USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Building Bridges, Building Power: Developments in Institution-Based Community Organizing

Building Bridges, Building Power: Developments in Institution-Based Community Organizing

By Richard L. Wood (University of New Mexico), Brad Fulton (Duke University) and Kathryn Partridge (Interfaith Funders)

Community organizing in America is alive and well and being vigorously practiced in the version we call “institution- based community organizing.” This national study shows that in the last decade institution-based community organizing has significantly increased its power base as it continues to bridge divides that deeply bedevil American politics–divides of racial and ethnic identity, religion, socio-economic status, geography, and immigrant-native background. This executive summary details the dynamic expansion of the field over the last decade, outlines the impressive “bridging social capital” it generates, discusses ways it has overcome the strategic limitations that previously undermined the field, and identifies some of the ongoing challenges that remain. We argue throughout that institution-based community organizing is poised to be an important strategic partner in the democratic renewal of America.

Click here to download a PDF of the report


Executive Summary

Building a Bigger and Wider Bridge: Dynamic Expansion in Scope, Scale and Collaboration

The dynamic expansion of institution-based community organizing (IBCO) over the last decade has taken place in three ways. First, the field has made impressive gains in sheer geographic reach: The number of local IBCO organizations has grown by 42% since 1999, today reaching into 40 states. Second, many IBCO organizations have expanded beyond core urban areas and now organize entire metropolitan and regional areas. Third, many IBCOs are partnering with other organizations (either within their own network or via collaborations) to directly influence state and national policy-making. Taken together, these three forms of expansion create a new power within the field that, at its best, links vigorous local community organizing to a strong presence in higher-level political arenas in ways that strengthen both.

Reaching More People: The Impact of Critical Organizational Capacity

Two results of this dynamic expansion are especially powerful. First, the institutions that form the base of the IBCO field (approximately 3,500 congregations and 1,000 public schools, labor unions, neighborhood associations, faith-based organizations, and others) collectively represent over 5 million Americans. Rarely in American history have voluntary associations incorporated such a high proportion of citizens; those that have done so have profoundly shaped American society in challenging times. Second, historically the most successful associations have been built on a “federated structure” of local organizations nested within state and national organizations. The IBCO field today has begun to build such a federated structure–-only partially and unevenly, but nonetheless substantially. As a result, institution- based community organizing has the organizational capacity to make a powerful impact on democratic life, especially if best practices spread across the field.

Bridging the Divides of American Society: Race, Class and Religion

For America to undertake the joint action required to confront our challenges, we must bridge the social fissures that divide us as a nation. Among these are the divides of race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, religion, and immigration status that separate people and undermine efforts to confront our challenges.

Institution-based community organizing has historically brought people of different races together to pursue their shared interest in building better communities. But questions by critics regarding how consistently the field has cultivated cross-racial social capital deserve to be tested rigorously, and the State of the Field project has done this both nationally and at the local level. Our results show that the IBCO field is actively engaging a broad representation of America. Predominantly Hispanic institutions (13%) are represented at about Hispanics’ percent- age of the total U.S. population,1 and predominantly African American institutions (30%) are represented at more than twice their percentage of the U.S. population. In addition, “other” non-white or mixed institutions make up over 10% of IBCO members. At the individual level, more than 50% of IBCO organizing staff and board members (together the crucial decision-makers in these organizations) are non-white.

These organizations also incorporate significant numbers of pre- dominantly white institutions. This matters for political efficacy because substantial economic resources, political power, and cultural influence reside in this sector, which still constitutes two-thirds of the American population. To be viable, any national political movement needs alliances with such institutions. Their involvement has actually risen in the last decade, apparently a result of the strategic choice to expand into suburban areas nationwide and into secondary cities of the upper Mid- west and Northeast.

Expanding into these predominantly white settings reduces the field’s overall racial/ethnic diversity, but also likely increases its strategic capacity: By creating more fully multiracial/multiethnic organizations that bridge urban and suburban boundaries and represent new geographic areas, the field expands its own base and external alliances in useful ways. Simultaneously, much of the field has gained a more reflective and critical understanding of the role of race in American society. As a result, the IBCO field is better positioned to play a central strategic role in the public arena of our multi- racial nation. Finally, we note that, on average, IBCO boards of directors are dramatically more diverse than boards in the corporate and non- profit sectors.

The IBCO field not only incorporates impressive racial/ethnic diversity on a national level, but more importantly at the local level as well: IBCOs are actually getting people to collaborate across racial and ethnic lines. To estimate cross- racial interaction within IBCOs, we used a diversity index to measure the probability that two members of the same IBCO would be of a different race/ethnicity. This analysis shows that the average “diversity score” for IBCOs (0.49) is substantially higher than the average diversity score for congregations (0.12), counties (0.28), and even public schools (0.33).

The census study and our interviews with strategic leaders show that most local IBCOs actively engage in discussions about racial and ethnic identity, racial inequity in America, and the impact of race on organizing itself. This was not part of the organizing ethos a decade ago and thus represents an important shift in the culture of organizing. By cultivating strong cross-racial ties and by explicitly discussing racial/ethnic differences, institution-based organizing is now able to address questions of inequality in American life more authentically and effectively than in the past.

These organizations generate social capital by bridging other social divides in America as well. For ex- ample, instead of allowing faith to be a divisive factor, IBCOs draw on the unifying components of faith to span a diverse array of religious congregations. While mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Black Protestant churches continue to make up the core of the field, Jewish, Unitarian- Universalist, and Evangelical/Pentecostal congregations have each doubled their representation from a decade ago, and 20% of IBCOs have at least one Muslim congregation. In addition, secular institutions (mostly public schools, unions, and neighborhood associations) represent approximately one-fifth of all member institutions. IBCO boards and staff organizers also reflect these high levels of religious diversity. Finally, spiritual practices remain salient in the IBCO world: IBCO directors tend to be more religious than the overall American population (i.e., they pray, read sacred texts, and attend religious services more often than the average U.S. adult) and a large majority of IBCOs report that they often incorporate prayer, religious teachings, and discussions about faith into their organizing activities.

Institution-based community organizing also bridges the divide between socio-economic groups, incorporating a significant proportion of low-income people within its top leadership structures. Nearly one quarter of IBCO board members have a household income of less than $25,000 per year, and 58% have a household income of less than $50,000 per year (about the same as the U.S. population as a whole–but rare for a board of directors). About 37% have household incomes be- tween $50,000 and $100,000 per year, and less than 5% have household incomes over $100,000 per year (com- pared to the U.S. figure of over ten percent). Thus, the IBCO field also bridges economic class structures to a significant degree.

Finally, the IBCO field reaches across the chasm that too often lies between immigrants and the native-born, while building power to change immigration policy at the national level. Fourteen per- cent of all IBCO member institutions are predominantly made up of immigrants. Over two-thirds of those institutions (mostly congregations, but also secular organizations) are predominantly His- panic, while smaller proportions of immigrant member institutions are Black, Asian, or other/multiracial. Furthermore, more than half of IBCOs are addressing immigration issues, and, among those, two-thirds are addressing them at the national level.

Overall, institution-based community organizations are today generating valuable social capital by bridging some of the major divides in American communities. This bridging social capital offers a vital resource in the ongoing struggle to deepen democracy in America and confront our shared challenges–-a resource for both the IBCO field and its partners, and for American society as a whole.

Click here to download a PDF of the report


This report was published by Interfaith Funders in 2012. Though the network is no longer in operation, Interfaith Funders transferred several of its reports and articles, including this report, to the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture to preserve and push forward the insights gained through its work.