By Andrew Wilkes
The Forum Blog is publishing a series that responds to the question: When does historic preservation become social justice? In this post we examine the connection between historic preservation, social justice, and faith-based community organizing. Interested in starting a discussion about the series? Sign up for Forum Connect.
While community organizing collectives are diverse and pursue a variety of missions, at their core they are institutions that organize individuals with common policy goals and civic concerns to access and leverage resources. Sociologists Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker define community organizing as the “process of building a mobilizable community” and contend that it is a “craft” that constructs an “enduring network of people, who identify with common ideals, and who can engage in social action on the basis of those ideals.” Stall and Stoecker establish community organizing as change oriented, highly relational, and time intensive. To organize communities well, in other words, requires not only a cause but also the thick connective tissue of personal relationships that sustain organizations and can be mobilized into group action.
Within community organizing, there is a specific tradition of faith-rooted organizing. The Revs. Alexia Salvatierra and Dr. Peter Heltzel define faith-rooted organizing as using songs, symbols, and stories of religious traditions to bring people together to create change. This mobilizing practice is especially noteworthy at the intersection of social justice and preservation because, in many lower-income communities with rich histories, faith communities are repositories of legacy, occasionally even functioning as de facto local museums.
As an ordained minister and community organizer, I have spent the last 10 years working in varying capacities with congregations of different faiths to advance community development, racial equity, and economic justice. In the course of this work, I have seen the fruitfulness of combining community organizing and preservation first hand.
Mobilizing Faith Communities for Foreclosure Prevention
Faith communities facilitate community development not only through direct service but also by organizing to ensure that the public sector meets communities’ critical needs. In 2012, while New York State was still regaining its stride following the Great Recession of 2008, Governor Andrew Cuomo released an executive budget that zeroed out funding for foreclosure prevention. This funding is critical to renegotiating the terms of mortgages and for receiving assistance for legal aid and housing counseling groups.
Southeast Queens, a community that I serve as an Associate Pastor of the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York, was one of the two hardest-hit areas in terms of foreclosures following the recession. At the time, I was working with Habitat for Humanity in New York City. In response to the governor’s budget, I mobilized our network of 140 faith communities across the city to advocate for restored foreclosure prevention funding, particularly in communities of color hit hardest by the recession. It is worth noting that this mobilization happened within a broader coalition of community organizing, which included legal services and housing counseling groups. Each congregation participating in that organizing coordinated its clergy and a supporting ministry or committee, in some cases newly formed, and committed volunteers to ensure the preservation of affordable housing for New York’s most vulnerable communities.
After leading a successful blitz campaign that engaged more than 40 congregations in less than six weeks, we were able to help secure $60 million in foreclosure prevention funding over three years. This funding for legal services and housing counseling provided a critical lifeline to struggling families who rely on frontline service providers to help them through difficult financial periods.
This protective work of community organizing understands preservation as not only about sustaining cultural memory but also about protecting asset-building opportunities for households of color. These households have historically been excluded from such opportunities but their wealth, like that of most Americans, is tied up in residential structures. This work also carries a potential multiplier effect. Homeowners with an intergenerational attachment to their neighborhoods—and renters of similar tenure—are often more civically engaged and thus more likely to forge what Stall and Stoecker call the “enduring network of people” needed to engage in community organizing.
Faith-Rooted Organizing After Superstorm Sandy
Disaster recovery is a companion of preservation in that one of its main goals is to help communities preserve—or, even better, revive—their commercial corridors, residential areas, and civic rituals or traditions. Faith communities, among other institutions, played a pivotal role in preserving communities after Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012. At the time, Sandy constituted the greatest natural disaster to hit the Atlantic seaboard in roughly a quarter-century. At the height of the storm, 7.5 million people were without power and water levels were 14 feet above the average low tide. The storm was also an economic disaster, causing $62 billion in damage—the most since Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Soon after Sandy, I began working with the American Red Cross, where I served as the senior grants manager for Superstorm Sandy recovery. I supported several faith-based organizations, including United Methodist Committee on Relief, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Presbyterian Disaster Awareness, and Catholic Charities. With the assistance of professionals and skilled volunteers, these communities were especially critical in mold remediation, housing repair, fundraising, and disbursing emergency financial assistance. Additionally, they rendered crucial disaster chaplaincy services, providing emotional and spiritual care to families undergoing trauma. During disaster recovery, faith communities are well situated to provide critical relationships, local knowledge, and in-kind resources.
In addition to aiding community development directly after the storm, faith communities, along with labor unions and other membership-driven organizations, helped preserve the well-being of families and neighborhoods through community organizing. Through a citywide effort convened and run by Faith in New York, my church, the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral of New York, played an essential role in collecting policy input from neighborhoods that had been impacted by Sandy.
In July 2014 Greater Allen Cathedral hosted Faith in New York’s citywide public assembly about Superstorm Sandy—the culmination of years of political education, mobilization, and action. The more than 1,600 people in attendance included representatives from the Mayor’s Office of Storm Recovery, employees of relevant city agencies, and local city councilmembers. Faith leaders from nearly 50 congregations advocated for the equitable distribution of community development block grant funds (CDBG-DR) for redevelopment in New York’s coastal communities and encouraged elected officials to direct sufficient resources to the hardest-hit areas of the city—which were often those that had also had the least resources before the storm. Through our collective effort, we were able to promote local hiring standards for contracts covering more than $750 million worth of reconstruction work; ensure that procurement contracts created pathways for Sandy-impacted persons to gain training and employment in rebuilding their communities through Workforce One and direct entry into unions; and set a national precedent of using CDBG-DR funds for workforce development and training. Faith communities are neighborhood anchors that, when organized, amplify policy priorities that ensure fair access to resources.
Community organizing is informed by a deep sense of historic place and cultural memory—a dynamic that is especially pronounced when religious institutions, congregational or denominational, are organized to deliver services, advocate for justice, and preserve the well-being of the most vulnerable communities. Faith-rooted organizing provides a range of grassroots resources and connective tissue that can aid historic preservation efforts by finding under-recognized partners who are well positioned to maximize community impact.
Andrew Wilkes is the principal of Wilkes Advocacy Group; a 2011 Coro Fellows alumnus; and the former executive director of the Drum Major Institute, a social change organization founded by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Wilkes also serves as an associate pastor of Social Justice and Young Adults at Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York, the second largest church in New York State.