Off the fairway and into council meetings
Several years ago retiree Harry Rosenhagen used to sit at breakfast, sipping orange juice, and complain. With the morning newspaper in hand, he'd say to his wife, "Look at this stuff." Crime, wayward youth, hard-working people unable to afford homes. "I felt frustrated, but what could I do as an individual?"Skip to next paragraph
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Often his only action was to head for the golf course and try to lower his handicap. Then his church offered an informational meeting for the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO), a faith-based, activist organization in Oakland, Calif. With a 27-year track record of success in triggering local organizing efforts through leadership from churches, PICO is part of a quiet revolution in some 70 cities across the US.
"My wife and I came away from that meeting extremely excited," says Mr. Rosenhagen. "They had people there from New Orleans who talked about shutting down drug houses, driving prostitutes off the streets so people could walk the streets without fear."
Rosenhagen stopped playing golf. He helped shape and direct Congregations Building Community (CBC), a northern Colorado coalition of members from 12 churches trained by PICO.
"Our work hinges on the 'Iron Rule,' " says Michael Kromrey, executive director of CBC, and "that is, never do for others what they can do for themselves."
For Rosenhagen, the experience has been transforming. "I used to resent politicians, and was never involved in civic affairs before," he says of his life before retirement as a manager for Eastman Kodak.
"Now sometimes the phone rings off the hook, and when we go to a City Council meeting we are recognized. We have power because we aren't doing this for personal gain."
He says the key to his success, and CBC's success, is the leadership training from PICO.
Twice a year PICO offers a one-week, intensive training session on how to be a community activist, not through confrontation, but by gathering support from inside a faith community. "One on one," says Rosenhagen of the training. "That's the key, how to listen one on one to your neighbors and ask them what is on their minds."
Because churches are seen as "mediating institutions," the activists identify themselves as church members on a common mission. And the participating churches help fund CBC by contributing 1 percent of their operating budgets. Funds also come from other community sources.
"You need a credential," says Rosenhagen, "so you can say, 'The minister or priest recommended that I talk with you.' So you visit them and listen to their concerns."
It also helps draw more participants into the effort because CBC is responding to the issues as defined by the community.
The next step is research. "If the issue is putting a stop sign at a student crossing," says Rosenhagen, "we find out why the stop sign isn't there, who would decide to put it there, how much it would cost, etc."