This profile was last updated in 2014
“The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) is a broad-based organization which works to coalesce, train, and organize the communities of Greater Boston across all religious, racial, ethnic, class and neighborhood lines for the public good. Our primary goal is to develop local leadership and organized power to fight for social justice. We strive to hold both public and private power holders accountable for their public responsibilities, as well as to initiate actions and programs of our own to solve community and economic problems. We are multi-issue. The issues we work on come from within our institutions, from the concerns of the people. We cross neighborhood, city, racial, religious, and class lines to find common ground and act on our faith and democratic values.” (1)
In its seven-year existence, the GBIO has pressured the city of Boston to devote a portion of the city budget toward textbooks, it has influenced the state to invest an additional $100 million toward affordable housing, and it has advocated for better working conditions for Haitian nursing home workers. All of these issues reflect the concerns of its constituency. The GBIO is now in the middle of a legislative campaign for universal health care in Massachusetts and has collected the necessary signatures for a ballot initiative for the November 2006 election. (2)
The Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) develops its action issues through consensus deliberation. Its power and effectiveness on the political scene lies in its unique organizing and motivating model of one-to-one meetings with members of local congregations, which range from conservative to liberal, African Methodist Episcopal to Haitian Christian, and includes the largest Jewish Reform temple in New England. GBIO organizers develop trusting relationships with GBIO congregations in order to build up sufficient political power, trust and cohesion among members. Issues and campaigns are directly developed by the GBIO constituency through one-on-one conversations and larger “house meetings” of gathered GBIO members. “Issues have feet,” GBIO organizer Ari Lipman said. “We get requests all the time [to advocate for issues], but we don’t do something halfway. Our issues come [to the surface] from within and it takes a long time to get there.” (3) Organizers teach members to organize themselves. The GBIO website has tools for citizen action such as writing letters to the editor and calling senators to advocate for various campaigns. (4) Ann McClenahan, a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School, attributes the GBIO’s success to its ability to strengthen and renew participants’ faith and worship lives through the involvement of religious symbols, stories and values of social justice. (5) “[Reporters are] baffled as to why a group with this power would have these silly relational meetings…Someday they will get it. Relationship is at the core of what we do,” an organizer told McClenahan. (6)
Haitian Nursing Home Worker Campaign
The GBIO approaches a particular issue from various angles, such as directly pressing 25 local nursing homes to adopt a “Health Care Worker’s Bill of Rights,” while at the same time working with Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly to apply political pressure to the elder care industry. (7) Haitian workers had four complaints: disrespect in the workplace, low wages, no healthcare, and bad staffing ratios. After an assessment of the nursing home industry, the GBIO decided to tackle the issue of disrespect. (8) The issue gained broad support as many GBIO members worried that the maltreatment of workers was also affecting the quality of care elderly parents were receiving in Massachusetts nursing homes. A bad environment for one group of people was a bad environment for all. “It was easy to weave a common story,” Lipman said.
Health Care: A Moral Issue with Broad Support
The Haitian nursing home worker campaign was an easy foray into a more universal campaign of health insurance coverage. Advocating for the uninsured continues to improve the lives of its Haitian constituency (Haitians make up Boston’s largest immigrant group at nearly nine percent of immigrants), but would also be a campaign others would find motivating. (9) On April 4, 2006 the Massachusetts Legislature passed a bill that would require all residents by 2009 to purchase one plan in a range of “affordable” health insurance options or pay a fine. According to the legislation, employers will also be fined $295 per employee annually if they do not offer health insurance, but Massachusetts Govenor Mitt Romney seeks to veto that requirement. The nearly universal health coverage bill is the first in the nation. The GBIO will now begin to commit energy to help ensure the implementation of the unique legislation, such as defining the term “affordable.” (10) Lipman attributes recent success to the more fruitful recent political environment than in previous years. An upswing economy combined with increasing numbers of uninsured citizens allowed the GBIO to envision success. The healthcare campaign made news and amassed support with its argument that universal healthcare is good for the Massachusetts economy. This new angle of persuasion was likely tailored to respond to most of the state’s major business associations speaking out against the healthcare campaign. (11) GBIO members who hold prominent positions in the business community wrote Op-Eds and the community continually enlists the support of political leaders such as Speaker of the House Salvadore DiMasi in its projects. (12, 13) After GBIO volunteers contributed to the effort of gathering a total of 112,00 signatures (along with other organizations) last fall to get a healthcare plan on the ballot, the organization transferred its energy to making its argument to the Massachusetts legislature. The ballot initiative was designed to act as leverage for the creation of legislative bills, proving popular support for the legislation and acting as a backup measure if legislation fell through. (14) An increased health care plan passed the Massachusetts Senate in November 2005, but the GBIO quickly criticized its scope, claiming that the new bill covered only “a small percentage of the uninsured” and did not cover the number of people it had claimed it would. (15)
