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By Leon Lagerstam, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

MOLINE --Before the train leaves the station, a Quad Cities Interfaith task force prays it stays on the fair and equitable track.

The task force will host a ''Prayer Vigil for Jobs and Jobs Equity,'' as it pertains to a proposed QC Passenger High Speed Rail Project, at 6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 23, at First Christian Church, 1826 16th St., Moline.

A group of local clergy and lay leaders first gathered in December 2010 to examine the proposed railway in terms of what's called ''regional equity,'' according to task force chairman, the Rev. David Geenen.

''Regional equity is a framework for social change that is nestled within, and inseparable from, the quest for economic and social justice,'' Rev. Geenen said. ''The goal is to ensure that everyone has access to essential ingredients for economic and social success.

"Achieving regional equity means considering both people and place – in which members of all racial, ethic, and income groups have opportunities to live and work in all parts of the region, have access to jobs and are included in the mainstream of regional life,'' Rev. Geenen said.

Work so far has involved mainly task force members, including a number of lay leaders, as well as clergy, Quad Cities Interfaith executive director Leslie Kilgannon said. ''We're anxious to see the program get lifted up to the public for people to look at the moral perspectives.''

''From a pastor's perspective, this is all about the folks in our pews who are struggling to get by,'' said task force member, the Rev. Beth Rupe, pastor at First Christian Church. ''It's hard to deepen your faith when you're working two jobs, struggling to feed your family and struggling to make ends meet."

''While civic entities tout this huge investment for the cities and community, a second track that has to be looked at is 'who is going to benefit,' " Rev. Geenen said.

The task force earlier created a community benefits agreement platform listing areas of concern for ''individuals who are defined as socially and economically disadvantaged,'' Ms. Kilgannon said.

Principles listed in the platform deal with relocation assistance for displaced property owners, jobs for local people, job training and support programs, small business encouragement, competitively-let grants, and creation of a monitoring committee of community, faith, business, and municipal leaders that will report every six months.

''Local faith leaders have issued a moral imperative for local jobs, equitable access to jobs and social inclusion for the proposed QC Passenger Rail Project,'' according to promotional materials listed on its Web site.

''We believe that how the QC Passenger Rail Project is crafted and administered should reflect our moral concern that all in our community should benefit from this project—especially those living in poverty and are often at a disadvantage to gain access to this great economic development opportunity. Join us as we pray for our community to seek innovative ways to seek the common good where all will benefit in from this project.''

Equality and justice are issues mandated by the Gospel, Rev. Rupe said. ''It's how we view God's justice.''

It also encompasses all faiths and crosses all denominational lines, Rev. Geenen said, adding that task force members represent different traditions, ''and while we may disagree on certain theological points, we find common ground when talking about issues of social justice.''

In addition to Revs. Rupe and Geenen, other involved clergy are pastor Rogers Kirk, Third Missionary Baptist Church, Davenport; Rabbi Tamar Grimm, Tri-City Jewish Center. Rock Island; Imam Saad Baig, Islamic Center of the Quad Cities, Moline; the Rev. Richard Miller, First Presbyterian Church, Davenport; the Rev. Joseph Williamson, Second Baptist Church, Rock Island; the Rev. Ed O'Melia, St. Mary's Catholic Church, Davenport; pastor Benny Powell, Temple Baptist Church, Davenport; the Rev. Jay Wolin, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Quad Cities, Davenport; pastor Willie Jones, Peoples Ministry Church, Rock Island; the Rev. Michael Swartz, First Congregational Church, UCC, Moline; pastor Larry Westbrook, Community Outreach Worship Center, Moline; and the Rev. Frank Samuelson, Rock Island, a retired Lutheran pastor.

Quad-Cities Interfaith and the task force's purpose are the same, Ms. Kilgannon said. 'That purpose is to help ordinary people do extraordinary things.''

''And the best way we can do that is to raise awareness,'' Rev. Miller said. ''And the best way we can raise awareness is to offer this prayer vigil.''

Rev. Miller discussed the task force and the prayer vigil during his sermon Sunday, and said it raised his parishioners' curiosity levels.

''People know the rail project is coming, but if it doesn't affect them in terms of needing a job or from an personal economic perspective, they don't tend to spend much time thinking about it from a larger social justice perspective,'' he said.''

But when they hear their pastor talk about it, it tends to get them more interested in asking more questions.''

