Faith-based Organizing, Congregational Development, and Coalition Politics

As one of the inaugural Community Ethics Collaboration grants from the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Faith-based Organizing, Congregational Development, and Coalition Politics is exploring how organizing can connect congregations with local communities to help foster meaningful and transformational change for the better, in both the communities and in the congregations.  Through a podcast series, on-line workshops, and public scholarship, this project draws together, communicates, and archives the wisdom of community organizers and local leaders who have many years of successful experience enabling grassroots democratic politics and building coalitions between religious and non-religious groups to address issues of social justice and community concern.

As part of this project, the Listen, Organize, Act! podcast focuses on the history and contemporary practice of community organizing and democratic politics. Alongside this main focus, the podcast also explores two questions: 1) how organizing connects democracy and religion, particularly at a local congregational level; and 2) how organizing embodies a distinctive vision and practice of democratic politics, one that seeks to embody, struggle for, and protect the shared flourishing of all.

Each episode has readings that accompany it and can be listened to individually or used as the basis for a group discussion. But, when listened to together, the episodes build on each other, with the series as a whole being a 101 course in the meaning, purpose and mechanics of how to do community organizing and generate meaningful change in local communities.

“Listening and organizing are the means of coming together, but at a certain point people must act together to move the world as it is towards becoming a more just and generous one in which all may flourish. In acting together, rather than simply being acted upon or responding to the decisions others make on their behalf, individuals discover their agency, forge a common world of meaning and action with others not like them, and in doing so, reweave the fabric of social trust and solidarity that makes society between strangers possible.”

– Luke Bretherton, Kenan Senior Fellow and Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School, in this piece on the theology and political philosophy beneath his work on the Listen, Organize, Act! podcast.

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Access the transcript via this link.

Podcast host Luke Bretherton talks to Keisha Krumm and Mike Gecan about what is community organizing, what it involves, and why it matters. Community organizing can also be referred to as broad-based organizing, institution-based organizing, faith-based organizing, or neighborhood organizing. Keisha and Mike prefer to talk about organizing as the work of enabling people to come together to build power to effect democratic change where they live and work. As you will hear, boundaries between labor and community organizing, as well as between movement building and community building work are fluid. What is constant is the need for relationally driven, bottom up forms of democratic politics.

Guests: Keisha Krumm and Mike Gecan are two very experienced organizers with the Industrial Areas Foundation. Keisha recently became lead organizer with Greater Cleveland Congregations having been an organizer in Milwaukee for a number of years before that. Mike has been an organizer for over forty years, written extensively on organizing, and done much to shape its contemporary practice. They each tell something of their story at the beginning of the episode.

Resources for Going Deeper:

  • Lee Staples, “‘Power to the People’ Basic Organizing Philosophy and Goals,” Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing, 3rd edn (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016), 1-14, 21-35

  • Mark Engler and Paul Engler, This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (New York: Nation Books, 2017), 251-284.

Access the transcript via this link.

This episode discusses why and how listening is the beginning point of democratic organizing and the role of the one-to-one or relational meeting in that work. In the first part, podcast host Luke Bretherton discusses with Lina Jamoul about what is a one to one, what it involves, and how it differs from other ways of engaging with people in democratic politics. In the second part, Luke talks to Arnie Graf to reflect further on some of the tensions and issues that arise in doing one-to-ones.


Lina Jamoul is Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees and has wide experience of community organizing both in the US and UK.

Arnie Graf began organizing work as part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and then went on to work with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) for over forty years. More recently he worked with the British Labour Party to develop the insights of organizing for local party politics in the UK. Arnie recently published a book narrating all this work entitled: “Lessons Learned: Stories from a Lifetime of Organizing” (ACTA, 2020)

Resources for Going Deeper:

  • Edward Chambers with Michael Cowan, “The Relational Meeting,” Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice (New York: Continuum, 2004), Chapter 2

  • Jeffrey Stout, “Face-to-Face Meetings,” Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), Chapter 12.

Access the transcript via this link.

