“Question people who have authority, because they tend not to use it well unless you stay on top of them.”
That’s what Ana Garcia-Ashley learned from her grandmother, a seamstress and a teacher in the campo of the Dominican Republic. She was a woman who taught by example, challenging anybody in her small village who misused power. “She would not tolerate anything,” remembers Ana. “She took on whomever—even priests.”
And you can say the same about Ana.
Throughout more than 30 years of community organizing, Ana has put her Catholic faith into action by holding people in power accountable: standing in protest at state capitols, stopping predatory lenders, and blocking deportation trucks by laying her body in the road. “To me there is only one way to be a Catholic,” she says, “and that is out in the public arena, doing something.”
In 2011, Ana became the executive director of Gamaliel, a national network for faith-based community organizing. As “congregational” or faith-based organizers, Gamaliel emphasizes systemic change: engaging congregations in the work of feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and sheltering the homeless, but also in the work of transforming the oppressive systems that leave so many people without food, health insurance, or homes in the first place.
Ana also is the first woman of color to lead a national community organizing network, faith-based or otherwise.
“I am emboldened and encouraged that leadership in the field has become more representative of our grassroots leaders and organizers,” wrote Ana during her first year as executive director.
And “representative” is a good word to describe an organization that works across lines of race, gender, class, denomination, and religion. Gamaliel’s network includes more than 60 congregation-based organizations from 19 U.S. states, Great Britain, and South Africa, including rural, urban, and suburban communities. Their work is multi-issue, non-partisan, and “above all, an expression of the personal faith and values of its members.”
Ana wouldn’t have it any other way. “We can’t leave the decision-making to a few, mostly-white males in D.C.,” she says. “That would be too easy. I believe that out of all the people who claim to be working for the common good, people of faith have the most legitimate and compelling reason because this is what we’re all about. We’re about transforming ourselves to be better agents for our belief in the world—the real world.”
THE WORK OF COMMUNITY organizing begins with the realization that the real world has real brokenness. For Ana, this awareness came especially early. At age 6, she and her family were forced to flee the Dominican Republic in fear of the violence and political instability caused by the U.S. intervention (read: occupation) following the assassination of dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961. Ana describes the experience: “The ride to the airport, the vaccinations, the needle going into my arm. I remember every single frame of that experience from the time we went to the American Consulate to the time we landed at Kennedy airport.”
Some estimate more than 50,000 Dominicans fled to the United States during the 1960s, and most of them, like Ana’s family, resettled in New York City. For Ana, it was a helpless feeling she vowed never to repeat: “The Dominican Republic was made unsafe by Marines and the American war machine,” she states, “so I was forced to leave everything I cared about, everything that was important to me, and move to the South Bronx. It was just hard to comprehend.”
Thinking about that trip from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx still makes Ana angry: “What happened to me as a child is happening every day to children all over the world because their parents are trying to get a better life,” explains Ana. “Then they land here and they’re called ‘illegals.’ Their lives become a nightmare.”
But today Ana doesn’t feel helpless—far from it. As she has taught so many other leaders, she knows individuals have tremendous power to create a more just society. So last July Ana joined thousands of peaceful demonstrators outside the White House to protest the deportation of 1 million undocumented immigrants under the Obama administration. Along with about 10 other leaders calling for immigration reform, Ana was arrested for sitting down on the sidewalk and refusing to budge.
For Ana, it was a powerful, spiritual decision. “I am ready to be arrested today at the gates of the White House because my faith demands it,” wrote Ana in a statement released before the arrest. “I believe in a God who is always on the side of justice, never of cruelty. I see how our broken immigration system is destroying countless lives and families. My faith will not let me stay silent.”
Several months after that hot day in July, Ana sat with me in a tiny room of a former convent in Milwaukee—the home of Gamaliel’s Wisconsin affiliate—and explained that the important part of that day last summer “wasn’t the arrest,” but “sitting on the hard marble on a hot day, feeling every part of my being sweating and feeling that this is what my faith calls me to do: to go and stand at the White House and say ‘I am not moving from here because I want you to hear me: Deporting a million people without due process is not justice. It’s not democracy either.’”
But she’s not just talking about immigration. Creating a more just society runs deeper than any single issue or community: “We’re talking about a lifestyle, a culture, a global community, and it impacts everything,” she says. “We’re all connected.” And everyone has something to contribute: “Whether you’re an organizer or a parishioner or a secretary or a fellow or a writer, you are being called to stand in the public arena and say ‘This is not right.’”
GAMALIEL BORROWS ITS name from the story of Paul’s teacher, the wise rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 5, 22). After advising the rest of the Sanhedrin not to kill the apostles, Gamaliel concludes with this warning: “but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God” (Acts 5:39)!
