Off the fairway and into council meetings

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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?"

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."

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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."

The group formulates a proposal, informs city government, then calls a public meeting in the neighborhood with city officials in attendance. "When you are well informed and make a proposal that has no wrong information in it," says Rosenhagen, "they really can't argue with you. And they know you have clout because you represent maybe 25,000 people in town."

After CBC conducted hundreds of interviews, where the top two issues were clear: Neighbors wanted more opportunities for youths, and they desperately wanted affordable housing in a booming town where 24 percent of the population couldn't afford to buy a house.

CBC went into action. Through research, members learned that it could take up to two years for a developer to get approval from the planning department. Few developers could afford to tie up money that long for affordable housing. And few developers even realized there was a market for affordable housing.

CBC proposed and participated in a year-long task force. The result was city government defining what had to be done to encourage affordable housing. Strategies developed by CBC are now part of the municipal code.

"CBC came on board with anecdotal information as well as statistical information about affordable housing needs," says Colleen Finnman, human services administrator for Loveland. "They were highly effective, and spoke from reason and knowledge. They were just great, and have every right to take credit for what they did."

For Don Marostica, co-owner of Boise Village - the first development in Loveland that will include affordable housing - his project is now on a fast track to be built this summer.

"CBC was very outspoken over the need," he says. "We're building 263 homes, and 53 will be affordable housing. The prices will be affordable at 70 percent of the median income ($56,600) in Loveland for a family of four. That's between $120,000 and $130,000, which is about as affordable as you can get here."

In addressing youth problems, CBC interviewed some 200 youths who complained about little to do in Loveland, no transportation, and programs that cost too much.

"But we found the opposite - that there were lots of programs for kids," says Rosenhagen, "but kids either didn't know about them, couldn't get to them, or weren't interested."

CBC got the city to double funds in some youth programs. They also discovered that a highly successful peer counseling program, People Offering People Service, was under way in a few schools.

Communities adjacent to Loveland have also felt the impact of CBC. Ida Girouard, from nearby Fort Collins, took part in an effort against adult videos.

"We got the adult videos removed from a video chain store," she says, "and closed another store. Now we are working on gun-control issues. Community organizing is about power. We now have the voice and the power to tell government what we want."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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