In this episode, podcast host Luke Bretherton examines the second key tool organizing uses for listening, building relationships, and effecting change: the house meeting. As a form of democratic politics that begins with listening and is attentive to the experience, conditions, and stories of people where they live and work, organizing needs practices for listening well. Along with the one-to-one discussed in the previous episode, the house meeting is just such a practice and the other basic tool of community organizing. So in this episode, Luke discusses the history of the house meeting, what it is and why it matters, how to do it, some of the issues and problems that often come up when facilitating a house meeting, how it feeds into building power, and how it contrasts with other approaches to listening and engaging people in democratic politics such as focus groups.


Tim McManus has been with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) for over thirteen years now, organizing in Dallas and Phoenix before becoming the Lead Organizer for Communities Organized for Power in Action (COPA), the IAF affiliate on the Central Coast of California. He is currently building a new IAF organization in California’s Central Valley. Before becoming an organizer, he was a high school teacher.

Maria Elena Manzo was born in Mexico and came to the US aged 14. She was a farmworker, going back and forth to Mexico until she was 30 after which she was able to settle in California. She has been a leader with COPA for almost 20 years and currently works as program manager for Mujeres en Acción.

Resources for Going Deeper

  • Gabriel Thompson, “The Mexican Problem,” America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016), Chapter 5

  • Aaron Schutz and Mike Miller, “Fred Ross and the House-Meeting Approach,” People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky (Nashville: University of Vanderbilt Press, 2015), Chapter 8

Access the transcript via this link.

This episode discusses power, defined simply as the ability to act. It focuses on the relationship between power and democratic politics, the distinction between “power over” or unilateral power and “power with” or relational power, and questions such as who has power, how should it be analyzed, is anyone really powerless, the nature of self-interest, and how does organizing build power to effect change.


Robert Hoo is the Lead Organizer and Executive Director for One LA-IAF. He has fifteen years of organizing experience with the Industrial Areas Foundation in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Sacramento. Before that he served as an AmeriCorps member in Connecticut.

Ben Gordon is senior organizer with Metro IAF which he joined in 2016. He currently works with the IAF organizations in Boston, Connecticut, Milwaukee, as well as several labor union partners. Prior to joining Metro IAF, he was Director of Organizing for the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), a 200,000-member affiliate of the public employees union (AFSCME). He began his professional organizing career in 1987 with the Southern Region of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union organizing clothing factory workers in the Southeast.

Resources for Going Deeper

  • Frederick Douglas, West India Emancipation (1857). A key statement of the importance of power in radical democratic politics.

  • Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement.” Discussed in this and other episodes.

  • Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage, 1975). Considered a classic, this book gives an account of the urban planner Robert Moses. Organizers consistently refer to this book as a detailed and very revealing case study in how to gain power even when you don’t hold an official or elected post, how power operates institutionally, how to get things done, and how to analyze power.

  • Saul Alinsky, John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography (New York: Vintage, 1970). Another case studies in how power is built up and wielded effectively, this time in a non-state focused form of politics, that of union organizing.

  • The distinction between “power with” and “power over” originates with Mary Parker Follett, Creative Experience (New York: Longmans, Green, 1930 [1924]).

  • Hannah Arendt also sketched a conception of relational power in her essay “On Violence.” See Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 2006 [1963]), 105–98.

  • Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). A reading of the New Testament and the ministry of Jesus as exemplifying creative, non-violent resistance and the use of relational power to bring change.

  • Amy Allen, “Feminist Perspectives on Power,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a helpful overview and evaluation of different modern social theories of power.

Access the transcript via this link.

This episode discusses the nature and purpose of leadership in organizing, how it is defined and understood, who are leaders, the difference between leaders and organizers, and what their respective roles are in the shared work of organizing. The understanding and practice of leadership in organizing is very different to that put forward in most leadership training programs, institutes, and business schools. It is counter cultural and embodies a deep wisdom about leadership that can be applied in many if not most institutional settings, particularly in congregational ones.


Elizabeth Valdez has nearly 40 years of organizing experience. Having begun her work as an organizer in El Paso on the US-Mexico border, she has since organized in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, and now Houston where she is the lead organizer of The Metropolitan Organization, the IAF affiliate there. She is a senior organizer with the West/SouthWest IAF and has pioneered work to address infrastructure, employment, housing, and medical needs in the region.

