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Gamaliel jobs plan akin to Gardner’s

Thu, Nov 1, 2012

We see a lot of handwringing about societal issues from handouts to handguns, with focus on all the pitfalls of offering a hand up. In the view of Chicago’s legendary Soft Sheen founder Ed Gardner and a groundswell of individuals and organizations across the country, the best answers to that conundrum have been staring us in the face.

Gardner recently happened by a construction site on the city’s Southwest Side. He looked for, but couldn’t find, a single Black worker. Though that case involved a big-box retailer, the same scenario plays out around major government-funded mixed-use, transit and infrastructure projects going on in neighborhoods suffering the highest rates of all those social ills.

So, on a bright Sunday at the end of September, 87-year-old Gardner invited others to join him after church at the retailer’s construction site. Nearly 1,000 did – among them long-time friends equally distinguished in their fields, elected officials, activists, tradespeople who had been turned away, as well as residents just plain fed up with having their noses rubbed in opportunities so close yet off limits to them. Their protests resulted in the retailer’s commitment to ensure a more equitable distribution of jobs.

My chest swelled when I heard about Gardner’s stand. Gamaliel, the faith-based network I serve, had just launched a national campaign inspired by such everyday heroes who encounter a problem and return with solutions. Called Fire of Faith, it seeks to galvanize 20,000 supporters at 30 public meetings into helping move 1 million people into living-wage jobs over the next three years.

The last five years gave us confidence in our ambitious goal. During that time, our affiliates directed $16.6 billion into infrastructure development, education and transit that created and saved over 639,000 jobs. Community Organizing As Job Creator: An Investment That Works For All documents how we achieved those results in the public sector through winning funds, finding revenue sources and changing policy.

Chicago-based Gamaliel actually originated in its home state what has become known as the “Missouri Model,” in collaboration with one of our former organizers — then U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL). He introduced language in the 2005 surface transportation bill SAFETEA-LU allowing one-half percent of federal transportation dollars to be set aside for pre-apprenticeship and job training for low-income workers, people of color and women on specific highway or bridge projects.

In early 2006, Illinois Gamaliel affiliates moved quickly to have the new legislation apply to the $524 million Interstate 64/US 40 project in Missouri. The process used on that side of the river has been praised for producing exceptional workforce diversity, while coming in under budgeted time and cost. It has been successfully tailored to issues in neighboring states, the Northeast, as far away as California and Hawaii.

Meanwhile, United Congregations of Metro East (East St. Louis), Faith Coalition for the Common Good (Springfield), Quad Cities Interfaith (Moline) and Gamaliel of Metro Chicago have negotiated with the Illinois Dept. of Transportation for over a year to fulfill a project labor agreement passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in June 2011. It requires specific goals, which must incorporate strong language about diversity, given past exclusionary practices on state-funded construction.

First in ideas, last in results? We can no longer afford that. Frankly, there are no more excuses. We have the will, the model and the money to bring economic dignity to families in Illinois and beyond. We have proven fairness does not cost too much – certainly far less than the loss of life, homes, educational opportunities and more that comes from inability to earn a decent living. We need grassroots leaders like Ed Gardner and those in the Gamaliel network to continue showing the difference between handwringing and a hand up.

Ana Garcia-Ashley is executive director of Gamaliel, which has assisted grassroots leaders become independent forces for tackling local issues since 1968 and currently encompasses 60 racially diverse, multi-faith community organizations in 17 states. Visit www.gamaliel.org for further information.

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