Local Energy, National Breakthroughs: An Interview With Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change

Deepak Bhargava speaks about public education and civil rights. (Photo: Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights)

“Staying true to progressive traditions means always asking the question, 'Who is really getting the most screwed in our society?' and always having a commitment to going there.”

That's how Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change (CCC), explained his vision for honoring the distinguished past of his prominent, decades-old progressive organization while also

pushing it into new territory.

Based in Washington, DC, CCC describes itself as an organization that, “strengthens, connects and mobilizes grassroots groups to enhance their leadership, voice and power.” As a national group that works with community organizations throughout the country, CCC is helping to conceive what the next generation of “intermediary organizations” will look like – how we can create national groups that unite disparate local efforts, expand the capacities of member organizations and channel the work going on at the regional level into a coherent national agenda.

I spoke with Bhargava this week to examine some of the concrete challenges he faces in this work.

Since 2002, Bhargava has energized this organization by recruiting a young and diverse staff, leading campaigns around issues like immigration reform, and pushing his community partners throughout the country to think hard about how local energy can drive policy change at the national level. Most recently, Bhargava has become a key figure in helping to launch the American Dream Movement – a progressive answer to the Tea Party that is being backed not only by CCC but also by MoveOn.org, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Change to Win, the Campaign for America's Future and Van Jones' new organization, Rebuild the Dream.

In the Footsteps of Civil Rights and RFK

I wanted to see how Bhargava saw the American Dream Movement being relevant to the local groups that partner with CCC. However, before addressing that question, we talked about history.

While Bhargava is pushing CCC into new ground, the organization continues to draw on a long tradition of activism. Originally founded in 1968 in tribute to Robert F. Kennedy, CCC can claim status as, “one of the longest-standing champions for low-income people and communities of color.”

Bhargava said to me, “I think of CCC as a product of the movements of the 1960's, and it's really hard to imagine CCC without the war on poverty, without the civil rights movement. That energy is what inspired the people who helped put CCC together. And I think there's actually a broader lesson, in that social movements' energy is a lot of what helps to create institutions. That's very much who CCC is.”

Growing out of this tradition, CCC retains some values deeply rooted in traditional community organizing. The groups that are partners with CCC take on issues immediately relevant to the communities in which they work. They build campaigns that cut across race and class. And they create lasting local infrastructure over which community members have real ownership.

On a national level, CCC's choice of issues goes back to, “Who is getting the most screwed?” In other words, it is rooted in the question of who in society is being severely marginalized and scapegoated. “While our work on the immigration issue is only about 15 years old, it's very much in the spirit of the founding of CCC,” Bhargava said, “because it's working with people without democratic rights who are extremely under siege in our country. That issue reminds us that a good measure for [the health of] our society is 'how the most troubled fare.'”

Local First

I was interested to talk more with Bhargava about the issues that make up CCC's national agenda, but he made the case that a key for CCC is recognizing that change does not come from Washington, DC. Instead, the organization thinks about its national role both as a reflection and extension of the exciting gains being made at the local and regional level.

“A lot of our partners have had pretty amazing victories,” Bhargava said. As one example, he pointed to Promise Arizona, which CCC helped start. “It is an amazing immigrant rights organization that was formed in the fires of the immigrant bill that passed the state legislature last year.” In March, Promise Arizona's efforts helped to defeat a slate of five bills that would have added to the state's anti-immigrant stature. Two of the bills would have made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to drive and to attend state universities. The most horrendous piece of legislation aimed to strip citizenship from children of undocumented immigrants, something that would likely have prompted a Supreme Court battle.

“The defeat of these bills was a fairly remarkable accomplishment in a really hostile environment,” Bhargava said. “It's a testament to the movement-building that the organization did with young people. And it's a testament to the organization's outreach to moderates.”