Bishop Douglas Miles has over 50 years of experience combining congregational ministry with leadership in addressing community needs of one kind or another. This work began with setting up the first homeless shelter with accommodations for women and their children in Baltimore in the early 1970s and has continued on with innovative initiatives to address addiction, educational needs, and starting an alternative juvenile sentencing program. He co-founded Baltimore’s Interfaith Alliance and was a key leader in the development of BUILD, the IAF affiliate in Baltimore, of which he has twice been its Co-Chair. And as a leader, he has trained many organizers. In his day job, he has built up and pastored large and thriving churches in Baltimore and Memphis.

Resources for Going Deeper

  • Jeffrey Stout, “The Authority to Lead,” Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), Chapter 8

  • Noelle McAfee, “Relationship and Power: An Interview with Ernesto Cortes, Jr. (1993),” in People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky, eds. Aaron Schutz and Mike Miller (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2015), 226-234

  • Marshall Ganz, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Workers Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), see especially pp. 3-21

  • Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos, “Developing Leaders from All Walks of Life,” Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in Your Community (San Francisco: John Wiley & Son, 2007), Chapter Five. Includes an overview of leadership styles, a case study of developing a leader, and worksheets for organizers to use when training and developing leaders.

Building on the previous episodes on power and leadership, this episode examines the place of institutions in organizing. Podcast host Luke Bretherton discusses what is an institution; what makes for a healthy institution; how and why institutions are central to the kind of place-based, relationally driven democratic politics organizing undertakes; and why, without institutions, the individual is left naked before the power of the market and the state. Luke also reflects on a key rule of organizing—that all organizing is in the first instance disorganizing.


Martin Trimble is Co-Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). He is directly responsible for the IAF’s organizing work east of the Mississippi River. He has organized for 25 years with IAF affiliates in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington D.C., Virginia, and North Carolina. Prior to organizing with the IAF, Martin was the founding director of Opportunity Finance Network which supports and provides standards for financial institutions that invest in affordable housing and community development work nationwide.

Rev Patrick O’Connor grew up and received his theological education in the West Indies. He is currently the lead pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a multicultural congregation in the Presbytery of New York City. He has served this congregation since 1992. Under his leadership, First Presbyterian is involved in the development of the “Tree of Life” a $74 million dollar affordable “mixed income” housing development that includes a community space and a health care facility. His leadership extends beyond the congregation to the Presbytery of New York City and the General Assembly of his denomination. And he is Co-Chair of the Metro IAF Leadership team, Chairman of Queens Power, a Director of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, and Chairman of First Jamaica Community and Urban Development Corporation and a member of the board of Trustee for the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Resources for Going Deeper

  • Michael Gecan, Effective Organizing for Congregational Renewal (Skokie, IL: ACTA Publications, 2008). Good introduction to organizing and how to use organizing as part of congregational development and institutional renewal

  • Harry Boyte, Civic Agency and the Cult of the Expert (New York: Kettering Foundation, 2009). A clear-eyed reflection on how to re-imagine institutions that serve the needs of their members, build up the ability of people to act together to achieve public work, and the need to dethrone what Boyte calls “the cult of the expert.”

  • Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (Marion Boyars Publishers, 2001)

  • Sheldon Wolin, “Contract and Birthright,” The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution.(Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989), Chapter 8

  • Hugh Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)

  • Lee Staples, “‘Keeping it all together: Organizational Development and Maintenance,” Roots to Power: A Manual For Grassroots Organizing, 3rd edn (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016), 221-263.

This episode focuses on popular education, discussing what it is and why it’s key to good democratic organizing with Ernesto Cortes, Jr. Alongside organized money, organized people, and organized action, building power to effect change requires organized knowledge. Organized knowledge generates the frameworks of analysis and understanding through which to re-narrate and reimagine the world, destabilizing the dominant scripts and ideas that legitimate oppression. But rather than be driven by ideological concerns, popular education as an approach to organizing knowledge begins with addressing and seeking to solve real problems people face where they live and work. This entails informal, self-organized forms of learning. Another way to frame popular education is as a grounded approach to addressing questions of epistemic injustice and creating policies that put people before top-down programs of social engineering (whether of the left or the right).


