Together Baton Rouge (TBR) is a Louisiana-based community organization affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) – a association of groups around the country that have been trained in the theories and praxes of community organizer Saul Alinsky and are dedicated to the same progressive political and social ends. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were greatly influenced by Alinsky and his work, which includes the book 'Rules for Radicals.'
Like other Alinskyian community organizations, TBR has received numerous grants from various religious bodies, including the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. Some of that money has been for organizational purposes, while some has been for projects. Among the Roman Catholic parishes affiliated with TBR are:
St. George, and St. Jean Vianney.
(Saul Alinsky, 1950s)
In fact, it took about $300,000 of Catholic charitable money to get this group off the ground. In 2006, the “Louisiana Industrial Areas Foundation’s Baton Rouge Project” was awarded $30,000 to begin its organizing for “neighborhood improvement.” It took another $40,000 the next year for “organizational development” to pull together the fledgling IAF local and by 2008, with the help of another $50,000 grant, the Greater Baton Rouge IAF Sponsoring Committee was launched, hiring a second organizer and conducting hundreds of trainings.
With grants of $50,000 in 2009 and $40,000 in 2010, the Sponsoring Committee was ready to become a mature IAF local, receiving its next $60,000 grant under the name of Together Baton Rouge.
Finally, in 2011, TBR was ready to try its hand at a specific project, identified as “transportation,” for which it was given $75,000. Together with these national Catholic Campaign for Human Development grants, TBR receives local support from three Baton Rouge parishes. These Catholic communities contribute a percentage of their annual income into TBR coffers, along with leadership and “social capital.” “Social capital” is a fancy way of saying that they provide moral credibility to TBR.
Lest there be any misunderstanding, the Catholic Church is not alone in building this IAF local in Baton Rouge. There are 32 other congregation-members, including Baptists, Unitarians, Episcopalians, United Methodist, Presbyterians, and several secular organizations. Among the congregations represented are: Shiloh Baptist Church, St. Mark United Methodist, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Baton Rouge, and Mount Zion Baptist Church. In addition, the Service Employees International Union, and a lodge of Freemasons are members of TBR.
The Catholic Church is, however, the player of immediate concern, as so much of TBR’s work – not to mention the work of the IAF in general – is not merely political in nature but takes a direction that violates fundamental Catholic principles. So it’s important to look closely at these local grantees and their activities.
As the most recent Catholic Campaign for Human Development grant indicates, one of TBR’s first projects, in April 2012, was to work for the passage of a Capital Area Transit System (CATS) tax to expand the city’s public bus system. On the back of that success, TBR immediately lobbied for a bill that would grant all nominations for the CATS board to a commission of organizations that included itself – putting the new “stakeholders” in control of $30 million dollars. The bill passed the Louisiana legislature but was vetoed by Governor Bobby Jindal.
Like them or not, the CATS tax and the effort to restructure the CATS board were both highly partisan, political proposals, with Democrats supporting both and Republicans opposing them. Further, unlike straightforward legislation based on the moral law, these were proposals about which one might legitimately debate particular merits and defects.
That’s an important point to bear in mind: Alinskyian community organizations are not assembled in response to serious moral issues but to build political power for partisan causes.
The St. George Movement
One of the IAF’s longstanding causes has been to champion “education reform.” In the 90s, the “reforms” it supported – by passage of legislation, by backing given school board seats, and by the establishment of schools under its control – went by the name of “outcome based education. Today, the goals are the same but the names have changed.
Enter irate parents, predominately white and middle-class, from East Baton Rouge Parish (county) who wanted control over their children’s education but faced such opposition that they began a movement to incorporate as the independent city of St. George. “Incorporating the city of St. George was not the original intention of our grassroots group,” their website explains. “Originally, we were attempting to provide local schools for local children through the creation of an independent school district in the southern part of the parish.”
Because this is one of the wealthier and more stable areas of the parish (county), resistance to the “St. George movement” has been ferocious. It has been depicted as “racist,” as “classist,” and as socially irresponsible. The truth, however, is that there are many complex – legitimate – issues at stake that deserve a serious, thoughtful hearing.
However, once again, there is a partisan element to this: according to a Louisiana State University Public Policy Research Lab Survey, the “St. George movement” is favored by Republicans; Democrats, by contrast, are scurrying to annex important bits of real estate (the main mall and hospital) to Baton Rouge, before the “St. George movement” gathers full steam.
In the middle of all this, Diane Hanley, co-chair of TBR’s transportation committee, sent a November 8, 2013 email that she asked to be forwarded to the priests and deacons of the South Central Deanery of the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge. Hanley, by way of a little background, had at one time worked with Catholic Charities as Associate Director of Parish Social Ministry for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, so she was on familiar “turf.”
“Dear Fathers, I feel that we are at a profound moral moment in our city. Good Christian men and women have decided that it is totally virtuous to carve out a place for some families. They will take with them brand new school buildings and most of the money of the city,” – that is, their own tax dollars – “as well as parts of some important parks, along with many other resources…To me, this carving of the city shows a complete loss of a moral compass.”
She’s entitled to an opinion. She’s part of TBR’s framework and TBR has organized two groups that oppose any St. George incorporation. The FaceBook pages of these TBR groups, “Better Together Baton Rouge” and “Residents Against the Breakaway,” indicate they are engaged in a lot of political activity to see that the incorporation doesn’t take place.
So what Hanley writes next is troubling:
“Dear Fathers, I have been told that you do not need to be told the arguments why this is so immoral so I won’t go on and on with why we should oppose this. What I am really asking of you is to consider that you, along with other priests in the city, are people who can make a profound impact on the situation.”
Then she calls for a “convening of our priests to explore the immorality of the breakaway” – of which she asks to part and to which she offers to bring other Catholic leaders. And then, the salient bit, she tells them that she will be meeting with pastors “in other traditions on Nov. 19 at noon at Shiloh Baptist Church….It would be powerful to have Catholic priests present at this gathering.”
Yes, it is powerful – a powerful abuse of their religious authority in the service of fleeting, secular issues. A “Better Together Baton Rouge” meeting held at St. Patrick Catholic Church on February 4, 2014 was endorsed by the pastor, presented only one side, and raised money to fight the “St. George” incorporation effort. Would the City of St. George incorporation effort also be permitted political fundraising on church property? One doubts it.
For all the mudslinging hurled against the “St. George Movement,” this is a “movement” that was sparked by “education reform” – and TBR has thrown itself behind the IAF’s vision for this reform, tasking itself with “parent organizing and training” in “support of schools.”[i] That is, TBR is pushing a nation-wide programs and pedagogy, identified here as the IAF’s “alliance schools” strategy.
If one understands this in terms of a national education/workforce development system into which Louisiana children – Catholic school or public school educated – must participate if they want employment, the understanding would be correct. But it doesn’t stop there.
Last Pentecost Sunday, TBR brought “together people from differing denominational,” including Catholics, “geographic, economic and racial backgrounds to study the Bible, organizers hope to foster an appreciation and understanding of others’ points of view.”[ii] This isn’t Scripture as the Church teaches it but as it has been reinterpreted by the Alinskyian organizers to train Christians to think about social justice and charity and “act on their concerns about the community.”
One won’t learn much about what the Church teaches but one will learn to support whatever TBR and its sister organizations in the IAF support, in all its partisan political glory.
Spero columnist Stephanie Block is the author of the four-volume 'Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies,' available at Amazon.
[i] Charles Lussier, “Together BR, VIPS team up to help schools,” The Advocate, 11-6-13.
[ii] William Taylor, “Bible study meant to bring BR together for action,” The Advocate, 8-23-13.