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“Another example would be Ohio,” Bhargava continued, “where we've tried to bring movement-building training to the work of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative. They now have engaged hundreds and hundreds of people, everyday people, in the training to understand the attacks on workers, particularly related to the state budget. Although they have not yet to declare a policy victory, those people played a major role in gathering the signatures needed to rescind SB-5, which was the anti-collective-bargaining bill in that state.”

The National Role

I appreciated Bhargava's focus on ground-up social movement politics, but I was still curious to see how he saw local efforts combining into something larger – something with the power to affect the national agenda.

He contended, “The extent to which we have positive, concrete examples of policies that work, that are won and implemented on the ground, is what makes it possible to argue that these should be replicated and expanded at the federal level.”

In his view, not only does local organizing provide examples to replicate, it also builds needed political power: “To the extent that there are political coalitions built around some of those progressive ideas locally, that makes it harder for members of Congress and federal decision makers to resist doing something positive.”

Yet, Bhargava acknowledged that local energy alone was not enough. “On the one hand, it takes local grassroots organizing in order to make national change possible,” he said. “But, on the other hand, it's also true that national movement energy invigorates and inspires local people because they feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves.”

That's where the American Dream Movement comes in. “We're in a moment that really calls for social movements,” he said. “And social movements have to be a combination of a big, inspiring national vision, but grounded in local struggles and local fights. So, I see the American Dream Movement as an effort to articulate that national vision and to involve people in the articulation of it.”

Important to this effort will be local fights that capture the national imagination. “There will have to be flash points, like the Ohio referendum, which really come to stand for the whole,” Bhargava said. He likened this to the civil rights movement of the 1960's: “It's like the way Mississippi came to stand for the whole. I just watched the Freedom Riders documentary, so that's very much in my mind these days. That's an example of how local fights really come to stand for a larger struggle that we can advance.”

Building Permanent Local Capacity

One thing that became clear to me in our conversation was that CCC was thinking about building local capacity in a way that most national groups aren't. The groups it supports on the ground are not temporary formations, field operations pulled together for one issue drive or electoral campaign. Rather, they are deep-rooted community organizations that are building a long-term, invested base. Moreover, its national program is based upon the need to create stable local and regional infrastructure for progressive politics.

“A core value of ours is that low-income people and people of color need a vehicle to make their voice heard on the full range of what they care about,” Bhargava said. “So, we don't build infrastructure for particular elections, or for just one issue. We really try to build multi-issue organizations that are authentically and democratically controlled. It's a long-haul view of a situation that is not going to be turned around by one election or a legislative victory. It's going to have to be sustained and authentic over the long term.”

He continued: “All our partners have a real base, core membership, where growing that membership is a very central priority. They focus heavily on developing leaders who can shape the agenda of the organization. And they are all trying to create connections with other elements of the progressive movement – whether that's organized labor, or policy centers, or other key constituency groups in their state.”

The Necessity of Wild Ideas

This approach to building deep coalitions is something that breaks with more traditional community organizing models, which stress short-term, strategic alliances. Bhargava's insistence on a national vision also sets him apart from previous generations of organizers working on community issues.

“What's changed for us was the belief that there has to be a national framework of some kind, like a national vision, not just national legislation, in order for local organizing to add up. I think it was taken for granted in the wake of the 60's that such a national environment existed, but now we have to recreate it,” he said.

How then, I wondered, do you know when we've done this? How do we know when we're there?

“It's when we are winning policies, at the state and local level,” Bhargava answered, “When we are having breakthrough policy victories that help to shift the ground of what's possible nationally.”

Second, “It's the scale of engagement. The numbers of people participating will be vastly greater than we have today.”

“Third is when we have the media and the establishment of the country really noticing that there is something happening.”

After sketching this map for success, he concluded with a hope for the future – a wish that we'll see more local flash points that will come to embody the struggle common to people across America.

“I hope that people in the states will come up with some really bold, wild ideas about taxes or job creation – and that some of those efforts will succeed and really catch fire,” Bhargava said. “That's when all of us can rally to them as fights that stand for the whole of what's at stake for the country.”