This story originally appeared on Quad-Cities Online on September 14, 2012 and is available here:

An organizing drive in Hawaii has forced the hand of America’s largest bank, achieving a breakthrough that has slashed foreclosures.


At the height of the pre-2008 housing bubble, America’s largest banks were engaged in such a frenzy of trading mortgage-backed securities that they lost track of the true owners of millions of homes. As the economy collapsed, banks sought to cover this up and to speed foreclosures on millions of Americans who had fallen behind on mortgage payments by falsifying documents on a massive scale.

This had catastrophic consequences. At least 2.7 million households that had entered mortgages from 2004 to 2008 lost their homes to foreclosure by February 2011, according the Center for Responsible Lending, with African-

American and Latino borrowers twice as likely as whites to lose their homes or fall into serious delinquency.

But while most states have struggled to turn the tide—and the National Mortgage Settlement seems to have left no one fully satisfied—an organizing drive in Hawaii has quickly generated concrete results.

Common Stories

In 2010, Hawaii was suffering from the ninth-highest foreclosure rate in the country. Throughout the 41 faith congregations and allied community groups who were members of Hawaii’s Faith Action for Community Equity, a faith-based organizing group affiliated with the Gamaliel network, families were struggling to hold onto their homes.

One of them was Honolulu resident Melba Amaral. Amaral and her husband ran into difficulty making mortgage payments after her husband was injured in a car accident and lost work hours and benefits. Amaral ran a childcare center in their home, meaning a loss of the house would shutter her business as well.

“I had an obligation to let my clients know two months in advance if the center would have to close,” Amaral said. “We have a daughter in high school. We were terrified.”

For more than a year leading up to that point in late 2010, Amaral and her husband had sought a loan modification from Bank of America. “It was a nightmare. We would FedEx all our documents to one Bank of America office, then we’d get a request from a different office asking for identical information,” she said.

After the Amarals had corresponded with 11 different Bank of America offices on the mainland, “they eventually said we failed to qualify. We had to come up with $20,000. The representative told my husband, ‘Why don’t you go borrow it from your friends and family and call us back?’”

FACE director Drew Astolfi had heard stories of struggles like the Amarals’ from across the state. He and FACE organizer Kim Harman decided to conduct a statewide study on foreclosures as the first step of an organizing campaign. Their research showed that the Amarals’ case was hardly unique.

“We found that 97.5 percent of the foreclosures were being driven by the big banks on the mainland” such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo, said Harman. “Local banks were very careful because they knew the people they’d be foreclosing on. Most of the big banks didn’t even have loan offices on the islands.”

In addition to identifying the big banks as the real culprit, “the study surfaced leaders who were dealing with these issues,” Astolfi said. FACE had the core of a campaign; the next step was going public.

FACE planned a series of public events to build pressure on the big banks and galvanize support in the state legislature. The timing was right, as the legislature wanted to act, but had been “flooded” with contradictory anti-foreclosure bills during the 2010 legislative session, according to state Rep. Robert Herkes.

The Power of Speaking Out

But FACE had one major obstacle to a public campaign: the lack of a public voice.

“Getting people to come forward is not easy,” says the Rev. Bob Nakata, former president of FACE Oahu. “People want to meet their obligations—especially financial—and they’re embarrassed when they can’t do that. One of the most powerful weapons on the other side is shame and stigmatization.”

Nakata said that clergy were in a unique position to reassure people that their financial struggles were not a moral failure: “That’s why it’s important that a faith-based organization took this on. Pastors have a little more credibility than most in saying, ‘It’s not your fault. It’s the system that failed.’”

Amaral was wrestling with her own feelings of shame, isolation, and anger when Harman, the FACE organizer, called. Harman was looking for a community member who could share a powerful personal story at the campaign launch on December 10, 2010. She had heard about Amaral’s struggle from another FACE leader.

At first, Amaral was hesitant to open up. “I thought, ‘Should I tell her?’ I feared the scrutiny and the name-calling. I was afraid my childcare clients would go into panic mode,” Amaral said. “But something was telling me, ‘Talk to her.’ We were on the phone for about five hours after that.”

“In the end, I decided I was ready to fight,” Amaral said. She added that her clients were so supportive that they encouraged her to bring their children with her when she joined other FACE members in testifying at the State Capitol.

