Friend or Foe? Taking on the IAF controversy

altEdit Note: Tulsa Today published an article April 9, 2009 that issued a warning to Catholic Church goers in Oklahoma, stating the Industrial Area Foundation (IAF) was encouraging local church members to stick their noses where they don’t belong (in politics), and using the Catholic Church for its political endorsement through subterfuge and persuading church members to leverage their organization to aid radical and liberal agendas unknowingly.

The article questioned the use of donated funds, suggests the IAF needs monitoring and that those involved with the group should take caution as the IAF does not support any social issues of concern to the Catholic Church, and that congregation members could end up feeling “politically used.”

The following story resulted from an investigation of these claims.
“No one comes in from the outside and tells us what to be interested in,” Senior Pastor Jim Honig of the Faith Lutheran Church in Glenn Ellyn, Ill., stated.  “We have two meetings a year for the members of our group, DuPage United, an affiliate of the Industrial Area Foundation.”

During that meeting, Honig said, local community members decide what they want to work on.  “Two people might be interested in illegal immigrant issues.  If no one else is interested, then we don’t work on that.  We select something to work on that concerns everyone, like our community college, which is vital to the economic engine of our county.”

altaltHonig, who serves on the Steering Committee and the Board of Directors of DuPage United, says the organization’s primary purpose is to address community issues “systemically,“ meaning at a higher level.  Described as an “organization of organizations,” DuPage United was founded six years ago.  “There is no money that goes from a local congregation to a national group,” he said.  “Dupage United is not a charity. We are not trying to give people a fish. We are trying to teach them to fish.”

A non-partisan group, they are said to have a variety of members.  “We tend to draw people in from all sides of the political spectrum.  You don’t have to be democratic or republican to want transparency at your community college, so we’re not about some liberal agenda. We’re looking at quality of life issues.”

When it comes to IAF leadership, he states, “No one came in and asked us to start up.  We went to the IAF because we thought it would be a good way to get things done.”

The notion of some outside force telling us what to do, he says, just isn’t the way it works.  “We (local folks) join together and determine what is important to us. The IAF provides access to training on how to get things done,” he said.  “We address issues that government has missed or issues that have not been adequately addressed by government.”

He contends that joining the IAF is about community organizing at the grassroots level and training.  “Most of our budget goes to the community organizer that is selected and hired by us.  That organizer does not set our agenda,” he said.  “Being a part of the IAF is about relationships. They teach us how to build relationships between institutions and the community.”

Since their inception, DuPage United has established relationships with the President of the local college, with the Police Chief, and with the County Commissioners.  Those relationships help them to make a difference.

DuPage United is not described as a wealthy organization.  “Our income is probably somewhere around $100,000 a year and we allocate 70 percent of that to hire a trainer for one year.  The trainer helps us to address our specific community needs. We don’t pay any membership fees to the IAF,” Honig said.

For the most part, DuPage United is not a CHARITY and spending habits should not be construed as part of a charitable resource.  Honig provides an analogy to simplify the point:

This would be analogous to going out and spending $2 a week to buy a bunch of broccoli at the grocery store and doing it every week or simply buying a package of seeds.  I don’t have to spend that $2 week after week.  We do contribute a significant amount of money to the agencies we deem best, like food shelters and pantries.  That never ends.

The investment we made in DuPage and the IAF is an investment in addressing issues at a higher level.  That’s the only way I know that we can address these issues so that they do not keep occurring.  Of all the money we have spent, the investment in IAF training was by far the wisest and best investment that we made.  We work with other churches in the area.  When people say, “What are you getting for the money you raise?  It’s hard to articulate.  You are not getting direct services.

You have to address the bigger problems on a bigger level and that can take years.  In these economic times, we as a congregation believe that we are doing what is best.  The Congregation is fully aware of how the funding is spent.  We are an open book.  We have nothing to hide and no one is being led astray.

The recent article about the IAF seems to misrepresent the organization.  For one, Honig says, this is local work.  Another thing is that this is about local relationships and the responsibilities of an informed citizen.

alt“DuPage United is a way for the common citizen to have a voice.  We find people with leadership potential to be leaders in our community to help,” he states.  “Joining together gives average citizens more opportunity for success. Joined together, we are not helpless.”

When it comes to the issue of religious leaders crossing the line into political matters, Honig states, “I feel like it is my job to help people deal with issues in the context of their faith.  I believe that people are smart enough to figure out which candidate to vote for.  They don’t have a need for me to do that, nor is that my job.”

He continues, “Clergy from different traditions may have a different perspective. By in large, it’s not our job to tell people what to think.”

He contends that there are numerous issues in which very faithful Christians can disagree.

“I chuckle about the notion that we are some radical group.  Why is it radical for a citizen to have a voice in their community?  That is the exact principle our country was founded on,” he said.

The book, Roots for Radicals, is something he suggests to anyone who believes DuPage United is following a radical agenda.  “The book was written by one of the aging sages of the IAF, Edward Chambers.  It is all about the theory behind community organizing and the democracy in which our country was founded,” he said.

The growing popularity of DuPage United and IAF, as noted by Honig, is a testament to what can happen when common, ordinary people organize themselves.  He points out that IAF is not the only group to do that.

“We happen to be getting some press now because President Obama was involved in community organizing.  People can’t ignore us because they know we are going to have an impact.  A sure sign of our growing power is that the county president of the county board came to us and said we would like your support on a particular issue,” Honig said.  “It turns out that we did not support that particular issue.  Regardless if whether we supported the issue or not, I have a hard time believing that is bad when citizens speak up for what they feel is important.”

He continues, “Money used by the federal government is our money and it is our responsibility to see how that money is allocated.  I feel like we should have a voice beyond the election process.  In the six years that we have been involved with DuPage United, we have never had a say in a federal budget, but we have had a say on how the county commission allocates its funds to local organizations.”