Ernesto Cortes, Jr. is currently National Co-Director of the Industrial Areas Foundation and executive director of its West / Southwest regional network. Beginning in the United Farmworker Movement, he has been organizing in one form or another for nearly half a century, helping to organize or initiate innumerable organizing efforts and campaigns. The organizing work he did in San Antonia in the 1970s in many ways set the template for community organizing coalitions in the IAF thereafter. The fruits of his work have been much studied and he has been recognized with numerous awards and academic fellowships, including a MacArther Fellowship in 1984, a Heinz Award in public policy in 1999, and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Princeton University in 2009.

Resources for Going Deeper

This episode discusses the positive and negative ways money and politics connect and the means to organize money through politics so it serves human flourishing. Democratic politics has always involved a struggle to ensure money serves people rather than people serving money. The paradox is that, to do so, democratic politics necessities not just organizing people, but also organizing, or better, re-organizing money. The conversation in this episode about organizing money has two sides to it. The first is how to hold dominant centers of economic power – whether in the market or the state – accountable for the use and distribution of that power. The second is how to fundraise to pay for the work of doing democratic politics in ways that are independent of patronage by either the state or the wealthy. This second aspect of the discussion focuses on the difference between ‘hard’ money that is raised from members, and ‘soft’ money that comes from grants and foundations, and the tensions between them.


Janet Hirsch is a leader with the IAF affiliate One LA through her participation in her synagogue, Temple Isaiah where she is the Vice President of Social Justice and sits on the Executive Committee of the Temple Isaiah Board. She has been involved in One LA for over 12 years, leading campaigns on public education, immigration reform, increasing access to mental health services, the expansion of the California earned income tax credit, and most recently, a Covid-19 equity vaccination pilot in South Los Angeles. Janet was born in Zimbabwe but has lived in Los Angeles since 1987.

Joe Rubio is a senior organizer with the West/Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation and supervises IAF Projects in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas where he has organized around public education, workforce training, and immigration. He also leads a regional effort called Recognizing the Stranger, which is developing immigrant leadership in 19 metropolitan areas in the Western US. He has been with the IAF since 1992, working in San Antonio, El Paso, and Arizona and now lives in Tempe, Arizona.

Resources for Going Deeper

  • Julie Nelson, Economics for Humans (University of Chicago Press, 2006)

  • Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017)

  • Sarah Lange, “Crafting an Effective Fundraising Strategy for Community-Based Organizations (CBOs),” Roots to Power: A Manual for Grassroots Organizing, 3rd edn (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016), 400-415

  • Kim Klein, Fundraising for Social Change, 6th edn (Jossey-Bass, 2011)

  • Luke Bretherton, “Economy,” Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy (Eerdmans, 2019). A theological analysis of the issues discussed

This episode focuses on how to organize money so that it fosters the flourishing of where we live and work through generating different kinds of institutions and ways of building wealth in a community to those that dominate the existing economy. Alternative, more democratic forms of economic production, investment, and ways of structuring work and ownership are needed to address economic inequality, issues of racial equity, and the need for environmentally attuned forms of business. To discuss what is sometimes called the “solidarity economy,” podcast host Luke Bretherton talked to Felipe Witchger and Molly Hemstreet about the imaginative ways they are organizing money, how this work is embodied in a particular form of economic democracy – the cooperative – and how they envision a more just and generous kind of economy.


Molly Hemstreet is the Executive Co-director for The Industrial Commons. She co-founded the organization in 2015 to support industrial workers across her region. She is a native of Morganton, North Carolina where she continues to work and raise her family. After leaving university and working for a bit as a teacher, she worked for the Center for Participatory Change organizing economic development initiatives across rural Western North Carolina in a response to the need for fair livelihoods, and then, in 2008, she founded Opportunity Threads, currently the largest, US based worker-owned company that does cut and sew work. She also co-founded the Carolina Textile District in 2013, which supports the resurgence of textiles across the Carolinas. Molly has also served on the national board of the Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI) and the Board for the NC Employee Ownership Center.