Besides the continuing health care campaign, the GBIO is also continuing its financial literacy campaign. In March of 2005, the GBIO received a $500,000 grant for financial literacy courses, which will reach 360 members with its series of group sessions, meetings with financial counselors, seed grants and peer support groups. The curriculum of the course was designed by a group of GBIO members with the help of Citizens Bank. “There’s no other class like this in the history of the United States,” Lipman said. The first classes started in the fall, but are continuing in 2006. (16)
In 2006, the GBIO hopes to build power by targeted recruitment of new members in Boston suburbs. It will also continue the financial literacy workshops with Citizens Bank. If healthcare legislation stalls, it will throw its energy into preparing for the November ballot initiative. (17) As the Haitian nursing home workers campaign for more respectful treatment has succeeded, the GBIO will start a new round of house meetings to identify the next issue members want to tackle. The GBIO aims to have the next issues identified in time for the 2006 gubernatorial race. (18)
The GBIO partners with about 70 institutions, representing 50,000 people, in Boston and the surrounding area. About 2,000 of those members are extremely active. (19) It describes itself as a “member-led” organization, whose activities and actions are initiated and sustained by hundreds of individual volunteers. (20) Its ethnic composition is mixed. Most members are Anglo-American, African American, or Haitian, with smaller groups of Latinos, Afro-Caribbeans and Asians. The composition “reflects the ethnic background of the city,” according to organizers, both in membership and organizational leadership, but is not proportionate to the city’s demographics. (21) Religious traditions include membership from a wide variety of Christian denominations, and several Jewish groups, as well as the Islamic Society of Boston and the Old Path Sangha (Buddhist). The GBIO welcomes the broadening its diversity of faith membership (see Finances and Recruitment), but does not actively recruit communities of other faiths because it prioritizes power-building consensus-building over diversity.
Finances and Recruitment
Member organizations fund GBIO through dues of one percent of the member organization’s operating budget, as well as a general commitment of volunteer organizing hours. (22) Lipman said the GBIO does not select issues to attract diversity, but does work with non-GBIO members to envision what goals they could accomplish if they joined the GBIO and thus influenced its identification of campaigns. The GBIO welcomes congregations or institutions of any faith background to approach the GBIO for membership and thus involvement in the discernment process for campaign issues. “But we can’t do it for you,” Lipman said. Yet Lipman said he sees little reason for minority religious traditions or minority ethnic groups to join the GBIO unless they are ready to put forward a substantial presence or argument that would allow the majoritarian-driven GBIO to serve their interests. If they actively seek out membership with the GBIO, then the individual congregation has taken upon itself to decide that the GBIO can potentially serve its interests, rather than the GBIO trying to envision shared interests that may not be there. For example, the GBIO’s Haitian constituency joined largely to pursue the healthcare worker campaign. Other members come and go depending on the campaign; most members sustain a long-term commitment through the various social justice campaigns. (23) Once a new organization or congregation approaches GBIO for membership, it undergoes a six-month discernment process in which organizers meet with leaders and board members, insist on a process confirming the entire congregation’s support, and train leaders in helping the congregation identify its concerns for the GBIO campaign. Congregations generally join the GBIO because membership links its constituents to a political body that is effective in acting toward quality of life issues, helping many congregations actualize the prophetic calls for justice they hear in their traditions. The skills congregational leaders develop in their GBIO work are also useful in strengthening their own congregations. (24)
On Coming Together to Build Power
Issues are always broad-based in order to build an effective power base behind them. “You don’t build power by saying, ‘No, we don’t want those people.’ We don’t tell people what to believe. If they are interested in building power, they deserve to be a member,” Lipman said. Issues that build consensus are easy to identify. The GBIO specifically does not funnel its energy into ideologically divisive issues on morality, but rather sticks to broad-based, socioeconomic issues that affect everyone. Each GBIO meeting opens and closes with prayer, and the rule is that each person prays in his or her own tradition. This allows each person to operate faithfully within their tradition while working across traditions on concerns of justice all traditions share. (25)
The GBIO is one of 65 members of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a larger grassroots, faith-based community-organizing group. Saul Alinsky formed the first IAF in Chicago in the 1940s in response to a need for faith-based organizing around social justice issues. Healthcare worker, janitor and public employee unions, as well as three community development corporations and the Boston Area Youth Organizing Project are all GBIO members. (26)
Forty-five clergy members seeking to transcend racial and class divisions in the city founded the GBIO in 1996. The first organizer was hired in August of 1997, and the founding assembly meeting in late November 1998 drew 4,000 people, which the GBIO calls the most “ethnically diverse mass meeting held in Boston during the past 25 years. (27) GBIO underwent internal reorganization in 2000, to reflect the true ethnic make-up of Boston, a city where half the residents are non-white and one in ten is an immigrant. (28, 29)
