Power has always derived from two main sources, money and people. Lacking money, the Have-Nots must build power from their own flesh and blood.
--social reformer Saul Alinsky
In less than two years, an unlikely coalition of grass-roots activists from the San Fernando Valley's political backwaters has grown into a powerful, if sometimes abrasive, voice for those who traditionally have had little to say about the way their communities were run.
The organization, VOICE, an acronym for Valley Organized In Community Efforts, has led campaigns against abandoned cars, gangs and assault weapons, and most recently won important victories in an anti-graffiti campaign that included sponsoring legislation that would raise money to scrub the city of Los Angeles clean of illegal writings.
A broad-based coalition of 20 churches and synagogues with a combined membership of 25,000 families, VOICE also has developed a reputation for putting politicians on the spot by extracting promises from them before thousands of people.
These tactics, though often successful, have caused some elected leaders to accuse the organization of being too confrontational.
"Their rigidity disturbs me," Los Angeles Councilwoman Joy Picus said. "It doesn't endear them to me. I don't like confrontations. I don't like being treated as the enemy, especially when we share the same goals."
But, said Father David Ullrich, a VOICE leader and pastor of Santa Rosa Catholic Church in San Fernando, the organization provides "a way to give a voice to the voiceless."
"We've been taught that it's not nice to raise your voice," he said, "but it's really silly not to."
This week, with its anti-graffiti campaign winding down, VOICE will begin an attack on what its leaders say is a serious social ill--the state of public education in Los Angeles County.
The organization will launch its "Kids First" campaign Thursday at East Los Angeles College. It will be a joint effort with VOICE's sister organizations--the older and more experienced East Los Angeles-based United Neighborhood Organizing Committee, or UNO; the South Central Organizing Committee in Los Angeles, or SCOC; and the East Valley Organization, or EVO, in the San Gabriel and Pomona valleys.
"VOICE will not rest until all children can receive a quality education," said Msgr. James Loughnane, pastor at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Canoga Park. It still remains to be seen whether the entrenched problems of education will respond to VOICE's grass-roots efforts.
The seeds from which VOICE grew were sewn four years ago, when Father Tom Rush, then the pastor of Santa Rosa Church, set out to form a religion-based coalition of community crusaders ranging from the barrios of Pacoima and San Fernando to the upper-middle-class neighborhoods in Tarzana and Woodland Hills.
Ullrich, who took over in 1987 after Rush was transferred to another parish, said he approached leaders of other area churches and synagogues in an effort to persuade them that by banding together, they could improve the quality of life for their members wherever they lived. This was a new approach in the Valley, where political issues usually are tackled by fragmented homeowners groups.
So successful was the effort that by the time VOICE was launched by a crowd of 1,200 cheering people Nov. 22, 1988, at Cal State Northridge, 15 churches and synagogues representing about 20,000 families already had joined the organization. Hundreds of members have learned how to lobby politicians. Julio Pardo, a factory worker from Pacoima who had never before spoken to a politician, now is a regular in the halls of the Legislature in Sacramento.
Initially, the organization's goals were to fight drug dealing and liquor sales to minors and to get rid of abandoned cars on residential streets. Eventually, VOICE members broadened their campaign to include gang problems and religious and racial discrimination.
"We're asking questions and we're making demands," said the Rev. Curtis Page, a VOICE leader and former pastor of Kirk O' the Valley Presbyterian Church in Reseda. "It's no longer a matter of the politicians lecturing to us, but of us telling them what to do. We believe that people have the right to determine for themselves what is best for them. Through our training, we empower people to take control of their own lives."
Funding comes from the member congregations. Annual dues range from $500 to $7,000, depending on the size of a congregation. VOICE had an initial budget of $187,000 to hire professional organizers, open an office and send members to leadership training courses. Its annual budget now is about $85,000, Page said.
VOICE's brand of activism comes from the theories of the late social reformer Saul Alinsky, who rallied Chicago's Irish slums into a power bloc in the 1930s, and who founded the IAF, acronym for Industrial Areas Foundation, with which VOICE is affiliated.