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March 24, 2010

Wielding CLOUT

Grassroots group seeks to effect social change

In theory, community organizing provides a way to merge various strategies for neighborhood empowerment. Organizing begins with the premise that the problems facing communities do not result from a lack of effective solutions, but from a lack of power to implement these solutions; that the only way for communities to build long-term power is by organizing people and money around a common vision.

Once such a vehicle is formed, it holds the power to make politicians, agencies and corporations more responsive…

Those words, written 20 years ago by idealistic Harvard Law student Barack Obama, described the political theory behind the hardscrabble work he’d done as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side. Yet those same words could just as readily describe an event held Monday at the Kentucky International Convention Center: The Nehemiah Action Assembly.

The gathering, which serves as an annual call-to-action for the grassroots organization Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (CLOUT), brought together nearly 2,000 participants from local churches and neighborhood groups to discuss issues of social concern.

“Westwood Presbyterian Church!” shouted David Dutschke during roll call, receiving an enthusiastic cheer. “St. Agnes Catholic Church!” he yelled, a scenario repeated until all 21 congregations representing CLOUT’s 16,000 members were named. This, coupled with the live gospel music and fiery message of progressivism, bred an atmosphere straddling political convention and tent revival.

“We are not here to be lectured by public officials, but to have our voices heard,” said the Rev. Bill Burks of St. Pius X Catholic Church. “We’re nearly 2,000 people, representing thousands more, and we’re making history here.”

Since 1991, CLOUT has worked to bring its diverse membership together on topics of common concern. At stake this year were two disparate issues that affect many of the congregations present: predatory lending and youth violence.

The predatory lending issue was a holdover from 2009, when CLOUT sought to create legislation capping at 36 percent the rate at which so-called “payday lenders” could charge interest. Those loans, mostly used by lower-income households, often spiral out of control as the exorbitant interest rates lenders charge (as high as 400 percent) result in an avalanche of debt.

CLOUT worked this year to get House Bill 381 filed, which would have established the 36 percent cap. Despite strong support, the bill died at the behest of Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg, chairman of the House Banking and Insurance Committee.

In an effort to revive the bill, CLOUT invited representatives from the offices of Gov. Steve Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway to the assembly.

“Will the governor commit to ensure that a bill establishing a rate cap of 36 percent receives a hearing in the legislature in the 2011 legislative session, yes or no?” Bishop Walter Jones of the Baptized Pentecostal Church of Holiness asked Colmon Elridge, executive assistant to the governor. The question was projected onto a movie theater-sized screen, and ultimately, Elridge answered with a simple, “Yes.”

The exercise was repeated with Conway’s representative, eliciting the same affirmative response.

Procedural realities aside (neither Beshear nor Conway can make the legislature do anything), the process affirmed CLOUT’s collective political power.

Having dispensed with the representatives from Frankfort, CLOUT leaders moved on to this year’s other initiative: “plugging the schools-to-prison pipeline.” Essentially an effort to introduce an alternative to putting kids into the criminal justice system for minor offenses, CLOUT was looking for commitments to explore so-called “restorative justice” techniques.

Restorative justice uses victim-offender dialogue and family group conferencing to create an alternative to what CLOUT Youth and Violence Co-chairman Bill Forman calls the tendency to “punish, punish, punish.”

“This is a prevention approach, rather than a Band-Aid approach,” he tells LEO.

One-by-one, Jefferson County Juvenile Court judges, County Attorney Mike O’Connell and Jefferson County Public Schools officials were called on stage to answer questions concerning the possibility of a pilot program being initiated by the fall of 2010. Each of them expressed support.

How effectively those initiatives are adopted, of course, remains to be seen.

In a sense, the assembly was both symbolic and pragmatic. A “scorecard” allowed CLOUT members to record responses, and an “action alert” listed the phone numbers of elected officials who have failed to support CLOUT initiatives.

Chances are Rep. Greer — who refused to hear the bill capping interest rates — will be fielding a lot of calls.