Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, I was asked to participate in a Marxist-Christian Dialogue with Herbert Aptheker, the leading theoretician for the Communist Party in America. I was a very young man at the time and felt overmatched: I was able to be highly critical of the Soviet Union and Communism for its mass murders under Stalin and Mao, its totalitarian governments and lack of personal freedoms. At the same time, I spoke against our participation in the Vietnam War, racism in the U.S. and the enormous economic inequality in our country. When the talks were over I received much positive response but also a kind of trick question. "As the Christian in the dialogue, what do you think Jesus would say about communism and capitalism?" As a smart ass 20-something I said, "I think he would say a curse to both your houses."
The world has changed remarkably since then, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the perceived demise of sane democratic government in the U.S.A. Communism is in decline worldwide and corporate capitalism is much more extractive than ever. The top one percent now makes nearly 20 percent of all U.S. income, owns 40 percent of the wealth of America and has received more than 95 percent of income growth since 2009. The gap between the rich and the poor has grown exponentially and the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that all those big corporations are actually persons who can exercise their enormous wealth to buy the government they want with impunity.
In the last two elections, we Americans elected a man whom many thought would be the person to stand for justice, for peace and for a coming together of the disparate elements of the majority that might actually make our society work for more than a privileged few. Some good things have been accomplished but most of the really important proposals have been stalled or outright rejected by an extreme but determined minority. What should we do to deal with the dozens of crucial issues that our country faces?
"Community organizing," the very term that people have used to disparage President Obama, is the road to building strong communities and a more just society. For the past 38 years, WhyHunger has been an active grassroots support organization reaching out to hundreds of the most effective and innovative grassroots organizations in America. We work alongside amazing people who are not just providing food to hungry people but are transforming their communities and the lives of millions through programs that empower people to change an oppressive system. Their method and ours is organizing from the bottom up not the top down.
We ask not just what people need but, more important, what resources they already have in their community, what leaders are at work there, how they can work together and what else is needed. Most of our work revolves around hunger and its root causes: poverty and powerlessness. It includes supporting farm to school programs, farmers markets, youth markets, rights of farm workers, nutrition education, fair wages for food workers, community gardens, community supported agriculture, outreach for and access to the federal nutrition programs and new farmer programs.
The surprising fact is that almost a quarter of all Americans participate in one or more of these programs. Millions more are members of credit unions, workers coops, unions, energy coops, worker-owned businesses and other community based organizations. They are neither state communist nor corporate capitalist but rather grassroots, from the bottom up community based organizations. Imagine if they voted in their best interests. Could they speak truth more powerfully to the powerful and speak in solidarity with the powerless? Even if they do not immediately succeed in changing the national power structure they are changing the way states and cities, counties and towns operate. It is already happening in so many places all across America and is a living example of what community organizing from the bottom up can accomplish.
In the meantime, let me amend the statement I made many years ago: "A blessing on the millions of community activists all across America and the faith based organizations, community based organizations, businesses, artists, funders and millions more that are their partners. Long may they and our brothers and sisters throughout the world stand up to the powers of state socialism and corporate capitalism and bring freedom and justice to all."
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