Community Organizers Making Progress In D.C.

About The Series

Throughout the upcoming year, NPR will follow some of these community groups to see what, if anything, they are able to do with their newfound influence. This is the second report in the occasional series.

Community organizers were thrilled when Barack Obama — a former community organizer — was elected president. They figured they would now have a seat at the table and a better chance to help the poor and minorities they represent. They are putting this theory to the test during congressional debate on the economic stimulus package.

Steve Savner, director for public policy at the Center for Community Change, a Washington organizing group, instructed some grassroots activists last week on how they might get more money for affordable housing into the bill. He told them that Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) was important because he heads the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"He's supportive, but we want to push for even more money," Savner said. "He's proposed, I think, $2.25 billion and we want him to go up to $5 billion."

That's an ambitious request. But community activists, like everyone else, are eager to stake their claim in the first big debate of Obama's presidency. They think that what happens with this legislation will set the tone for the rest of the administration.

That's why the center brought 10 grass-roots activists to Washington last week for some team building, training and a trip to Capitol Hill. They plan to bring in similar groups each week until May to push for housing, health care and jobs, among other things.

For a generation, though, community activists have largely focused their attention on lobbying state and local government, not Congress. So Kate Van Winkle, the center's campaign organizer, gave them some pointers: Fine-tune your pitch and try to get a commitment.

"And I would also recommend today, tonight and tomorrow morning thinking about your story," she told the activists. "What's going to stick in the mind of that staff person or that member of Congress that's really going to sway them?"

The following morning, the activists arrived on Capitol Hill armed with tales of relatives and friends who had lost their jobs or health insurance. They also had lists of people to meet and maps to guide them through the maze of congressional offices.

Eddy Morales, the center's electoral field manager, was teamed up with Denise Smith of the Virginia Organizing Project, a social-justice effort, and Miriam Pena of Rights for All People, a Colorado immigrants-rights group.

"Why don't we head up to Longworth and Canon and then come back here?" Morales suggested, citing specific congressional buildings. "Try to be back here by 11 to do our Rayburn meeting."

They first dropped in, without an appointment, at the office of Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat.

Smith introduced herself to one of the congressman's aides, then made her pitch: "We want to try to make sure that some of the jobs that are being created go to low-income people."

She's from Bland County, which has a population of only 6,500 and is located in the Appalachian Mountains. Scott is from Newport News, on the other side of the state. But Smith noted that the Virginia Organizing Project, where she's a volunteer, operates statewide.

"We gave out 300,000 voter guides last year and we knocked on about 150,000 doors, and it wasn't just to give them a voter guide," she told the aide. It was also to ask about their concerns.

Now, the group has a database of everyone its canvassers have talked to and what issues they care about most. It's part of a national information network that community organizers hope to use increasingly, in the months to come, to help push their issues through Congress. In fact, while Smith was in Washington, colleagues back at the Virginia Organizing Project were e-mailing thousands of state residents, asking them to urge Congress to support health insurance for immigrant children, something else on Smith's agenda.

"And we're working real hard on it," she told Scott's aide, who assured her he would show the congressman the materials she left behind.

Progress On The Hill

Not bad for a first congressional visit. The next one was even better: The three activists had an appointment with Smith's own congressman, Democrat Rick Boucher. Boucher and Smith, who runs a museum in the district, already knew each other — a big plus on Capitol Hill.

Boucher said he was sympathetic to the group's call for more job opportunities for low-income workers. But, despite her instructions the day before, Smith failed to nail him down on the specifics.

"In this job stimulus thing, I would love to see that it go to low-income, minority, women — these jobs that they're training for, especially the construction jobs," Smith said.

"Well, my answer is that job training is a pervasive need, and across our society we need funding to enable people to obtain relevant jobs skills, and that is very true in my congressional district," Boucher responded.

That's a far cry from the commitment the group had hoped for. They want a provision in the stimulus bill that would set aside a certain percentage of new jobs for low-income and minority workers. But Smith did get something else from the visit: an invitation to return.

"You should make this an annual meeting," Boucher said. "And you can bring me up to date on what the needs are in Bland County and across the region, and I can give you a sense of what I'm thinking, too."

Gabe Gonzales, who is directing the Center for Community Change's campaign, says those kinds of relationship are very important. What the community activists are trying to do is to build a network with some long-term clout. He says the 300 grassroots organizations involved in the lobbying effort think they'll be more influential if they stick together.

"We've all made a fundamental agreement that if there's something moving in Congress that can benefit our communities as a whole, then we will all support it, regardless of the primary focus of our organization," he said. While the first week's topic was jobs and health care, the next week's could be immigration reform.

But it's unclear if the strategy will work. The scorecard after week one? The coalition of activists had no luck getting more funds for affordable housing or jobs set aside for low-income workers. But Congress did approve legislation providing health insurance for the children of legal immigrants. In fact, one of the group's lobbyists was invited to the White House to watch President Obama sign the bill — something the coalition sees as one sign they're starting to matter in Washington.

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