1. GBIO Web site, http://www.gbio.org
2. GBIO Web site, http://www.gbio.org
3. Personal Interview with GBIO organizer Ari Lipman, 3 March 2006.
4. Action Tools, GBIO Web site, http://www.gbio.org/healthcare_actnow_tools.html
5. Ann McClenahan, “Meaning Making: A Socio-Cultural Analysis of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and its Impact on Individuals and Congregations,” (Prepared for Harvard Divinity School Professor Ronald Thiemann, April 2003), 4.
6. McClenahan, 18.
7. Nursing Home Worker Campaign Material, GBIO Website, http://www.gbio.org/nursing_care.html
8. Personal interview with Ari Lipman, 3 March 2006
9. “New Bostonians Top Ten Countries of Origin,” Boston Demographics Report, prepared by the Office of New Bostonians, p. 5, accessed 10 March 2006 at http://www.cityofboston.gov/newbostonians/pdfs/dem_report.pdf.
10. David A. Fahrenthold, “Mass. Bill Requires Health Coverage,” The Washington Post, accessed 14 April 2006 at http://www.gbio.org/maint/washington_post_4-5-06.pdf
11. Michael Jonas, “To Her, The Company Line’s Bad Medicine.” Boston Globe (City Weekly, The Political Trail) 12 Feb. 2006.
12. Michael Jonas, “DiMasi’s Excellent Hero Opportunity,” Boston Globe (City Weekly) 11 Dec. 2005.
13. Gerald Algere, “The People’s Voice,” Boston Globe (OP-ED) 11 Nov. 2005.
14. Personal interview with Ari Lipman, 3 March 2006.
15. Scott S.Greenberger, “State Senate Ok’s Healthcare Plan,” Boston Globe (Metro) 10 Nov. 2005.
16. Personal interview with Ari Lipman, 3 March 2006.
17. History, GBIO Website, http://www.gbio.org/aboutus.html.
18. Personal interview with Ari Lipman, 3 March 2006.
19. Personal interview with Ari Lipman, 3 March 2006.
20. History, GBIO Web site, http://www.gbio.org/aboutus.htmll.
21. GBIO presentation by organizers Ari Lipman and the Rev. Ray Hammond in the course “Religion in American Public Life,” Harvard Divinity School, 30 Nov. 2005.
22. GBIO Web site About Us, http://www.gbio.org/aboutus.html.
23. GBIO presentation by organizers Ari Lipman and the Rev. Ray Hammond in the course “Religion in American Public Life,” Harvard Divinity School, 30 Nov. 2005.
24. Personal interview with Ari Lipman, 3 March 2006.
25. Personal interview with Ari Lipman. 3 March 2006.
26. Personal interview with Ari Lipman. 3 March 2006.
27. History, GBIO Web site, http://www.gbio.org/aboutus.html .
28. GBIO presentation by organizers Ari Lipman and the Rev. Ray Hammond in the course “Religion in American Public Life,” Harvard Divinity School, 30 Nov. 2005.
29. “Boston Demographics,” Boston Demographics Report, prepared by the Office of New Bostonians, pp. 2, 4, accessed online 10 March 2006 at http://www.cityofboston.gov/newbostonians/pdfs/dem_report.pdf.