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11.25.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Dinah Phillips
Get Up, Stand Up: Jesus Fernandez of the Center for Community Advocacy at the Nov. 22 COPA meeting.

Power to the People

Churches unite to battle poverty.

By Jessica Lussenhop


THE SUNDAY afternoon convention of Communities for Organized Relational Power in Action (COPA) at the Henry J. Mello Center in Watsonville had just a touch of megachurch fervor to it. There was cheering and waving of hands and twirling of noisemakers as the names of 18 religious institutions gathered in the auditorium were read off--St. John the Baptist Episcopal, Assumption Catholic Church, Temple Beth El.

But the collection taken up from the roughly 800 attendees was telephone numbers and email addresses, and the higher power the crowd was appealing to was District 17 Congressman Sam Farr. Sitting at a long table marked with a banner that read "Prosperidad Compartida," four COPA leaders hit Farr with questions pertaining to the organization's four top issues--housing foreclosure, health care, immigration reform and public safety--as he sat alone behind a banner that read "Shared Prosperity."

"Chase Bank has responded [to us] and, Feb. 6th, will have a loan mitigation officer meet with our families," said COPA Housing Team leader Meg Campbell. "Can you help us get Bank of America and Wells Fargo to these workshops?" A translator in the wings of the auditorium murmured the question in Spanish into his receiver.

"I will not only contact both of these banks, but the Federal Reserve, which these banks are accountable to," said Farr, and the room--which included county supervisors from Santa Cruz and Monterey, as well as Watsonville City Council and the mayor of Salinas--burst into applause.

COPA self-identifies as a grassroots campaign that reaches out from its pulpits to determine the needs of the congregations and then engages with local politicians to get those needs met. After six years, COPA is made up of 22 institutions, four of them nonreligious, and says it represents 30,000 members.

But it still tends to act as a small organization, at least at first. "We have lots of individual meetings, like if there's maybe a newcomer at my church I'll meet with them," says Campbell, who joined COPA through St. John the Baptist Episcopal. "For example, many, many people were going through foreclosure and they brought that to the housing strategy team. And now our focus is on trying to save some of those homes."

The group places high value on its members' "stories," which is why several stood onstage--some visibly nervous--to read statements on why they came to COPA. "When my husband and I lost our jobs we could no longer afford our $6,000 mortgage payment," said one woman in Spanish. "We've been embarrassed to tell our story, but we know now we're not alone."

Another young man stood and read, "One year ago I dropped out of school because I felt obligated to help my parents. I just got laid off from my $9 an hour job and I am angry. I'm neither helping my parents nor getting an education."

The group's leaders say these stories help inform COPA's agenda and motivate them to learn how to engage politically.

"I was invited to attend a meeting with the Chancellor of UCSC. It was my very first meeting, I had no idea why I was there," says COPA leader Jorge Savala of the Live Oak Family Resource Center. "I got to see how to have a sit-down meeting with someone in power. They were teaching me how to organize."

The group prides itself on self-education. When it advocated for a county housing element that committed 40 percent of development on certain tracts like the Par 3 to affordable housing, leaders met several times with County Planning Director Tom Burns to learn the process. COPA tackled a hard-to-pass half-cent sales tax increase in Salinas in 2006 by educating its members on a grassroots level. They reach out to people in all different positions of power, like a meeting in 2006 in which they extracted promises from then-District 2 Supervisor Jan Beautz for $4 million for a new Live Oak Family Resource Center, and Santa Cruz Adult School Principal Mary Powers for new ESL classes.

One might speculate that a mixed religious base could cause ideological problems when it comes to issues like health-care reform and abortion. But health-care team leader Kathy Ruiz Goldenkranz from Temple Beth El says that is not the case.

"We do not talk about it, we talk about things that are of common interest," she says. "Everyone is facing increased health-care premiums, everyone is facing losing their insurance."

Alfred Diaz-Infante, whose secular organization Community Housing Improvement Systems and Planning Association has been a member for a year, agrees. "From my experience, religion doesn't get in the way. It's really about the people and about finding a common cause," he says.

Of those four common causes discussed in the meeting, COPA managed to get Farr to commit to helping get more trained foreclosure counselors into the region, to assist in building a regional sports complex in Salinas and to try to prevent immigration raids in the community. But he also warned that his addition to health-care reform, which attempts to even out Medicare repayments to doctors in California, could be viewed as "pork" in Congress, and that many of COPA's requests need to be handled by local governments.

"I'm so excited there are so many elected officials in the room," Farr said. "But I believe only the City Council members from Watsonville are here. We need to get more of them involved."

District 1 Supervisor John Leopold, who was in the audience as a guest and has been in contact with COPA since his days as a Cabrillo College Trustee, when COPA lobbied for entrance assessment tests written in Spanish, agreed with Farr.

"I think they do an effective job of educating people and getting people out there," he says. "Their big challenge will be how they can translate their stories into effective politics. Sam Farr is very much in favor of what they were doing, but I think he rightly pointed out the City Council members weren't there."

Nevertheless, the dialogue closed with Farr committing to meet with COPA again in March to hear about progress. "This is truly bottom-up," he said afterward onstage.

"There is no other grassroots organization across all these jurisdictions to tackle issues of poverty. This is what I got into politics for."


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