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Miami PACT’s People Power PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark Sell, BT Contributor   
June 2017

Faith-based organizers chip away at Miami’s needs

OPix_MarkSell_6-17n the evening of March 27, Monsignor Chanel Jeanty of St. James Catholic Church in North Miami led the call-and-response before 1400 souls from all over the county.

“We remember all those who have gone before us!” he intoned. “We are all right here on holy ground. Let this be a time of justice. Let justice roll!”

“Let justice roll!” the crowd rumbled back.

The night’s mission: to extract specific “yes” answers on affordable housing, juvenile justice, school discipline, and gun violence from county commissioners, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, the school board, the Miami-Dade police, chief prosecutors, and public defenders. Overall, the evening was a qualified success.

Welcome to faith-based community organizing, 2017. In Miami-Dade’s peculiar jigsaw of neighborhoods, this is one of few opportunities for people of differing backgrounds and traditions to unite in a common cause.

Monsignor Jeanty was convening the annual Nehemiah Action Assembly, the signature event of the year for Miami PACT (People Acting for the Community Together, founded 1988) at his church, at NW 131st Street and NW 7th Avenue. Jeanty is PACT’s board president.

The assembly’s Old Testament namesake, Nehemiah, was the cupbearer for the Persian king ruling over Judea, who had permitted him to rebuild a shattered Jerusalem for a second time. The Bible wrote that he succeeded in 52 days amid enemies and obstacles.

Nehemiah’s passion and grit form a spiritual foundation for Miami PACT with its 40 congregations representing 50,000 people, and a constellation of 150 other faith-based community organizing groups around the nation.

“The ‘faith-based’ part of our effort reflects that each human being is created in the image of God, each has value, each should have equal access to rights others share,” says PACT vice president Rabbi Gary Glickstein of Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach.

“Over 20 years, I’ve found that our congregation members are enthusiastic and wonderful at acts of loving kindness throughout our community,” Glickstein adds. “But very few had been involved in the more difficult work of changing communities so justice can be spread more widely. It has taken some time, and we now have a sizable congregation that is active and involved.”

There’s an instant gratification that comes from serving meals at the Chapman Center, Glickstein says, but it’s often more frustrating to go through research meetings and meetings with officials. “Sometimes results don’t happen in one or two or three years, and may not happen at all,” he says. “But when it works, it changes people’s lives, and not just for the moment. If you can change a system, you can touch thousands.”

At the assembly, the PACT congregations included people from churches, synagogues, a mosque, and St. Thomas and Barry universities. They came from Pinecrest, Miami Beach, Liberty City, Overtown, Miami Gardens, and Hialeah.

Professionals, executives, and academics sat with mothers of gun violence victims, the undertakers and clergy who bury their children, and with families struggling to fight eviction. A majority -- perhaps 75 percent -- could be classified as “people of color,” with more women than men.

PACT has perhaps 150 similar counterparts around the nation, and works in alliance with the Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART), which since 1982 has trained 10,000 community leaders and 150 professional organizers in Florida and Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. It is one of four such organizations in the country. Both Miami PACT and DART are based at the Miami Archdiocese complex in Miami Shores.

Miami PACT operates on a budget of roughly $220,000, with three young, smart, full-time organizers working punishing hours at modest pay to herd research groups, individuals, and congregation leaders trying hard to keep the lights on. The organization “suggests” individual contributions of $200. People swing what they can. In well-off temples, all members put in the $200. In most other congregations, people put in what they can: $50, $25, even $5.

PACT has chalked up many victories in its 29 years in its effort to engage ordinary people in public life and thereby create a kinder, more just community. In recent years, those efforts have included:

• Getting nurses and clinics in each of Miami-Dade’s public schools.

• Spearheading civil citations rather than criminal charges for first-time juvenile offenders. This has spread through the state, with broad support from police.

• Pushing successfully for the elimination of out-of-school suspensions.

• Pressuring the county to re-establish an Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Each success can breed new problems. PACT helped create “success centers” in the school system and is now on a thorny mission to improve them. Carlos Gimenez, in an almost swaggering manner, said “no” to a commitment to allocate permanent county funds for affordable housing. He would agree only to study the matter.

This year PACT has won across-the-board support for a best-practices pilot program to reduce gun violence, with enthusiastic support of Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez. A University of Miami study released in April finds that, over 10 years, 70 percent of the 4547 victims of deliberate gunshots were black males, shot in their own neighborhoods.

PACT and such groups follow the traditions of the civil rights movement and the secular organizing techniques of Chicago’s Saul Alinsky, whose 1971 book, Rules for Radicals, remains a Rosetta Stone both for community organizers and those who wish to thwart or co-opt them.

As a rookie PACT member who has gone through training, a few of my takeaways are:

• Stand your ground, politely. Make your objective research-based, specific, and subject to a “yes” or “no.”

• Dignified silence is more effective than shouting. Both may have their place, but when the shouting dies down, a politician can be more receptive to listening to PACT.

• Get to know those you might not normally meet. It is helpful to get into the skins of the Miami Gardens police gang unit, a funeral director, a probation counselor, or a mother who has lost a child to gun violence or prison, or an apartment eviction. This can only build a community, not splinter it.

As Rabbi Glickstein puts it, “If no one is chipping away at the problems, the problems are not going to go away.”

Almost as if on cue, sirens wailed through the streets an hour after the Nehemiah assembly adjourned, as Gimenez, Juan Perez, and squad cars rushed in force to Jackson Hospital, where the ER was busy treating two undercover police officers who’d been ambushed and shot in their car while staking out a Liberty City apartment complex.

Fortunately, they recovered. Whether we wear uniforms or hoodies, the evening demonstrated that, like it or not, we are all in this together.

 

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