VOICE - Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement

Website: 

https://www.voice-iaf.org/


Northern Virginia is among the most religiously diverse areas in the United States.[1] With its proximity to Washington, D.C., it is also a region full of organizers, activists, and public advocates. It is this nexus that gave rise to VOICE: Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement – a vibrant interfaith coalition using its relational power for positive change. 

VOICE’s mission entails “bringing people together across religious, racial, ethnic, economic, and political party affiliations to build a stronger Northern Virginia.”[2]  VOICE was founded in 2008 with leaders from 51 local congregations, organizing around the theme of “A New Dominion for Justice and Political Participation.” They formulated an agenda and got to work with local- and state-level public officials. Their first major success was bringing big banks to the table to address the foreclosure crisis in Northern Virginia in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, ultimately securing millions of dollars for housing for the community.[3][4] Since then, VOICE’s agenda has expanded to encompass policy goals such as increasing affordable housing, investing in public education, combating intolerance and bigotry towards immigrants and the Muslim community, reducing gun violence, and “tackling the roots and effects of the unjust and inequitable criminal justice system.”[5]

VOICE’s advocacy process begins with identifying issues through listening and dialogue, and developing goals and action plans accordingly – including researching obstacles and determining which leaders to form relationships with. They then pull together people from member communities and meet directly with elected leaders to discuss concerns, create accountability, and incite action. Each fall, VOICE organizes a major meeting with VOICE leaders and public officials around a particular issue. At last year’s action, over 1,300 VOICE members successfully collaborated with the Virginia Governor and Attorney General on reforming the state’s cash bail system and decreasing mass incarceration. Recently, VOICE’s work in the Virginia General Assembly directly resulted in the creation of a public defender’s office in Prince William County, the state’s only majority-people of color county.[6] They also organize actions such as Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) campaigns and candidate accountability events. VOICE’s broad base demonstrates to public officials that there is wide support for their policy aims.

Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe is a rabbi at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, VA and a long-standing leader of VOICE. He formerly served on VOICE’s Strategy Team, and today co-chairs the VOICE committee that focuses on criminal justice reform in Fairfax County. He represents the concerns of his congregation to VOICE as well as mobilizes them in working towards VOICE’s goals – a role also played by the leaders and core teams in each member faith community. Rabbi Saxe describes VOICE as “many, many faiths working together to find our common concerns about local and state issues… [these common concerns] are often aimed at standing with and improving the lives of the most vulnerable in our community.”[7

At VOICE, interfaith community-building is closely tied to advocacy. Both its activism and its work cultivating interfaith relationships rest on a key foundation: listening. Rabbi Saxe explains, “We have as many conversations as we can with members of communities to find out what concerns they have, what’s keeping them up at night, and what things are happening in their local communities… we find what those common concerns are, and then those are the [issues] that we work on.” He affirms that listening is the “backbone” of both organizing and interfaith work. VOICE encourages all of its members to make a habit of meeting with members of other faith communities; regular one-on-one meetings serve as a space to listen to others’ stories, share experiences, and build relationships. VOICE also holds “Listening Campaigns” which set goals to hold a certain number of conversations within a period of time, and VOICE’s website currently presents comprehensive resources on how to meaningfully reach out to neighbors to listen to needs and stories during the time of COVID-19. These listening campaigns allow VOICE to determine the most pressing policy concerns, develop responses, form interfaith relationships, and identify and develop leaders. 

The advocacy model at VOICE differs from that of other organizations, which often choose an issue and subsequently seek out supporters to coalesce around a particular, fixed agenda. Rabbi Saxe explains that such models tend to lose momentum quickly. Rather, he says, “VOICE’s community organizing is based on building up relationships and building power. We come together, we find the things we will act on together, and by doing that, we continue to strengthen our relationships and build power – so that when the next concern comes up, we have those relationships and we’re ready to act together.”  In this way, VOICE’s work is directly informed by the needs and goals of community members on the ground, in dialogue with each other. Indeed, cultivating relationships is at the center of VOICE’s work, articulated in their values statement: “We believe in meeting face to face and developing the public relationships that are the glue of our society… We value seeking solutions through creativity and dynamic friction that work best when we are in relationship with each other and with those from whom we seek change.”[8]  

A tenet of VOICE’s ethos is to avoid “smoothing over tensions without also having the necessary difficult conversations about issues that matter most,”[9] and to instead lean into such conversations as an important part of developing trust and forming substantial interfaith relationships. Rabbi Saxe asserts, “Community organizing does have a philosophy that there is a value to having tension in the room. Tension is not the goal per se, but sometimes change and movement require some tension... We have to be willing to tolerate and sometimes create some tension in order to spur ourselves and each other to take action.” VOICE exemplifies how seriously engaging differences is a critical aspect of strong community organizing, and ultimately, religious pluralism. 

Today, VOICE is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by focusing on the eviction crisis in Virginia. They are in conversation with the governor and legislators, pushing to pause evictions long enough to allow a rental assistance program to reach all of those in need. They also hosted a press conference in late July to enable community members affected by COVID-19 to share their stories.[10] In addition, VOICE is emphasizing the disproportionate effect that coronavirus has on communities of color, and has incorporated this dimension into their advocacy efforts. Rabbi Saxe believes that the pandemic underlines the significance of VOICE’s work: how important it is to build relationships among congregations with different demographics in order to break down barriers between communities. Such relationships not only strengthen interfaith connections but also render VOICE better equipped to advocate for all members of their community.

Examining VOICE’s work and model for interfaith advocacy makes clear the efficacy of action that is rooted in honest listening and genuine interpersonal relationships. Rabbi Saxe states that Virginia’s increasing religious diversity creates a wonderful opportunity for VOICE to broaden its exposure to people in different faith communities and to create new alliances. While it can be challenging to not become consumed with partisanship in today’s political climate, VOICE stays focused on what it can do to improve the lives of people in its community. As Rabbi Saxe puts it, “I think VOICE is successful because… it’s not about the issues, it’s about the people involved. We represent a very wide base and a broad range of communities coming together to make our voices heard and to work positively and in conjunction with our leaders to make change. It’s successful because it focuses on… maintaining and deepening our relationships as we work together.” VOICE illustrates that where engaged, sustained relationships – examples of true religious pluralism – are centered, justice emerges.

[1] Niraj Chokshi, “Religion in America’s States and Counties, in 6 maps,” The Washington Post, Dec. 12 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/12/12/religion-in-americas-states-and-counties-in-6-maps/ 

[2] Virginians Organizing for Interfaith Community Engagement (VOICE) website. https://www.voice-iaf.org/ August 2020.

[3] Interview with Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe and Virginia Schilder, August 3rd 2020.

[4] Jeremy Borden, “Advocates: Pr. William Communities to get $30 million for housing pilot program.” Washington Post, June 3, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/advocates-pr-william-communities-to-get-30-million-for-housing-pilot-program/2013/06/02/fffecc54-ca22-11e2-9245-773c0123c027_story.html

[5] VOICE website. https://www.voice-iaf.org/ 

[6] Editorial Board, “This Virginia county is finally getting a public defender’s office. It’s a step in the right direction.” The Washington Post, May 29 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/this-virginia-county-is-finally-getting-a-public-defenders-office-its-a-step-in-the-right-direction/2020/05/29/c1b89648-9def-11ea-b5c9-570a91917d8d_story.html

[7] Interview with Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe. All of Rabbi Saxe’s quotations in this piece are taken from this interview.

[8] VOICE website. 

[9] VOICE website. 

[10] Interview with Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe, August 3rd 2020.