“We don't want just a seat at the table. We want to run the table,” Hugh Espey, the executive director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said to me. “We want to run the table in order to win policies that put people before profits, people before polluters and communities before corporations.”
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI), founded in the mid-1970's, has grown over the past decades into one of the most thoughtful, aggressive, and innovative community-based organizations
in the nation, taking on issues of predatory lending, immigrant rights, clean elections, and the abuses of corporate agriculture.
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If Espey's vision is ambitious, it is backed by an impressive record of achievement and a bold organizing agenda – by grassroots campaigns that cross boundaries of race, bridge urban and rural constituencies and break down traditional barriers between issues. And his organization is pioneering this work not in a liberal metropolis, but at a statewide level in the heart of the country.
Increasingly, CCI is fashioning campaigns that draw on the strengths of traditional community organizing – the model most notably developed by Saul Alinsky – but that go beyond the confines of this model by building deep coalitions, employing sophisticated research, and combining direct action with policy reform and political engagement. Moreover, as a member of National People's Action (NPA), a national “network of metropolitan, regional and statewide organizations that build grassroots power to advance racial and economic justice,” CCI is connecting what it is doing to a project with national scope.
All of these things made it an organization that I wanted to explore in more detail.
Taking on the Loan Sharks
When I spoke with Espey and Lisa Whelan, CCI's special projects director, they were eager to tell me about their campaign against payday lenders.
Payday lending, Espey argued, “is legalized loan sharking, in that it traps people in a cycle of debt. It tends to prey on low-income people, people who are experiencing some sort of economic or financial crisis. Payday loans are short-term loans with exorbitant interest rates. If you annualized those interest rates over the course of the year, it would be about 400 percent.”
Over the course of several years, CCI found that community members had been trapped in debt because of these payday loans. After working with a variety of members to help them get out of this debt, they decided that they had to move beyond a bandaid approach of trying to locate more affordable credit for a small number of individuals. They decided to turn this realization into an organizing campaign that would bring people together and confront the lenders directly. CCI created “borrower action teams” that would bring a group of concerned citizens into the offices of the payday bankers.
As Whelan says, “We would take over the office. We would say, 'Get the manager on the phone. Get the main company's headquarters on the phone. We want to talk to a person who can make decisions.' And we won a good number of those.” In a variety of cases, the direct actions resulted in the lending offices agreeing to refinance some of their more egregious loans.
A Much Bigger Fix
However, recognizing that they needed to incorporate a more systematic understanding of the issue, CCI also expanded beyond the traditional community organizing playbook, adopting research and analysis of the payday-lending industry. “We wanted to win on individual cases, but we also wanted a much bigger fix,” Espey says. “We looked at who's financing these payday loan shops around the state. And we found out that it's three or four or five main corporations that are making millions and millions of dollars off of these.”
“And then we asked, 'Who's financing those?' and we come to find out that it's big banks, like Wells Fargo and Bank of America. It's the same big banks that crashed our economy and that got a taxpayer bailout. The big banks, because they can borrow from the Fed, get money at a half a point. Then they turn around and lend it out to payday loan corporations around the country, who end up charging us 400 percent.”
This wider view of the issue affected CCI's organizing. First of all, organizers connected to work going on in other states. “Payday lending has also been a piece of the fair-lending work that NPA groups have been doing,” Espey notes, “so we hooked up with groups in Kansas and in Illinois whose members were facing the same issue and oftentimes were confronting the same banks.”
Furthermore, uniting with allies in the labor movement, CCI has joined in “Make Wall Street Pay” protests against Wells Fargo, linking their local payday campaign with national efforts.
CCI also started advocating for policy reforms at the state level. “We've been up at the Statehouse over the past two years with a coalition of folks working on this issue,” Espey explains. “And we're pushing for state policy that would cap interest rates on payday loans at 36 percent rather than 400 percent, and that would also require payday lenders to notify borrowers of the availability of loan modifications.”
Connecting Diverse Communities
Over time, the payday-lending campaign has become a notable example of how CCI has been able to build alliances across diverse constituencies. People of color, immigrant workers and the white working class are those most likely to be directly affected by exploitative payday lending. But because many other people could relate to issues of credit and debt, they also felt a deep connection to the campaign.
Some middle class families got involved. Says Whelan, “As we were telling these stories about how people were being taken advantage of, some of the people who were most excited about the campaign were people who don't have a payday lending shop in their community, who might not have even met someone before who needed a payday loan, but they could see just from a few simple descriptions of what was happening how wrong that is.”
Moreover, in Iowa, farming communities are especially sensitive to issues of debt and exploitative credit. “Farming is a very credit-intensive endeavor,” says Espey. So, for farmers, “some of those stories of the payday lending sounded very similar to how they'd been treated by their bankers.” Thus, the campaign could link urban and rural experiences.
