By Jacob Carah (Winston-Salem Journal August 28, 2011)
A schoolteacher, a homeless man, a lawyer, a doctor, a Baptist preacher and a Muslim walk into a room.
This is not a joke. This is CHANGE — Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment. It’s a nonprofit interfaith organization that has been engaging the community of Winston-Salem for nearly 10 years.
The Rev. Ryan Eller, lead community organizer, and Mustafah Abdullah, the associate organizer, say the group’s goal is to bring together people in the community from all walks of life.
The group began in 2001, when the community was changing demographically and just after the 2000 census showed that a high level of racial segregation still existed in many local neighborhoods. These changes came as racial questions arose in the case of Darryl Hunt, a black man who was freed from prison in 2004 after new DNA evidence showed he was wrongly convicted of the murder of Deborah Sykes, a white copy editor at the now-closed Sentinel newspaper.
“Amidst all of these challenges in our community, a group of dedicated leaders saw a vision where citizens had a significant place at the decision-making table, but also a community that was less segregated, where people are engaging with each other in a positive way,” Eller said.
For Eller, the strength of the group resides in the different perspectives of its members. The group is made up of 50 Forsyth County member institutions, mostly churches that comprise about 26,000 people in membership and outreach.
Current member Lehoma Goode, a retired Moravian minister and schoolteacher, said, “It’s just about the only place where I can be with so many different kinds of people and build all different kinds of relationships in order to do things for the public.”
Goode said that while views often diverge, the members always treat one another with civility.
“We don’t try to boil things down to the least common denominator. The point is to be honest with each other about what we think,” she said. “That is the power of the interfaith experience. We share our perspective while being respectful of the other person.”
The organization has had many successes, Eller said. It worked to ensure that a 2006 bond referendum on schools included existing inner-city schools, not just new ones. It helped to get lead poisoning removed from hundreds of homes in a 2008-09 initiative. The group’s many projects have included holding community meetings to identify local priorities, supporting local health clinics, and pushing for the creation of summer jobs for teens. Just last week, the group won agreement for two homeless or formerly homeless people to have seats on the Homeless Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.
“There are a countless number of campaigns that we could point to, but I think the most significant thing that we have seen in the last few years is the growth of our organization as it relates particularly to African-American and Latino diversity, as well as our recognition of being a truly interfaith organization here in the Bible Belt, even when you have a lead organizer, like me, an ordained Baptist minister,” Eller said.
Abdullah said the organization has given residents more opportunities to participate in public life and interact with people they would not normally come into contact with.
“I think more and more people see that our narrative in the community is that no matter what you are — white, black, poor or wealthy, Muslim, Christian or Jewish — we are all intertwined together and belonging to the commitment of the common good,” Abdullah said.
Some criticism leveled
CHANGE has its critics.
Nathan Tabor, the chairman of the Republican Party in Forsyth County, said the group is not as nonpartisan as it claims. Eller has a political background, having managed the campaign in 2008 for the unsuccessful Democratic challenger to Republican U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx.
Tabor points to CHANGE’s successful effort in 2009 to get the legislature to make Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board elections nonpartisan. Some saw that as a political effort to try to reduce the Republican majority on the board.
“If you are going to be involved in higher-level service, you are going to be a registered Democrat or Republican,” Tabor said. “There is a certain ideology that goes with that. When people are deciding on whom to vote for, they are looking to see how that individual is registered to vote.”
But the group says the vast majority of school board elections in North Carolina are nonpartisan, and the goal — and successful result — was to draw more people to run for office and to leave party politics out of the school board race. Twenty-six people ran for the board in 2010, although all the incumbents were re-elected.
The change in school board elections didn’t last. The legislature this year reversed course with a bill by state Rep. Dale Folwell, R-Forsyth, that restores partisan elections.
“Over 10,000 citizens of Forsyth County signed petitions asking for (nonpartisan school board elections), and we believe partisan politics should not be involved in something as important as our kids’ education,” said the Rev. Steve Boyd, a board member of CHANGE.
Tabor also accused CHANGE of promoting forced school busing in its call for more diversity in the school system.
Boyd said the group never suggested or brought up forced busing.
“Our request was that the community — led by our education leadership — engage in a process of research, discussion and decision-making regarding reviewing and updating the current student assignment plan, which is typically done every 10 years or so, but hasn’t been done in the last 16 years,” Boyd said.
Vic Johnson, a Democrat and local school board member for District I, said he also disagrees that the group as a whole is nonpartisan. “Publicly, they say they don’t want to endorse people (in elections) but underhandedly they do,” Johnson said.
CHANGE compiled a scorecard on candidates in the 2010 school board election based on answers to a survey.
Johnson said he doesn’t think the group can make much of a difference in the community without publicly supporting elected officials who can affect issues.
CHANGE leaders say members are trying to focus on bringing people together across political lines on common community goals, not pushing one political agenda.
For Boyd, who has been involved with the group since its inception, criticism that the group lacks conservative voices or is politically slanted toward Democratic initiatives are attempts at politicizing the issues, which contradicts the group’s goal.
“I think a lot of people involved with CHANGE would be surprised to be characterized as not conservative,” Boyd said. Many members belong to conservative religious institutions and want to preserve family values, which they see as a conservative value, he said.
Boyd said CHANGE tries to help neighborhood groups come together to have a voice on issues that directly affect their particular community.
“It’s very difficult for a group of citizens to go to the city, to the county, to the school board or to any governmental body or agency and have much of an effect, as a single neighborhood,” Boyd said. “Businesses’ interests are very organized in terms of influence of governmental policy. Political parties are very organized in terms of their philosophy and agenda, but the rest of the civic sector, nobody organizes things, and they need to be at the table when decisions are made.”
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