Caroline Murray has been losing a lot of sleep since Barack Obama became president. It's not that she's unhappy about Obama's election—rather, she says, she's overwhelmed by the possibilities it's opened up, to create real, lasting, structural change.
"It's creating almost a sense of panic," Murray says. "I feel like we have to do everything right now. I don't know when this opportunity is ever going to come again.
"It was almost easier when we had no chance," she adds.
A veteran community organizer, Murray has spent her career fighting difficult fights—and often winning them. Murray is executive director of the Springfield-based Alliance to Develop Power, or ADP. Originally created to help low-income tenants organize to buy their apartment complexes, ADP has broadened its scope over the years as its strength and reputation has grown. Today, ADP runs a worker center that focuses on economic justice; those principles are the basis of an ADP subsidiary, United for Hire, a workers' co-op that provides landscaping and maintenance services.
For the past eight years, ADP has been a member of the Center for Community Change, a 40-year-old alliance of low-income grassroots groups around the country. As part of the Center's Campaign for Community Values, ADP members have been pushing for national policy changes in areas like accessible health care, immigration reform and economic equality. But they're also pushing for fundamental changes in how decisions are made in our country.
"The goal is really a long-term goal, to change the political discourse in our country," Murray explains. "To bring back the concept of interconnectedness, standing up for the least of us. Really changing the way our government does business, and getting into the hearts and minds of everyday people."
Campaign members were braced for a long, hard fight. Then the political landscape changed dramatically with the emergence of Obama, himself a former community organizer.
"Here comes Barack Obama, running for president using the same language and same vision our campaign had. & A sort of perfect storm was created," says Murray, who, like others on the political left, favors the Obama nickname "Organizer in Chief."
Determined to take advantage of that happy turn of events, the CCV has launched a campaign called "100 Days of Action" to influence policy development in the earliest days of the Obama administration. Since the inauguration, the Campaign has had a constant presence in Washington, sending representatives, including several ADP members, to meet with the administration and legislators to push its agenda.
That agenda focuses on four major areas, explains ADP organizer Jonathan Feingold: affordable housing, healthcare reform, worker justice and immigration reform.
The Campaign is off to a successful start, Feingold says. It helped win the reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which in 2007 had notoriously been vetoed by George Bush. It helped kill efforts to tie into the economic stimulus bill "E-Verify," a controversial federal program used to certify that employees are legally authorized to work in the U.S., which critics say is riddled with inaccurate information.
The Campaign also pushed successfully for low-income housing funding, including money to retrofit affordable housing to be more energy-efficient, which would also create job opportunities.
Last week, Murray and Keya Alvarez, an ADP member/leader from Springfield, met with Martha Coben, a domestic policy adviser to Obama, to discuss ways to make sure economic stimulus money and similar funds get to the people and communities that most need it. The Campaign had tried to get into the federal stimulus bill an ADP-drafted provision that would guarantee that at least 15 percent of the jobs created through the stimulus bill go to low-income people in distressed communities.
The effort failed, despite strong support from Sens. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. Now ADP is shifting its focus to the state level, with a public campaign asking Gov. Deval Patrick to commit to the same language on the stimulus money Massachusetts receives from the feds. As Obama sets out his long-term budget priorities, "our job is to make sure every aspect of it is addressing inequality," Murray says. "We can't address our economic crisis until inequality is addressed, because that's what this crisis is based on."
While one of ADP's priorities is to urge people to use the power of their vote—Murray says the group helped turn 5,000 people out at the polls last November—as a non-profit, it's legally prohibited from endorsing any particular candidate. "We want people to think deeply and vote for the person who share our values," Feingold says.
Still, it's hard to deny that the Campaign for Community Values would face a much tougher fight were it trying to influence a McCain administration. In Obama, Feingold says, "we've got [a president] who wants to hear from us. Now we have someone who's not anxious about our pressure—he's anxious about not getting pressure from us."
Since Obama's election, Murray says, the Campaign has picked up speed, pushing for immediate policy changes, something it initially thought would take several years to achieve. "The strange thing is, we now have access and respect, and people in major seats of power who actually want to work with people in the community," Murray says. "We're learning how to play inside the game and outside the game at the same time."
But even with a kindred spirit in the White House, ADP isn't about to forget its roots. "I'm still a community organizer, and my job is to keep pushing from the outside. That's what the 100 Day campaign is all about," Murray says.
"There are people advising Congress and our president from all different sides," she adds. ADP's job, she says, is to make sure they're also hearing about the experiences of the people directly affected by their policies, and listening to the expertise those people can offer.