All of this contributed to a vision more robust than that expressed in a typical community organizing campaign. “We want people to have a bigger and bigger vision of what 'my neighborhood' is,” says Espey. “It's no longer 'my street,' but it's my community, it's my town, it's my state, it's my country.”
Fighting the Corporate Agriculture Lobby
Some of these same components – a desire to connect issues, build diverse alliances and expand beyond the tools traditionally used in community organizing – also characterize CCI's other campaigns, including its fight against the abuses of large-scale corporate agriculture.
As CCI explains, the organization has taken a long-term interest in the issue of “whether livestock will be raised on sustainable family farms or produced in large, capital-intensive confinement facilities (factory farms) that concentrate the animals and their wastes in vast quantities and concentrate economic control in the hands of absentee investors.” Through this issue, CCI has engaged rural and small-town communities concerned about jobs and quality of life in those areas. But it has also mobilized environmentalists who recognize that factory farming is a key clean-water issue in the state.
“Ultimately, what we want is people in the middle of Des Moines standing alongside family farmers and rural people,” Espey says, “just like we want rural people standing together with people who live in big towns to fight back against payday lenders and predatory lenders.”
CCI members have taken direct action at the local level to confront landowners engaged in factory farming, and its leaders insist that organizing at this level will always be a central aspect of their work. “Direct action is part of the strategy to win,” Whelan notes. “Talking is great. Facts are great. But people have to move progressive change.”
At the same time, after repeatedly witnessing the power of the corporate agriculture lobby in state government, CCI has been motivated to get more aggressive about politics and policy. CCI is a nonprofit organization, so it doesn't engage in electoral campaigns or lobbying, but organizers are interested in creating a 501(c)4 that can.
“We're looking at the question of how to build up political power,” Espey says. “In our work at the State Capitol, again and again and again, we're running up against powerful and well-financed groups and the people they put into office. The 'ah-ha' moment for us was about a year and a half ago. Coming out of a strategy meeting, we said, 'We're tired of getting our asses kicked up at the Statehouse.'”
“We're going to continue doing what we're doing, but we're going to add another tool to our toolbox,” he adds.
In describing their approach to politics, Espey emphasized an approach that is different than simply getting a lesser-evil candidate elected and then sending new elected officials into office with hopes that they will do the right thing.
He explains, “Some of the 501(c)4 organizations we've seen set up in the past had no legs. They were viewed as organs of a political party. We're not going to do that. What we're doing is bringing the direct action organizing mentality into the (c)4 realm. We're pushing our vision and our theory of change in a broader way – not being inside any political party, but being able to be part of governing ourselves.”
Connecting to a National Vision
A final interesting aspect of CCI's work is its connection to a national network, NPA. Whelan says of CCI's membership in NPA: “They have helped us think through our own growth as an organization, as well as being part of a network. They help us think about staffing issues; they help us think about how we are plugging into different issue campaigns, how do we make it work for us, how can we participate and help build national movements and progressive change. Those things are invaluable to us.”
George Goehl, NPA's executive director, says, “I've worked with Iowa CCI for a long time, and I really can't think of another organization in the country that has been around so long and never plateaued. More than anything, I think that the leadership has created a culture where, no matter how good they're doing, they're always willing to ask hard questions around, 'How do we continue to transform what we're doing and move forward?'”
Part of the process of always moving forward has been thinking about how to build deeper partnerships with the labor movement and other allies. For NPA, bringing groups together is about finding allies with similar values and political analysis. But it's also about long-term strategy: “We definitely look for people who are interested in longstanding alignment versus simply coming together around one key, tactical moment or a strategic opportunity,” Goehl says.
CCI has taken these same criteria into building partnerships in its work in Iowa. While traditional community organizing groups have emphasized short-term, tactical alliances, Espey expressed a different vision: “Our role is to keep building transformational relationships with people. This means we get to know each other as people – I know what makes you tick; you know what makes me tick. I know when your birthday is; you know when my birthday is. I celebrate when you celebrate; I hurt when you hurt.”
“All this as opposed to transactional relationships, which is more like, 'Can you show up next Tuesday at this event? Can we do these few things together over the next few months? And that's it.'”
“Transformational is more of a marathon. Transactional is more of a sprint.”
For those interested in the marathon of creating progressive social change, CCI's example has much to offer. The organization has been tireless in combining direct action and dogged community organizing with newer tools like deep partnerships, thoughtful research and invigorated political engagement. The gains it is making in Iowa suggest that its experience is a valuable one for study.
Moreover, talking with the organizers gives you a sense of the contagious optimism and excitement within the organization: “We're the folks who don't like to go to bed too early at night,” Espey says, “because we're worried we might miss something.”