News: CJ Exclusives

Is Durham CAN Really Non-Ideological?

A survey of its activities and affiliations show a left-wing cast

A Durham group touts itself as nonpartisan and non-ideogical, but a review of its activities, and its affiliation with national “social justice” groups, casts doubt on that contention.

Durham Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods was founded in 1999 to bring about social change in Durham. The coalition is comprised of more than 20 local churches and other nonprofit organizations whose mission “is to develop local leadership and organized power to fight for social justice,” according to the group’s Web site.

Durham CAN is an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national and international group that unabashedly boasts of being “persistently political” in using power to engage the poor in politics.

The IAF was founded in the 1940s by Saul Alinsky, a radical labor activist and author of Rules for Radicals, a 1971 book in which he acknowledged Lucifer as the “very first radical” and lauded him for his effectiveness in rebelling against the establishment.

Highlights from the 2007 Family Foundation Conference sponsored by the Council on Foundations emphasize the role of philanthropy in advancing social justice and influencing public policy. Among the presenters were Arnie Graff of Industrial Areas Foundation, Bertha Lewis of ACORN, Marcia Egbert of The George Gund Foundation, and Susan Hoeschstetter of the Alliance for Justice.

Funding for the IAF and its affiliates, including the Durham CAN, comes primarily from liberal foundations and corporations. Among them are Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Warner Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Influencing Education and Funding

IAF affiliates have been working to promote a liberal, progressive agenda by influencing educational and funding policies. In a March 2007 press release, the Parents’ Education Research Network warned about the growing success of the IAF and the Interfaith Alliance in “infiltrating various churches with calls for social activism.” Church tithes paid as dues to IAF affiliates are channeled to lobby for liberal social policy change. This strategy allows IAF affiliates to use churches as little more than political action groups while circumventing legal scrutiny.

The Parents’ Education Research Network reports that dues can be as high as “$200,000 for a typical congregation.” Attempts to speak with Durham CAN’s executive director, Kohar Parra, and many of its member organizations regarding their dues and organizing activities were unsuccessful, with the exception of James Phillips, social justice chairman of All Souls Church Unitarian Universalist, and Alba Onofrio, executive director of El Centro Hispano.

“Our congregation is small, so our dues are $10 per person,” Phillips said. “Several church members are active in Durham CAN and attend meetings regularly, though no one is forced to participate.” Phillips said his two predecessors at All Souls were involved in voter registration through Durham CAN, and current members have been involved in job and health-care initiatives. Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina has participated with Durham CAN to urge local government officials to expand the SCHIP program and other similar initiatives aimed at the uninsured and illegal immigrants.

Phillips was emphatic that he “personally would never register any Republicans because he does voter registration for the Durham County Democratic Party.” He said that in recent elections he was sent to some Durham suburbs and found that most of the residents were Republicans. “I refused to register them, and just left,” Phillips said. “I know that Durham CAN targets poorer neighborhoods in Durham, not the suburbs.”

“El Centro Hispano has been closely associated with Durham CAN since its inception,” Onofrio said. Durham CAN’s first office was established within El Centro’s building. When asked about dues, Onofrio declined to specify the amount of dues paid to Durham CAN, but she said that tax-exempt organizations pay based on a sliding scale. She said El Centro pays its dues out of operating funds raised by the organization.

One of the most widely publicized education initiatives has been in Texas, where IAF affiliates launched the Alliance Schools project, a model for influencing funding and educational policies that focus on social and economic justice, rather than academics. Shelterforce, a publication of the liberal National Housing Institute, has praised this and other IAF initiatives. Other groups Shelterforce promotes are, ACORN, and the AFL-CIO.

The Texas Industrial Areas Foundation, led by Ernesto Cortes, was instrumental in developing a school-to-work plan in conjunction with the Texas Education Agency, according to the Parents’ Education Research Network. In November 1999, Fast Company reported that Texas had the strongest IAF network, with 12 IAF-affiliated groups, “mostly Catholic, protestant, and Jewish congregations, along with public schools and other interest groups.”

One of Durham CAN’s tactics is to use a small group of professional organizers to conduct individual meetings and house meetings to identify issues, “agitate, challenge . . . and build networks,” according to documents on their Web site. They train the leaders in “power, self-interest, leadership skills, planning actions/campaigns, and effective relationship building.”

Phillips said that the All Souls Church conducts regular “house meetings where church members attend, and they are polled about issues, and then he reports the results to Durham CAN.” Some recent issues his congregation identified were “racial profiling, gangs, transportation, and rights for illegal immigrants.” Once an IAF affiliate has leaders in place, the group is effective in putting together action teams around key goals, said Tim Robbins in an article October 2002 in The Village Voice. He said that “IAF-spawned groups . . . regularly turn out ‘leaders’ as they’re called by IAF — for their rallies and events.”

