On the Ground in Fresno: Faith in Community

03 Sep 2014 | Anand Subramanian
On the Ground in Fresno: Faith in Community

In the heart of California’s Central Valley, a growing number of equity partnerships are working to organize Fresno’s marginalized communities to advocate for equitable change. One such coalition — Faith in Community — is finding success by engaging faith-based congregations on issues ranging from economic justice to ending the mass incarceration epidemic.

“All faith traditions have something to say about living equitably,” explained Bryson White, a community organizer with Faith In Community. “Our goal is to put human dignity at the center of public life.”

A member of the influential and extensive PICO National Network, Faith in Community works with 20 congregations across Fresno’s faith communities on various social justice campaigns. Although most of its members belong to more traditionally liberal Protestant churches, Faith in Community also includes more conservative churches as member congregations.

“Most faith language has been dominated by the political and Christian right, but this needs to be a collective conversation,” warned White. “We can’t afford to leave the sphere of civic involvement to any one religious group.”

Faith in Community also partners with Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM) and Fresno State University’s Humanics program, which develops courses that align with Faith in Community’s ongoing campaigns.

One of Faith in Community’s main focus areas is achieved through its participation in PICO’s “Live Free” campaign (also called “Lifelines to Healing”), which aims to dismantle the system of mass incarceration and reduce gun violence. An urgent priority is bail reform — according to White, many individuals in Fresno County jail are impoverished blacks and Latinos awaiting trial.

“In Fresno County, 70 percent of the inmate population is there pretrial, so they haven’t been convicted, but they can’t afford bail,” said White. “It’s class warfare. We need more efficient pretrial expansion programs, so people don’t have to sit in jail for something they haven’t been convicted of doing.”

Faith in Community partners with clergy and churches for its successful Night Walks program, also part of the “Live Free” campaign. As part of the program, participants walk through struggling neighborhoods to converse and pray with residents and hone in on community members identified as perpetrators or victims of gun violence. They engage in a dialogue with these residents, asking questions intended to stoke a sense of pride in and responsibility to the neighborhood, such as “what do you like about your community?” and “what would you like to see changed?” In one neighborhood, reports of violent crime went down by nearly 50 percent after a year and a half of Night Walks.

The Night Walks neighborhood dialogues also help to identify critical community issues, such as blight caused by abandoned properties. After the Great Recession, 22 Fresno neighborhoods were identified as areas of concentrated poverty, where 40 percent or more of the residents lived below the federal poverty line. The many foreclosures in these neighborhoods, largely caused by predatory lending and other schemes, prompted slumlords to further exploit these communities by buying up foreclosed properties for pennies on the dollar. The vast majority of these properties were boarded up and left vacant — a proven factor in causing neighborhood blight, violence, and toxic stress experienced by children.

To address this problem, Faith in Community partnered with Fresno State University to canvass and catalog these properties, and is currently working with the city to ensure that codes already in place are enforced, and that new property owners pay appropriate fines for blighted properties. They are also pressuring the city to force the handover of abandoned properties to community organizations that would match them with families in need.

“We are trying to build a power base led by residents and people of faith to disrupt politics as usual in Fresno,” said White.

The abandoned property campaign falls under what Faith in Community calls a focus on “concentrated usury,” or the exploitation of impoverished communities. Another campaign under this umbrella is one to limit the number of new payday lenders in Fresno. Currently, there are 66 payday lender stores, densely concentrated in the same 22 distressed neighborhoods. Faith in Community recently had a victory in this campaign when the Fresno City Council passed an ordinance to limit the opening of any new payday stores within one-quarter mile of another, effectively a hard limit on any new stores in working poor neighborhoods.

As for what’s next, Faith in Community is planning a civic engagement campaign focused on Proposition 47, a statewide ballot initiative that would reclassify nonviolent felony convictions as misdemeanors and use the savings to improve jails and fund drug and mental health treatment programs. Faith in Community plans to target low propensity voters — registered voters who typically do not vote in midterm elections — by canvassing and phone banking, with a goal of turning out 5,000 new voters to the polls.

“We can’t continue this rabid pace of incarcerating — it’s destroying our communities,” urged White. “Prop 47 would rectify the failure of the War on Drugs and get people the help they need.”

>>>Read the rest of the California Equity Quarterly Summer 2014 issue.