A collective of local churches, unions and community groups hoping to reshape local politics and draw attention to the needs of working-class Chattanoogans is growing.
In the last few months, Chattanooga in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence, or CALEB, has welcomed several new partners to its grassroots organizing work. A total of nine groups are now committed to the joint effort and several more churches are considering joining, as well.
The coalition is inching toward its goal of having an alliance of 20 community-based organizations that can begin identifying their most pressing shared concerns and then call for systemic change at the local level, said Michael Gilliland, board chairman of Chattanooga Organized for Action and a founding member of CALEB.
They are also beginning to receive funding for their work. This month, CALEB received a $20,000 grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Gilliland said.
Chattanooga in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence, or CALEB, meets the second Thursday of every month at First Christian Church at 650 McCallie Ave. Meetings are free and open to the public. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Momentum is building and we have every expectation to begin organizing around our shared values by the end of the first quarter of 2018," Gilliland said.
CALEB, which launched in the fall of 2016, is part of a statewide effort led by the faith-based Gamelial Foundation to energize and organize a network of grassroots activists that can begin working together to shape politics in Nashville.
Greg Galluzzo, the 74-year-old retired founder of the Chicago-based Gamelial Foundation, has been traveling to Chattanooga, Oak Ridge, Nashville and Memphis to help train those working on the ground to stir a statewide movement that could address the economic and social inequity that has taken root across the state.
The Gamelial approach to community organizing was shaped by the late Saul Alinsky, an activist and grassroots organizer whose writings have drawn ire from conservative pundits who link his methods to high-profile Democrats. Former President Barack Obama was trained by Gamelial to be a community organizer.
Alinsky believed in organizing the organized and Gamelial carries that torch, training churches, unions and neighborhood groups on how to join and work together for shared political goals. Galluzzo said one of their main goals is to give power and voice to those who have long felt marginalized and hopeless.
Many working to elevate the poor and working class tend to their immediate needs. They bring meals, books and job fairs, trying to help. Alinsky had a radically different approach to addressing their suffering, Galluzzo said.
"Alinsky said, 'We have to create an organization that allows people to have a voice in the political decisions that affect their lives,'" said Galluzzo, a former Jesuit priest. "If Moses acted like most clergy he would have gone down to the slave camps of Egypt and opened a food pantry. If Moses would have done that we never would have heard of Moses. He understood that the problem was that they were working under oppression."
And to stop oppression Galluzzo said those in Chattanooga and elsewhere in Tennessee must help nonvoters, who feel they can make no difference, realize the vital role they play in the democratic process.
Only half of those who can vote actually register to vote nationally, Galluzzo said, and only half of registered voters vote. Then, he said, only 5o percent of those who vote cast a ballot for the winning presidential candidate.
"Rich people know that if they control 12 percent of the vote, they can control the presidency," Galluzzo said. "You don't have to have a majority of people on your side.
"So many people have dropped out," he added. "What CALEB is about is inviting people back into the process. The biggest problem in America is that the vast majority of people are alienated from the systems that determine how their lives unfold."
Often when one person tries to stand up against injustice they are ineffective, but Galluzzo said outcomes are very different when many unite to fight for the same end.
"If a poor person goes into a bank and says, 'I would like to know why I didn't get a loan,' the bank will treat him like he is stupid," he said. "Take 20 people into the bank, and the bank will be terrified."
This is why the U.S. constitution's First Amendment protection for organizing is so important, Galluzzo said. "The First Amendment recognizes that a group of people can make a difference when a single person can't."
Galluzzo said his work in Tennessee has continued to expand as more learn about the nonprofit's work and ask for help. He first came to Chattanooga, he said, after a union leader from Chattanooga went to Nashville and learned about Gamelial's work there.
Organizations that have signed onto CALEB:
In Nashville, the Gamelial-backed Nashville Organized for Action and Hope has made impressive strides organizing community groups and building consensus around issues such as affordable housing. Turnout in the most recent mayoral election significantly spiked, thanks in part to the group's work, news articles show.
While its efforts have been stalled at the legislative level, its success engaging the community offered hope to Gilliland and others, who have seen many efforts to address local problems fail to arouse action.
"If an individual city does something progressive then the state Legislature shuts it down," Galluzzo said. "But this creates the possibility of a statewide organizing effort. If they work together they might be able to influence state decisions."
In Chattanooga, he said, he sees many of the same issues plaguing Nashville and other growing cities. Amid the economic boom is stubborn poverty and desperation. In 2016, the Times Free Press published a seven-part series, "The Poverty Puzzle," which explored factors contributing to the areas' poverty and low rates of economic mobility.
The Rev. Josh Woodrow, pastor of Bridge City Community Church in Alton Park, said he was initially reluctant for his Lutheran congregation to join CALEB.
Woodrow describes himself as conservative. He doesn't condone gay marriage or abortion. And some of the organizations that had signed onto CALEB, such as Chattanooga Organized for Action, have taken very liberal stances on those issues.
Still, those joining CALEB are choosing to focus on what they have in common, he said.
Woodrow said he is sick of seeing people in his congregation and the neighborhood they serve go unheard, and the city's economic inequities demand unity and action.
"When it comes to building a coalition to fight for socioeconomic equality, to deal with mass incarceration and the things in Chattanooga that are discriminatory against people of color, that is where we find strong common ground," he said.
For years, Woodrow said he has tried to bring the concerns of his Southside neighbors to those in local positions of power but to no avail.
"I was reaching out to anyone I could, highlighting discriminatory zoning, the lack of affordable housing and in every meeting I wouldn't even get a reply," he said. "No one wants to listen to us. They don't even care. They leapfrog over us all day long."
That's the biggest reason his church joined CALEB, he said.
"I realized that I could not affect systemic change on my own. The only way that we actually can affect that systemic change is to gather together enough small voices to create one loud, unignorable voice."
Contact staff writer Joan McClane at email@example.com or 423-757-6601.