Churches comprise the majority of Durham CAN’s membership. Like the other nearly 60 IAF affiliates in the United States and abroad, Durham CAN is engaged in social activism centered on living-wage bills, health care, before-school and after-school programs (subsidized day care), high school reform, and bilingualism. The group refers to their efforts as ensuring “accountability.”

In a publication on the organization’s Web site entitled “Durham CAN celebrates 8 years working to create social change in Durham,” the organization heralds its success promoting and gaining passage of a living-wage policy for contract workers and full-time employees of the Durham Board of Education. On Sept. 19, 2006, the group also sponsored a two-hour retreat with the Durham Board of Education to push for alternatives to school suspension and for interpreters for non-English speakers.

Onofrio acknowledged Durham CAN’s success in heralding change during the 2006 Durham School Board elections. All candidates who had committed to Durham CAN’s action agenda were elected and have followed through on their promises, she said. Pastor Frederick A. Davis, pastor of First Calvary Baptist Church in Durham, was one of the newly elected board members who endorsed the Durham CAN agenda.

Social and Political Activism

Their claim that the organization is non-ideological is not supported by their actions. Speakers at Durham CAN events have included well-known proponents of social justice, among them Lester Thurow, professor of management at MIT; Theda Skocpol, professor of government and sociology at Harvard University; and Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Greenstein, for example, who served in former President Bill Clinton’s administration is now advocating for Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel’s tax reform proposals and for increases in the SCHIP program. They also link to books and articles written by Alinsky, Gecan, and other liberal activists.

U.S. Rep. David Price attended Durham CAN’s assembly in October 2006 and agreed to work with the group on education, health care, and job-creation issues once he was re-elected. The Health Research Action Team has also been pushing for expanded health care for uninsured families. In the organization’s January 2007 newsletter, the group said it had met “with public and private leaders from the City and the County in order to negotiate specific solutions.”

In October 2006, U.S. Reps. Mel Watt, Price, and Brad Miller met with leaders of the NC Latino Coalition at the coalition’s statewide convocation to support civic engagement in North Carolina. The NC Latino Coalition reported that “the most impressive part of the meeting was the ceremony that ratified the mutual commitment between the NC Latino Coalition, the Industrial Areas Foundation in North Carolina, several labor unions and top religious leaders including the Catholic and the Episcopal Bishops.” Labor unions and religious organizations pledged their support for defending the rights of immigrants in North Carolina.

Public schools are not the only educational institutions where IAF affiliates are exerting influence. Duke Organizing, a student group, is a member of Durham CAN. Duke Organizing was instrumental in leading living-wage initiatives at Duke. Another Duke connection involves the Third Reconstruction Institute, created by several Duke faculty members; Gerald Taylor, Southeastern regional organizer for the IAF; and Christopher Bishop of the Triangle IAF. The group conducts an annual seminar on democratic organizing. Their aim is to develop a consortium of host academic institutions in the Southeast to “reconfigure academic engagement and scholarship” similar to an institute sponsored by the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation. Support for their efforts come from longtime supporters of IAF organizing efforts in North Carolina, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, a supporter of NC IAF organizing projects since the mid-1990s; the Triangle Community Foundation; the Winston-Salem Foundation, and others.

Church members and other nonprofits are acting as de facto political action committees. Phillips said that one of the largest members of Durham CAN, a Catholic church, paid for the printing of Durham CAN’s brochures to educate the community about its health-care initiative. “They [the Catholic church] objected to content that advocated abortion and birth control, so Durham CAN backed down and removed that language,” Phillips said.

Phillips was upset because “many of the members of Durham CAN, including All Souls, is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and pro-gay rights,” and he said he didn’t like the idea that Durham CAN relented simply because its largest member was influencing the process by virtue of having donated printing services. Phillips feared that other issues might be at risk if larger congregations with more money could influence the process.

The larger issue may well be that a church would use its funds to “donate printing” for a political organization and use its members as activists on behalf of that group. Both Phillips and Onofrio said their members do not object to having their monies used for such purposes, but they said they see no conflict of interest or potential legal issue in using church and non-profit funds to support a political organization.

At the Nov. 2, 2003, founding assembly for Dane County United in Wisconsin, the Rev. Michael Schuler, parish minister of First Unitarian Society, voiced the ideology of many of the religious groups engaged in activism: “I am here to tell you, from my own experience serving a Faith Community of free thinkers — of sincere seekers who run the gamut from agnostics to spiritualists, from Zen Buddhists to Benedictine-style Christians — that unity can be forged from diversity and a powerful, positive force be created. . . . Do we not agree that the needs and interests of the many ought not be shouldered aside so that the few might prosper?”

He said that people of faith must be willing to “set aside our theological differences in order collaboratively to promote justice and social reconstruction, as all major religions counsel.”

Karen McMahan is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.