COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: Broderick Bagert, who comes from a politically connected family, grew up in New Orleans (Photo by Collin Richie)
Though Together Baton Rouge was established in 2010 by the Industrial Areas Foundation and a group of local ministers who invited the Chicago-based network into the community, both admirers and critics of TBR alike give lead organizer Broderick Bagert the lion’s share of credit for growing TBR over the past eight years and molding it into the powerful organization it is today.
This is not only because Bagert has been an effective and passionate spokesperson for the organization, but because he has cultivated leadership within the ranks of the group, which is what community organizing is all about.
“Broderick has done a really good job,” says Perry Perkins, an IAF lead organizer who established TBR and other IAF affiliates in the state. “But the strength of what he has done is seen in others, people like Edgar Cage and Diane Hanley, an outstanding group of leaders.”
Bagert came to Baton Rouge by way of Houston, where he trained with the IAF for several years in the mid 2000s to become a lead organizer. He’d gotten his first taste of civic activism in the early 2000s in his native New Orleans, when he took on Pres Kabacoff over the developer’s plans to redevelop the St. Thomas Housing Project into a mixed-income neighborhood anchored by a Walmart.
Bagert lost the battle, though not before leading a vociferous opposition movement, but the experience taught him a valuable lesson and made him look to the IAF for guidance and training.
“I learned a lot during St. Thomas about what I didn’t know how to do,” he says. “I realized later the deal was done before we even got involved. I felt like I let down a lot of people … and it made clear to me that knowledge, ideas and information don’t move things. It’s how people are organized that affects change.”
Bagert grew up near New Orleans’ lakefront in a political family. His dad was a city council member, his uncle a state senator. Though the lakefront was and still is a bastion of white conservativism in the Crescent City, the Bagerts were Democrats and Bagert’s cousin, Susu Bagert, remembers her uncle and aunt as being more open-minded than many of their peers.
“They were very progressive thinkers, especially for people of that generation,” she says. “I think Broderick Jr. was influenced by that.”
He was also influenced by his Catholic education, which included Jesuit High School, where the priests taught the message of the social gospel. But Bagert says he first became interested in issues like economic disparity when he taught in an inner city public school during a summer break from Boston College. Later, doing graduate work at Oxford, where he was a Marshall Scholar, he wrote his Master’s thesis on issues related to the demolition of the St. Thomas Housing Project.
“That experience led to me to rethink what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.
Bagert is not without his critics. He has a strong personality, is confrontational at times and fights back hard against criticism. Some argue his in-your-face style has worked not only against him but against TBR’s mission. Others disagree.
“I think he has a smart policy brain and he has been really effective,” says Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a member of Together Louisiana. “I don’t think he would have made enemies if he wasn’t effective. It is the nature of his work to make some enemies.”
For his part, Bagert tries to deflect attention away from his efforts. A successful community organizer should not be the face of the organization, he says. He’s just doing his job.
“This is tough stuff, and from the perspective of an organizer you have to be constantly thoughtful about changing times, growing, finding enough people who can do this work and want to do this work, and finding leaders,” he says. “This is a network of local organizations that mainly is focused on building the civic sector and training leaders.”