DuPage United is just a group of local citizens, he said, that is independent from the government. “I think people mischaracterized and misrepresent us based on fear. That last article appears to have a lot of misrepresentation. Someone needs to do their research a little better.”

Described as an upper middle to upper class community, where the majority of residents are primarily Republican and highly educated, this town is said to have a growing population of immigrant, blue collar workers that have human and social service needs.

“Those individuals came to us and said they needed language training.

We told them to get commitments from 20 people that they would attend and we would see where it went from there. It wasn’t a case of doing something for someone, but working with someone to get something done,”

Honig said. “We provided the space and held free weekly ESL classes and there was no government involved. We recruited volunteers.”

He continued, “What has happened is a beautiful thing. The people we helped are feeling increasingly empowered to do for themselves instead of waiting for a government group to do for them.”

Gerald Taylor, the Southeast Regional Director for the IAF, states that individuals who want to know more should look at the places where the IAF has organized throughout the United States.

Specifically, he says, “We don’t have an ideology as an organization.

Our belief is in democracy with a small “d” and helping people build their capacity as citizens.”

altA project completed in Memphis is offered as a  prime example. The organizer hired to help the Memphis affiliate was faced with finding ways to shut down hourly motels that were being put in the working class communities, an initiative that was strongly supported by all denominations as these hourly hotels were believed to be locations for alleged drug activity and prostitution.

Addressing community issues such as prostitution and drug addiction is more involved than it may appear on the surface, as Melissa Farley points out in a journal article, “Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart”: Prostitution Harms Women Even if Legalized or Decriminalized, located at

In her piece, Farley discusses laws which sponsor prostitution and includes evidence of the harms of the profession, indicating those harms are not decreased by legalization or decriminalization.

She states, “…names cannot be trusted to tell the whole story. It is necessary to ask hard questions about who funds each group and how funds are used; about whether and what alternatives to prostitution are advocated…”

One could argue that shutting down a location for prostitution does not address the issue systemically or the quality of life issues involved in this particular scenario. Nor does it address the problem of wage discrepancy between women and men, or the numerous other social and emotional factors involved, but it could be part of  a plan that addresses the issue of prostitution in its entirety and it is a perfect example of how complicated a community issue can be and how difficult it is to address things of this nature systemically, for the betterment of all concerned.

The fear that a group could do harm is understandable. In this particular case, those most concerned–the working girls, would have little to no voice at all, for fear of being stigmatized, as Farley suggests. However, the what ifs should not be a deterrent in what is frequently advocated with the use of the old adage, “Ask not what your country can do for you…but what you can do, for your country.”

To deny a person the right to civic involvement is like denying someone voting rights. It’s a double standard. Involvement is sought, but not if it has influence. If organized groups cause fear, then perhaps it would encourage people everywhere to be more active, where possible.

One can not blame the IAF for what local groups decide is important to them. “The issues a community decides to address do not meet some definition that someone wants to put to it,” Taylor said. “The IAF is simply a consulting agency. They are not laying out the agendas.”

He continues, “If you believe democracy is a radical idea, or that having a role in the decision making process in a community, or that finding ways to offe r more of a public discussion on issues or bringing blacks, whites, and Asians together is radical, we are radical by that definition then.”

The IAF, he contends, does not have a stance on abortion or any other issue. “We are a group where the members and the national staff come  from all types of religions. We have no position or public stance. We do not engage in any questions that profoundly separate religions.”

He continues, “We do not disrespect religious views. We are non partisan, have no political candidates of any kind, and we work with Republicans, Democrats, Independents and religious groups.”

As evidenced by Honig, the IAF never goes anywhere without an invitation. Organizations within the IAF are interfaith.

“Any faith community is invited to join and encouraged to address issues with their faith perspective. We are not trying to change people’s belief systems. We ask them to join us and have their faith lead them to what they believe is right for their community,” Taylor said. “Our group is open to those who believe in democracy, to those who believe citizens have a role in the decision making process. The relationship with our affiliates is a contractual relationship. It can be ended by either side at any point.”

He continued, “We have no impact aside for the consulting. Our affiliates have their own tax exempt status and  their individual leadership makes decisions about priorities and budgets how money is to be raised and allocated.”

For the most part, Taylor says, the IAF has helped to extend the notion of democracy throughout the country and has been recognized for that for over 70 years.

“We have helped people to build affordable housing, reduce crime, create infrastructure, assist rural areas to get money for schools, and we have helped groups to creatively think through ways to reorganize local government in order to build multi-racial schools where people thought it was not possible to do so,” Taylor said. “We have seen thousands of organizations try to copy or follow our work in Europe, Canada, and Australia–all trying to build the same kind of organizations in their countries.”

He continues, “Our work is not perfect. It is about trial and error, negotiations, and doing things together. Our work is never violent and always multi-racial.”

Building organizations reflective of the diversity the IAF has is not easy, but the group is not ashamed of what they do.

alt“We come up with solutions,” Taylor said. “To say that we are not in line with Catholics would indicate a person has a weak understanding of what we are about and of Catholic teaching. We have had Catholic participation throughout the history of the IAF.” 

Taylor says if a major corporation finds the best talent to do what needs to be done, they are applauded. “Corporate leaders can bring in talent, but when ordinary citizens bring in talent, it becomes a problem. Our group is about voluntarily working on things together and holding people accountable for what kind of jobs are being created or taken away.”

He continues, “We are proud of the fact that people want to organize together across fault lines. Knowing the history of Tulsa and their black community, I am very glad that we are in Oklahoma.”

About the author:
Tracy Crain is a national freelance writer. She holds degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and completed post graduate work in Tennessee. An award winning writer, she can be reached via email at