Amaral’s testimony brought forth a flood of support and inspired even more FACE members to come forward. Leaders were working every day, testifying at actions, going to legislative hearings, and raising awareness. As a result, the state legislature formed a Foreclosure Task Force, which drafted a 15-page bill that ultimately ballooned to 100 pages as FACE members testified.

The bill included the requirement that lenders sit down face-to-face with homeowners for mediation before foreclosing. It also placed a temporary moratorium on all new non-judicial foreclosures, and raised standards for lenders to show that they truly had the right to foreclose.

One source of the crisis, Rep. Herkes noted, was that the big banks “had retained mortgage servicers who got a commission on foreclosures,” he said.

“Foreclosure doesn’t only affect one family: it affects the whole community,” Amaral said. “The bankers and the lobbyists fighting the bill had to see that.”

As momentum grew in the legislature, FACE kept the public pressure up with a series of public demonstrations—a total of six on three islands—demanding that the big banks meet face-to-face with homeowners facing foreclosure. The public events “were the muscle of the campaign,” said FACE’s Harman. “They created tension, got media coverage, and forced the banks to the table.”

In March 2011, Bank of America representatives sat down with FACE and offered settlements to several dozen of the group’s members, including Amaral. “I got the settlement packet and showed it to an attorney friend. She said it was one of the best deals she had ever seen,” Amaral said.

That May, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed the anti-foreclosure bill that FACE members had helped shape. In terms of protections for homeowners, it was “the strongest thing imaginable,” MSNBC commentator and mortgage expert Martin Andelman told Honolulu’s Civil Beat.

The new law, called Act 48, gave owner-occupants of residential property in non-judicial foreclosure the ability to meet face-to-face with their lenders to modify their loans or work out a payment plan within three months. Banks were barred from carrying out non-judicial foreclosures without the face-to-face sit-down, and any previous foreclosure proceedings were frozen during the three-month process.

Foreclosures in Hawaii dropped by more than half from May 2011 to January 2012. “Personal bankruptcy rates plummeted, and the Council of State Governments recommended that every other state adopt a similar law,” says Rep. Herkes.

For Amaral and other FACE leaders, it was a triumph. “In the supermarket, a high school friend I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years came up to me and said, ‘Thank you! My sister saved her home because of you,’” Amaral said.

“It really put FACE on the map,” Nakata said. “When we started out, people said, ‘You’re going to take on Bank of America? Are you crazy?’ The win gave us a lot of credibility.”

When Hawaii joined the $25 billion mortgage fraud settlement deal in February 2012, Hawaii Director of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Keali’i Lopez called the deal “long overdue,” but noted that the state had not waited for the settlement to address Hawaii’s mortgage problems. Many of the key provisions in the settlement, Lopez said, were addressed last year with the Mortgage Foreclosure Dispute Resolution Program and with Act 48.

Harman said the most important result of the campaign was that it restored to thousands of Hawaiians something even more important than the ability to stay in their homes: their dignity. “These banks had set up a dehumanizing process,” Harman said. “The actions we held let homeowners talk directly to another person. The law lets them do that too. It was the dignity of the person that was being violated in the banks’ setup. We helped put an end to that.”

Stephen Boykewich is a nonprofit communications consultant and principal ofPrescient Media.

More information about Stephen Boykewich

Groups sue to block reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange

By This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. of the Journal Sentinel - Aug. 9, 2012

Milwaukee community organizations are suing to block reconstruction of the Zoo Interchange, accusing state and federal transportation officials of discriminating against urban minorities by not including public transit improvements in the $1.7 billion freeway project.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Madison, argues the project will "have the likely effect of exacerbating regional racial segregation, and it will have adverse environmental effects on air quality and water resources. . . . If the project proceeds, it will have major and significant impacts on the most racially segregated region in the United States."

Plans call for the state Department of Transportation to rebuild the western Milwaukee County crossroads of I-94, I-894 and U.S. Highway 45 from 2015 through 2018, with related work on adjacent streets starting Monday. Because federal aid is expected to cover much of the cost, state officials were required to obtain federal approval for their evaluation of the project's environmental impact.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates filed suit earlier this week against the state and federal transportation departments on behalf of Milwaukee Innercity Congregations Allied for Hope and the Black Health Coalition of Wisconsin.

Mike Pyritz, spokesman for the state Transportation Department's Southeastern Region, declined to comment on the litigation. Federal highway officials did not return a call seeking comment.