Felipe Witchger organizes at the intersection of cooperatives and financial investment. He co-convenes the US Economy of Francesco, at network of Catholics responding to Pope Francis’s call for a more holistic vision of economic development, serves on the Board of Start.coop, and is Co-Founder of the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA). Felipe has spent 10 years organizing education and faith leaders into a purchasing cooperative which is designed, governed, and owned by the communities it serves. Prior to CPA, Felipe led energy research and consulting initiatives with agencies such as Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future (SAHF) and Groundswell.

Resources for Going Deeper

This episode examines the ways organizing develops a strategy to bring about change, the kinds of tactics used to achieve change, and the different kinds of democratic action involved in moving from the world as it is towards a more just and generous one. To ground the discussion it focuses on the initiation, development, and success of a campaign run by Common Ground in Milwaukee which addressed the foreclosure crisis there in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis. This serves as a case study through which to stage a wider reflection on the relationship between strategy, tactics and different forms of shared action in organizing.


Kathleen Patrón has been an organizer since 2011 and is currently the lead organizer of Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) where she has been organizing around issues of police reform and accountability and healthcare. She is also leading a process of reorganizing GBIO. Prior to her work in Boston she worked with Common Ground in Milwaukee which is the focus of the conversation.

Sanford Horwitt has a wide ranging background. A long time reside of Chicago, he began his career teaching at the University of Illinois in Chicago, he was then a legislative aide and press secretary for Congressman Abner Mikva. Later he was an advisor in the national gun control movement and directed the Citizen Participation Project at People for the American Way where he founded the First Vote program. Sandy is also an author, his books include “Let Them Call Me Rebel,” the definitive biography of the godfather of community organizing, Saul Alinsky. And alongside that he is also executive producer of a new PBS documentary, “Mikva! Democracy is a Verb” and the founder of the Mikva Challenge, one of the country’s leading youth civic education organizations. Sandy joined the conversation via phone so the sound is a little muffled.

Resources for Going Deeper

This episode discusses the process of identifying an issue, developing a campaign to address that issue, and the kinds of public action a successful campaign involves. How organizing develops and conducts campaigns is different to how many other kinds of campaign are run, whether that be an election campaign or an advertising campaign. Luke Bretherton discusses the distinctive approach to campaigns and how they constitute a form of public action that not only wins change, but also builds up a community better able to act for itself rather than simply be acted upon with Jonathan Lange and Janice Fine. The conversation with Jonathan and Janice focuses on the initiation, development, and then subsequent spread of the Living Wage Campaign, a campaign in which Jonathan played a key role and that Janice researched and wrote on extensively. The focus on the Living Wage Campaign, which originated in Baltimore, serves as a case study through which to stage a wider discussion of what campaigns are, how they develop creative policy proposals, and their broader role in organizing.


Jonathan Lange comes from what he describes an old fashioned Jewish socialist family. His grandfather and father were active union members. It was in the labor movement that he got his start, organizing with the Clothing and Textile Workers Union in the 1980s. He then became a community organizer with the IAF and has since organized in both work based and place based forms of organizing for over 40 years. As we shall hear, he was the lead organizer of the first ever Living Wage Campaign. A key aspect of his work has been training other organizers and leaders around the world, particularly in the United Kingdom and Germany which is where I met him over 15 years ago now.

Janice Fine is Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. She is also the co-founder and Director of Research and Strategy at the Center for Innovation in Worker Organization (CIWO). Fine teaches and writes about forms of collective action among low-wage workers in the U.S including innovative union and community organizing strategies. She also studies historical and contemporary debates within labor movements regarding such issues as immigration policy, labor standards, privatization, and government oversight. Much of this is addressed in her book Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream. Prior to becoming an academic she worked as a community and labor organizer for over twenty years.

Resources for Going Deeper


  • Mike Gecan, “Part II: The Habit of Action,” Going Public: An Organizers Guide to Citizen Action (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 49-126

  • Joan Minieri and Paul Getsos, “Part Three: Developing and Running Campaigns,” Tools for Radical Democracy: How to Organize for Power in Your Community (San Francisco: John Wiley & Son, 2007), 35-124

  • Luke Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), Chapters 4 & 5

  • Taylor Branch, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott,Parting the Water: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), Chapter 5

  • Saul Alinsky, “They sit to conquer,” John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1949), Chapter 6

The Living Wage Campaign: