ACTS: In the Best Traditions of Faith and Democracy
Andrés Kwon

The power of ACTS derives from the 26 member institutions, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, multi-racial, urban-suburban. Photo: Wendy Colucci

On October 26, 2008, "With nine days until Election Day, the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS) gathered more than 1,000 Central New York residents," wrote the next day's Post-Standard. ACTS' greatest strength is its ability to mobilize its members for action. In an action, there is a target and there is a demand. The power behind the demand is the people. ACTS' philosophy is rooted in the best traditions of faith and democracy. ACTS believes in the right and responsibility of citizens in a democracy to participate. The First Amendment declares that "the government shall make no law that prohibits the right of the people to organize themselves to redress their grievances against the government." Alexis De Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America reminds us of the secret to democracy in the US: civic participation - the ability of people to form associations to address issues.

At ACTS' October 26 Faith & Democracy Public Action Meeting, then-candidates for the 25th Congressional District, Howie Hawkins and Dan Maffei, committed publicly to work to overturn the past vetoes of President Bush for an expansion of federal support for Child Health Plus and to help create a national commitment to end the scandal of uninsured children. They also committed to meet with ACTS within 50 days of taking office to work with us on our national legislative agenda: healthcare reform, quality education for all children, equitable economic development and job creation, investment in infrastructure and mass transit, and compassionate and comprehensive immigration reform.

Faith-based Community Organizing
ACTS is an affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation, the international community organizing network that trained President-elect Barack Obama in his first years as a community organizer in Chicago. Faith-based or congregation-centered community organizing (also known as institutional community organizing) is how we organize. We organize leaders of institutions (e.g. clergy and lay leaders) which are already organized. Leaders are people with a base, a following, who have their finger on the pulse of the self-interests and the issues of a given community. Churches and congregations are institutions already organized, and they continue to play a crucial role in society and in communities throughout the US.

Faith and the values derived from faith give many deep purpose and motivation, and these can be transformed to powerful use for the cause of social justice. We believe that we are all children of God and created equal; therefore, we all deserve the opportunity to achieve our greatest potential. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. We are interconnected, indeed "tied together in a single garment of destiny."

 
ACTS President Rev. Kevin Agee and Vice-President Sr. Magda Bayoumi greet the crowd of over 1,000 at ACTS October 26 meeting. Photo: Wendy Colucci
In the US, social capital and the practice of such beliefs have been in sharp decline for decades. In his book Bowling Alone, Professor Robert Putnam defines social capital as the specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information and cooperation associated with social networks. According to Putnam, generational succession, television, urban sprawl and the increasing pressures of time and money have all contributed to the contraction of social capital. Despite this adverse environment, faith communities remain bastions of social capital. Worship services, for example, are the only public places many families frequent nowadays. ACTS' work is to take faith communities to the next level: to bridge the different and diverse faith communities and create a sense of solidarity with the larger community, beyond the walls of the congregation.

ACTS' Diversity: Interfaith, Interracial, Urban-Suburban ACTS is comprised of 26 dues-paying member institutions, mostly congregations. These are Christian (ranging from African-American Evangelical to white, suburban Catholic and Protestant churches), Jewish and Muslim. Transcending religious and denominational lines as well as racial and urban/suburban lines, we come together around a common purpose: to organize the power to influence the decision-making that affects us all. We cannot solve most issues alone; we must build a coalition, including like-minded organizations that are not congregations. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Syracuse and the Service Employees International Union 1199 are both also ACTS members. ACTS' broad (and growing) cross-section of the Central New York community is yet another of its strengths.

Let's Not Mince Words: It's About Power
Our method to the madness originated with Saul Alinsky's Back-of-the-Yard campaign, when he organized churches, unions and businesses to work together for the improvement of their Chicago neighborhood. According to Alinsky, change comes from power, and power comes from organization. Mass, broad-based power organizations must be built on many issues, which means many participants.

In the summer of 2007, leadership teams in ACTS member congregations
ACTS GOES NATIONAL
On December 4, leaders of ACTS joined thousands of other Gamaliel affiliate members and allies at Gamaliel's "Realizing the Promise Forum" in Washington, DC. In addition to rallying, visiting members of Congress and meeting with the five other NYS Gamaliel affiliates, representatives from President-Elect Obama's office assured the group that the Obama administration planned to address our concerns about health care, economic stability, education, and immigration in a timely fashion

carried out over 1,000 one-on-one interviews with fellow members of their congregations in order to develop a deeper sense of community and trust as well as to assess the priority issue areas of concern. In September, 2007, 200 delegates from member congregations voted and selected the top four issue areas for ACTS: "Criminal Justice," "Youth & Youth Services," "Healthcare" and "Economic Development & Jobs."

For each issue a task force was formed. These then defined their issue in terms of specific, concrete and winnable goals. On November 18, 2007, about 900 ACTS members filled Bethany Baptist Church to receive public commitments from our region's elected officials, including newly-elected County Executive Joanie Mahoney, to implement these goals. A year later, at the aforementioned October 26th 1,000-strong public action meeting, the task forces reported their substantial progress and victories.

ACTS will create additional issue task forces if we determine that the issues are winnable and there is enough energy for new task forces. In this way, issue by issue, small victory to a victory a bit bigger, we can continue to build ACTS' credibility, power, and organization.


Starting From the World As It Is
ACTS' ultimate goal is to help create a society, where it is easier to be good and where everyone has the opportunity to achieve his or her potential. As the saying goes, however, you may hitch your wagon to the stars, but what's the use without wheels? ACTS starts from the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. ACTS is working to build its power, meaning the power of ordinary people, to become active in the public arena and participate effectively in our democracy.


Andrés is ACTS' lead organizer. Reach him at donak22@gmail.com or visit ACTS at www.acts-cny.org.