The lawsuit argues the project violates environmental justice rules, which prohibit federally funded projects from discriminating against minorities.

In the Milwaukee area, many African-American and Hispanic residents depend on buses, because only 60% of black adults and 50% of Hispanic adults have driver's licenses, says the lawsuit, citing 2006 research by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. Combined with disproportionately high unemployment among minorities, that means they need public transit to reach jobs in the predominantly white suburbs, the suit says.

Yet from 2000 to early 2012, the Milwaukee County Transit System eliminated 25 bus routes and cut back many others, while the state cut transit aid, boosted highway funding and dismantled the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Transit Authority, the lawsuit notes.

The lawsuit claims that pattern violated the terms of the 2000 settlement of a federal civil rights complaint that alleged state officials discriminated by favoring highway projects that benefited white suburbanites while opposing a light-rail system that could have benefited urban minorities. In that agreement, state officials agreed to help improve area transit, including cooperation with what later became the Milwaukee streetcar plan.

"It's really trying to correct the incredible imbalance between the vast sums that are being spent on this and other freeway projects and the ongoing deterioration and dismantlement of the transit structure to serve those who don't have cars," environmental attorney Dennis Grzezinski said of the lawsuit he helped file.

Another concern is that the Zoo Interchange is being built with the capacity to expand if six-lane freeways are later widened to eight lanes, the lawsuit says.

That would bring more traffic and boost air pollution, at a time when "persons of color in the region, especially African-Americans, have higher rates of air-quality-related respiratory disease, such as asthma, than white persons."

Boosting the amount of pavement also would increase concerns about storm water runoff, the suit says.

ACLU attorneys, transit advocates and community organizations have voiced similar complaints about freeway expansion for years, dating back to the planning commission's 2003 development of an overall plan for rebuilding the area's aging freeways. Another major component of that plan, rebuilding I-94 from Milwaukee's south side to the Illinois line, started in 2009 and is expected to continue through 2021, at a cost of id="mce_marker".9 billion.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb.

This story originally appeared in the Milwaukee, WI Journal Sentinel (JS Online) on August 9, 2012 and is available here:

By David Carl Olson and Hoffman Brown III

It is time for a real jobs agenda for Maryland. Too many citizens in our state are unemployed or under-employed and are struggling to make ends meet. Notwithstanding recent job losses, we have a stronger economy than many states in the nation, which gives us incredible opportunities to change this. Maryland needs a clear jobs agenda that connects the dots between transportation, public works, housing and workforce development. This jobs agenda should focus on building clear employment pathways and expanding opportunity in Maryland's niche and growing sectors — from bioscience to information technology to transportation. If the governor, state and local officials, business leaders, nonprofit leaders and residents commit to working together and creating a real jobs agenda, we can seize the opportunity to make all Marylanders economically secure.

Setting this agenda now is timely, as Gov.Martin O'Malleyis about to appoint new secretaries of labor and transportation. These two yet-to-be-named secretaries should play a key role in developing and championing Maryland's jobs agenda. But it cannot be accomplished in silos; transportation and workforce efforts must be integrated in order to get the greatest bang for the buck. Linking transportation and jobs just makes sense. Transportation construction and operations create living wage jobs. Moreover, transportation projects ultimately create the infrastructure backbone that connects people to jobs.

During the past two years the Fair Development Coalition, a group of diverse organizations including BRIDGE, CASA de Maryland, the Job Opportunities Task Force, the Laborers' International Union of North America, the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, the Safe and Sound Campaign, and Red Line Now PAC, worked closely with state leaders to begin the process. Under the leadership the former transportation and labor secretaries, Beverly Swaim-Staley and Alexander Sanchez, the state created a transportation-related job training program called BuildUp. This training program uses 0.5 percent of federal transportation money coming into the state to link struggling workers to jobs. BuildUp was announced at the end of 2011, and in the first two months of 2012, more than 1,300 Marylanders applied for the job training slots.

In May, Governor O'Malley signed legislation codifying the transportation training fund so that we can create stable pipelines connecting the unemployed and under-employed to transportation jobs now and into the future. This program will be a model for leveraging investment and getting Marylanders back to work, but it is only a first step. The new secretaries must make a jobs agenda one of their top priorities from the start and be willing to make bold change.