For Ana and the people of Gamaliel, it’s a theme that’s dominated their work for more than 25 years: “We feel, very strongly, that building power organizations for people to live out their values and to create a better community—and state, and country, and world—‘is of God.’” But she clarifies: “That doesn’t mean we win all the time. That doesn’t mean we’re well-financed. But it does mean we know in our heart it’s the right thing. And that speaks volumes.”
In 1968, Gamaliel was begun to support the Contract Buyers League in its fight against predatory real estate and insurance brokering practices on the south and west sides of Chicago. Led by Jesuit organizer Jack Macnamara and community leader Ruth Wells, the league eventually succeeded in renegotiating contracts to save victims of racist contracts $6 million. According to the Chicago Sun Times, it was “very close to an economic miracle.”
Ana’s witnessed some miracles of her own, including securing an unprecedented $500 million from Milwaukee banks toward mortgages for the city’s low-income residents. But behind every success story is the slow work of developing relationships and raising up new leaders. “Yes, organizing is about putting a million people on the Mall in D.C.,” says Ana, “but the real skill of organizing is finding the best in an individual and seeing them live it out, becoming fully human, in all senses.”
And that takes practice. After the success of the Contract Buyers League, Gamaliel was restructured in 1986 as a training institute to teach community leaders how to “bring about shared abundance, sacred community, unrelenting hope, equal opportunity, and justice within our communities and throughout the world.” With more than 100 training events every year, equipping leaders to do the work of faith-based community organizing has remained foundational to Gamaliel’s mission ever since.
Ana explains that these trainings are “designed for people who really want to take risks in their lives and dismantle all the fears and masks they have accumulated to hide out from being significant.” The methods are both “Socratic” and “agitational.” Trainees must articulate who they are, what they want to do, and why they want to do it. And be warned: All responses are challenged. “Yes, we are agitators,” admits Ana unapologetically, “but that’s not all we do. We have to agitate people in order for people to think.”
In addition to their flagship seven-day leadership training, Gamaliel offers trainings and retreats tailored to Spanish-speakers, women in leadership, advanced organizers, and leaders of color. Central to the work of Gamaliel is the National Clergy Caucus, comprised of nearly 2,000 religious leaders who ensure that Gamaliel continues to organize in ways “that faithfully witness to the God of love, power, justice, and community.” “We need to think theologically about organizing,” says Ana. “We want to see what the scripture is saying and, because of that, work on healthcare. Not the other way around.”
For the pastors and lay people who attend, the trainings are profoundly effective: “It’s about taking the gospel of Jesus out into the community,” says Rev. James Hunt, the pastor of New Hope Christian Community Church in Monee, Illinois, who has been attending Gamaliel’s trainings for three years. “Before, my role was just to be in the church ministering, pastoring, and preaching, but Gamaliel has broadened my focus. Now I’m not just New Hope’s pastor, I’m a minister to the world.”
And in an area like Monee that’s been hard-hit by unemployment, ministering to the community involves conducting surveys to find out who needs work and advocating for a new airport that would create thousands of jobs. “We need to shake the doldrums off,” says Hunt. “People are asleep in the pews and we need to shake them up. We need to worship and to pray, but also put that into action.”
WHEN THE OCCUPY tents hit Wall Street last autumn, Ana was excited. “People publically declaring their discontent is very inspiring to me,” says Ana. “We need more courage to speak truth to power.” And though Ana is glad grassroots movements like the Occupiers have energized direct-action movements, she believes the future of community organizing lies in long-term strategies to hold national political leaders accountable.
“We are all responsible for what’s happening or not happening at a national level,” she says. “Organizing really needs to take responsibility for the messes going on in Washington. We can no longer say this is not our mess.”
But for groups like Gamaliel that have long succeeded by focusing on local campaigns, this demands a strategic shift. “Decisions that directly and profoundly affect the lives of ordinary people are often made in corridors of power that are drastically removed from their localities,” states Gamaliel’s strategy for faith-based civic engagement in the 21st century. “Gamaliel will continue to train grassroots leaders ... but we have increasingly come to recognize the importance of an expanded role of coordinating members across national campaigns.”
For Ana, this makes everything more complicated. “We used to say, ‘I’m an organizer and I have 15 churches on the north side of Milwaukee. All I have to do is build core teams there and stop foreclosures for the people in my church.’ Now, organizers have to figure out how to take on Wells Fargo.” Consequently, Ana foresees that partnerships with like-minded organizations will become absolutely critical: “We can’t afford to be out of relationship with others seeking the same changes,” she says.
It’s a long road, but Ana is optimistic. “With congregational-based organizing, we have that longevity,” she says, “This is justice work for the long haul."
Betsy Shirley (@BetsyShirley), former editorial assistant at Sojourners, is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.