise the money to pay for the trainer, to pay for the organizer, and if you raise that money, that shows you’re serious.
They do a listening campaign. Is that really the issue that your people care about? Is that really what is going on here? That’s relationship building.
You do what’s called one-to-ones. You sit down and you have, in many instances, thousands and thousands of relational meetings. You’re literally talking to people about their story, what they care about, what they’re angry about, what’s concerning them. And through that relational process of listening, you start to hear the same story again and again and again and again.
“Every time it rains, my basement floods, and no one in the council or the mayor’s office will talk to me about it. They just tell me it’s an act of God. I can’t get insurance and I can’t sell my house, and it’s killing me. I can’t remortgage the house, because it’s on a flood plain, and therefore I can’t get money to send my kid to college.”
It turns out the flooding is a key, key, key issue that’s keeping people poor. Then there’s a meaningful issue. It turns out there are thousands of people who are really motivated. They thought it was just their personal grief story.
Then you hold meetings and you get testimony and everyone goes, “Whoa, that’s my story! That’s exactly my problem. I didn’t know anyone else had this.”
And then it turns out you’ve got 2,000 people, 3,000 people who all have got the same problem and are prepared to work on that issue together, whether they’re a Muslim or a Jew or a Christian or a left or a right.
In the process of working on that issue, we build social trust. We reweave civil society. We hold the market and state accountable, and all sorts of other things. Democracy is stronger. There’s more neighborliness in the world than there was before.
I think that’s at the heart of why church is involved. We say we’re about neighbor love. This is a concrete way you build up neighborliness in a meaningful way, not a vague, sentimental way.
The insight of community organizing is it’s only when there’s a real thing in the world that needs changing do people genuinely come together and genuinely build trust and meaningful relationship over time.
Community organizing embodies a way for churches to be political without being partisan. The podcast very intentionally discusses the relationship between religion and democracy.
A lot of pastors and Christian leaders think there are only two options: either we don’t do politics, or we do party politics. A central theme of the podcast is, that doesn’t exhaust the options. There’s a rich history of Christians and churches involved in small-d democratic politics.
F&L: Why a podcast?
LB: I’ve done a lot of work on community organizing more generally, and specifically worked with the Industrial Areas Foundation. I was involved in a series of conversations with the leading organizers, and they were expressing concern around how do you do training under conditions of COVID.
I’ve learned a lot in my own education, my own pedagogy and how I teach, from taking part in these trainings. They’re very good, and there’s a whole craft and art to what’s generally called popular education.
There’s a very rich tradition to this, particularly here in the South. It was a key part of the civil rights movement -- people like Ella Baker and Septima Clark.
F&L: So you’re interested in it as a teacher?
LB: I’m a theological educator. The modality through which I educate, whether that’s in a classroom, a podcast, on Twitter, is secondary. My area is helping the church engage faithfully, hopefully and lovingly, politically and economically. That’s my jam.
I have a particular expertise in forms of democratic politics, and in particularly this form. The podcast embodies the spirit of the form itself.
I’ve written on this extensively and teach it in the divinity school context, and I’ve done ethnographic anthropological work on it as well.
I’ve got very good relationships with people involved in this world who were a little bit suspicious about social media activism. I said, “Well, look, a podcast is the genre which best replicates this kind of teaching.”
You can tell stories. It’s dialogic; it’s interactive. It’s not me standing up and giving a lecture; it’s a three-way dialogue and conversation. And that’s very much the format, exploring a theme or problem or issue.
You’ve got conceptual stuff. You’ve got biblical stuff. You’ve got richly theological conversations.
There are classic issues they always talk about -- power, leadership. They have a very distinctive vision of leadership, which I think the church could learn a lot from.