What will be the employment engines behind Maryland's jobs agenda? Many jobs will be found in the private sector — and we must align our workforce and education systems to make sure Marylanders have the skills needed by industry. Other jobs will be found in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities now occurring in Maryland, including: Base Realignment and Closure; the building of the Red Line in Baltimore and the Purple Line in Prince George's and Montgomery counties; major infrastructure projects desperately needed in the older suburbs of the Baltimore and Washington D.C. regions; and bridge repairs needed around the state.

To close Maryland's persistent income and employment gaps, a jobs agenda must pay careful attention to strategies for connecting under-employed residents to these jobs. It will not be easy, and it will force us to do things in new ways. Accordingly, this jobs agenda must include components such as: fully funding infrastructure investments, such as the Red Line and Purple Line; creating clear pathways for disadvantaged workers to enter jobs and move up the career ladder; building a strong education and training infrastructure; and using tax dollars more efficiently by funding job-connecting programs that work (apprenticeships, job training and supportive services) rather than expensive custodial programs that often do more harm than good.

We look forward to working with the new transportation and labor secretaries to create and implement an interconnected jobs agenda for the state. If we make this real, Maryland will be recognized nationally as a state set a model for creating jobs and connecting its people to opportunity.

The Rev. David Carl Olson of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) and the Rev. Hoffman Brown III of Wayland Baptist Church are members of the Fair Development Coalition.

This Op Ed originally appeared in the Baltimore Sun on July 23, 2012 and is available here:,0,26592,print.story

By Alma Campos

Every year, the NAACP holds a rally from March 4-9 to commemorate the Selma to Montgomery march and draw attention to the issues facing African Americans in America. Since the passage of Alabama’s HB 56—the nation’s worst anti-immigrant law—the NAACP has reached out to organizations around the country to build lasting relationships between Civil Rights and Immigrant Rights communities over their common history of struggle. The event marks the coming together of a broad movement for a renewed call for civil rights in America. This year, a core part of their agenda was a demand to repeal HB 56.

Gamaliel, a grassroots network of non-partisan, faith-based organizations in 18 U.S. states, South Africa and the United Kingdom, is now taking on the voting rights issue. They are working together with the NAACP and other social justice organizations on “Get out the Vote” initiatives for the Fall elections.

Among the participants in the Selma to Montgomery march this year was 28-year-old Carlos Pinedo, who emigrated from Mexico with his family at the age of eight. In the racially diverse community in Chicago’s South Suburbs, young Pinedo soon became conscious of the tensions and boundaries between blacks, Latinos and whites and quickly adopted the racial stereotypes he learned from his new friends. Growing up in Blue Island, Illinois, Carlos and his brother Jose became targets of racial profiling themselves. Things took a nasty turn when Jose was arrested by ICE officers in front of his mother on Mother’s Day for failing to present a state-issued picture ID to police officials who were questioning him for no legitimate reason. He was deported to Mexico, leaving behind his family and newborn child.

The incident prompted Carlos to become a leader with the South Suburban Action Conference (SSAC) and Gamaliel’s Civil Rights of Immigrants Task Force, working to raise awareness about racial profiling and its negative impact on families. In 2010, SSAC was able to persuade Blue Island Mayor Donald Peloquin to sign a resolution allowing undocumented immigrants to present the Matricula Consular as a valid form of identification.

Pinedo decided to participate in the march because, as he says, “I felt that now more than ever, I needed to show my community that what I have been working for is really worth it. In this way, I can stand for the ones who have no voice.”Florida Immigrant Coalition marches from Selma to Montgomery, 2012. Courtesy of Equal Voice News.

The march made Pinedo acutely aware of other communities all over the U.S. who have been fighting for the same thing—namely, human rights.

The Reverend David Bigsby, co-founder and president of the Gamaliel National Clergy Council, also attended the march. He was at Morehouse College in Atlanta during the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March. “Voting rights were especially important to me because neither my parents nor anyone in our family had ever voted, except me,” he recalls. “They feared what would happen if they attempted to register. Most of them could not read very well and did not think their vote would make a difference. The 1965 march caused my father to find the courage to vote for the first time. He had served in WWII but did not feel he was a valued citizen.”

One young leader with Gamaliel, Eliza Perez-Montalvo, is responding to the call for renewed black-brown unity, saying: “Marching today is the beginning of my journey.”

Alma Campos is the communications coordinator for Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, a Gamaliel affiliate.