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PNC learns about the power of doing community organizing

Faith is important, but faith without action is meaningless,’ said Joe Chrastil.

Amber Dickson, statewide coordinator for the Faith Action Network, engaged in a model of listening with Joe Chrastil, a regional organizer for IAF Northwest.

Joe Chrastil, regional organizer for the Industrial Areas Foundation that was started by Sol Alinsky in the poor working class area of Chicago, has shared that model of guiding people to action srom Spokane, to Puget Sound, to Sidney and Brisbane, Australia, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., and now in Montana.

He started the Spokane Alliance and then the Sound Alliance. 

“All work for justice is local,” said Joe, who found his way to Westminster UCC after leaving the Catholic Church.  “I’ve valued how important faith is, but faith without action is meaningless.  Action matters.”

For him, action needs to involve strategizing, focusing and aiming for reaction, so the action makes a difference.

“It takes work, but it’s life giving,” he said. “The work of taking action matters.  It’s about exercising power in power relationships so change happens.  We do not get change without power.”

Many people experience power over, the negative side of power coming down, Joe said.

“Community organizing is about experiencing power with meaningful relationships,” he said.

He talks against power “for” as another form of power over, acting on someone’s behalf, which he said can be “patronizing, demeaning and disempowering.”

Joe said “power with requires relationships.  It’s not power with unless people are connected. The iron rule is never to do for others what they can do for themselves.  We need to invest in people so they act on their own behalf.”

The primary tool for building power with is the “relational meeting” based on drawing out self-interest and finding where there are overlapping or intersecting mutual interests.

“We can’t have mutual interest without understanding self-interest,” Joe said.  “We have baggage about self-interest because we relate it with selfishness that denies others, is self-centered, works for oneself, diminishing the power of others.”

There is also baggage about selflessness, in terms of denying self, lacking a sense of self, working for others in a way that denies the power of the other.

“Self-interest can mean we work mutually with others building relationships to create power that brings about change,” Joe said.

“The purpose of a relational meeting is to build trust and to develop understanding and a lens, through which people see and experience the world,” he said.  “In those meetings, people identify interests, passions, pressures, visions and values.”

The conversations agitate participants to stimulate reflection on self in terms of potential, integrity and legacy, seeing through the lens of the other.  As people hear each other’s moving stories, then ask what they will do about it.

Joe then simulated a relational meeting with Amber Dickson of the Faith Action Network.  Each shared where they grew up and lived and what brought them to their present community.  They shared some of their family struggles, faith background, education, work background and current work.

Amber grew up in Spanaway, then moved to Missouri, New York and South Carolina, eventually returning to Washington through the military.

Joe grew up in a sleepy, working class resort town of 5,000 in Northern Minnesota.  He lived in many apartments moving seven times in six years of junior high and high school.  His father was a seasonal construction worker who ran out of money in the winter. His drinking led his parents to divorce, and multiple moves with his mother.

Amber grew up in Evangelical tradition and went to a conservative college.  She left the church and wanted nothing to do with it through college at Seattle Pacific University.  She was introduced to the UCC through the Justice Leadership Program as an intern with FAN, learning about justice and faith.

“I always wanted to make a difference.  I studied psychology because I wanted to have impact on people’s lives.  I did not know about justice and advocacy.  I became passionate about issues.  I found issues that related to my own experience. I learned about criminal justice issues that had impact on my family.”

Joe went to college and lived near Western Indiana Prison.  A professor introduced him to community organizing. Joe learned that issues were not about personal failures but systemic failures.  He worked with a congressman and organized around farm worker issues. 

“I realized organizing is about connecting people so they can act together,” he said.

Joe organized people in Portland to help ex-convicts transition into permanent housing, training people in prison in relational organizing so people would have a voice. 

“Part of our challenge is that organizing requires tension as we put pressure on the system,” he said. “People invest in each other. Relational foundation is key to working through tensions between people.  Need tension with policy makers.

“The challenge is to feel strongly enough to challenge people,” Joe said.

Amber noted the power of putting a face to policies and issues.  So a proposal is not just a house bill, but about a friend.

As Joe prepares to become a grandfather, he wants to equip the next generation of organizers. He believes institutions hold people together and give values so they have power to challenge.

“Are we finding people we can engage in public life with?  Are there things we share and can act on?  Where does your passion come from?  Where do your private interests interact and energize?” he asked.

Joe believes that when relational meetings happen in the context of the church community, people find their passion as church members to see where they can move forward.

Alliances are vehicles for communities to come together across institutions, faith communities, unions and education.

“A larger alliance is important when people come up against big issues,” he said.  “An alliance, like the Spokane Alliance or Sound Alliance, is nothing without strong congregations and unions. Those institutions provide a safe environment for relational meetings.

“Institutional limits define the capacity for mediating institutions to stand between individuals and larger forces of society,” Joe said.

“There is a decline in congregations and unions, but we seek to change that decline.  We need to re-imagine institutions so they look at what kind of institution they want to be,” Joe said. “Collective power is limited by the power of each institution.”

From conversations in relational meetings in safe places, he said that people move to discern a plan. 

In 2009, the Sound Alliance brought pressure about foreclosures after listening to stories of people experiencing foreclosures. 

They launched research and found that Bank of America held a majority of mortgages, but people could not call or go in to renegotiate loans. 

They met at a synagogue and told stories of their foreclosures to a bank officer.  It touched him and he became an ally.  Eventually the bank  set up mobile loan servicing so more people could renegotiate loans. 

“That’s an example of moving from a problem to a solution,” said Joe.

For information, call 206-588-5016 or email


Pacific Northwest United Church News © Summer 2018


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