TOGETHER THEY STAND: The key figures in the growth and influence of Together Baton Rouge are the Rev. Lee Wesley, Edgar Cage and Broderick Bagert. (Photo by Collin Richie)
In late 2011, Together Baton Rouge proclaimed its first victory with the reopening of the Blue Grass Bridge in the Glen Oaks area. The bridge had been shut down for 18 months, inconveniencing dozens of residents in the subdivision, and TBR had successfully lobbied city officials to get it repaired and reopened.
In the scheme of things, it was a relatively minor neighborhood issue. But it had major significance for the fledgling group, then less than a year old: It showed the effectiveness of community organizing.
A few months later, TBR took on a far bigger and more controversial issue—a dedicated property tax to fund the failing Capital Area Transit System. Though other organizations, including the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, had been working on transit reform for months, TBR’s involvement helped narrowly tip the scales in favor of the tax. The win put the group on the map—and squarely in the cross hairs of those who had opposed the measure.
In the years that would follow, TBR took on a host of other issues to address the problems in Baton Rouge that stem largely from the city’s poverty and socioeconomic disparity—from food deserts, health care access in under served neighborhoods and payday lending to police reform and opposition to the city of St. George incorporation effort.
As the group racked up victories, due in whole or in part to its efforts, it attracted supporters, genuinely moved by its causes. It also drew critics, who felt TBR’s name and frequent characterization as a faith-based, grass-roots organization was inherently misleading.
Then, in 2016 TBR tackled the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program, a lucrative incentive long cherished by manufacturers. Describing the program as corporate welfare, TBR produced a report showing the ITEP had deprived local governments of $13.7 billion from 2006-2016 alone, while failing to create the local jobs it was supposed to generate. Just weeks later, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed an executive order scaling back the incentive and overhauling the program.
With the ITEP issue, TBR—and the statewide network it has since helped grow, Together Louisiana—catapulted itself into a whole new realm, where big money, big business and politics converge. Though the group continued to portray itself as a local organization intent on helping the community, it had picked a fight with the most powerful interests in the state. Those who had considered TBR little more than an annoyance suddenly realized it was a force with which to be reckoned. The gloves came off.
In January, businessman and industrial contractor Eddie Rispone started an inclusive sounding group of his own, Baton Rouge Families First, that made going after TBR its first order of business. In a five-minute video circulated on social media, the group questions TBR’s tactics, motives and affiliation with the Industrial Areas Foundation, a Chicago-based network of community organizations that has become a pejorative of the right, not in the least because its founder was the left-leaning activist Saul Alinsky and its best-known prodigy was Barack Obama.
The video presents a clearly biased perspective of TBR that, if not altogether untrue, is unfair. But it is significant because it underscores the very real vitriol a group that is supposed to be about togetherness has engendered from an influential segment of the community.
Why does TBR make people so mad?
In part, it has to do with what has been a mischaracterization of the group. TBR is not simply a faith-based organization, though a majority of its members are local churches. Nor is it a purely organic grass-roots movement. Rather, it is a broad based community organization that was carefully seeded and cultivated by experts trained in community organizing. None of which is to suggest that the work TBR is doing is not good or necessary, but only that the dynamics of the group are more complex than they have sometimes been made out to be.
Another part of its problem is that TBR’s leadership is, at times, confrontational. Though the organization is inclusive and democratic within its own ranks, those in the broader community who do not share its views on various issues complain about its “bullying tactics.”
But perhaps the biggest reason a lot of people don’t like TBR is because it has become so effective in fighting back against big business and industry. Not since Victor Bussie’s AFO-CIO of the 1970s and 1980s has business and industry in Louisiana had to deal with such an organized opposition. Though TBR’s activism springs from different roots and impulses than did the union’s, it speaks for those who don’t feel as though they have a voice against the powers that be, and it has demonstrated that it, too, has the ability to become a powerful force.
“They’ve been able to call for change in areas and in ways that no nongovernmental organization has been able to do,” says local consultant and podcast host Clay Young. “They’ve taken the place of the unions and they have a lot of influence and power. I think that is bothersome to a lot of people.”
From the ground up?
Most people in Baton Rouge had likely never heard of TBR before it became the poster child for the CATS tax in 2012. But the group had actually been in the planning stages for several years by the time the bus system millage made it to the ballot.
That planning started around 2008, when a longtime IAF veteran named Perry Perkins brought the IAF to Baton Rouge at the invitation of Rev. Lee Wesley, pastor of Community Bible Baptist Church, and four other African-American ministers.
Wesley and the ministers had seen the effectiveness of the IAF’s other affiliates in the state—the Monroe-based Northern and Central Louisiana Interfaith and the Jeremiah Group in New Orleans—in advocating for New Orleans’ low income population during the city’s rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. They felt the IAF model of community organizing could help them grow a sustainable organization with a broad based voice to address systemic issues like poverty and economic disparity in Baton Rouge.
“We realized if we were going to be effective we had to be a coalition across racial, nondenominational and economic lines,” he says. “We started meeting with other pastors and actually we met for over a year kind of incognito before we became public. The basis of that was to build relationships because we understand nothing is going to happen of lasting value without strong relationships.”
Perry had established the IAF’s other chapters in Louisiana in the 1990s and had long had his eye on Baton Rouge, with hopes of building a statewide network of community organizations affiliated with the IAF.
“But we don’t go into a community unless we’re invited by institutional leaders,” Perkins says. “Rev. Wesley … Bishop Charles Jenkins … those were the institutional leaders who said, Baton Rouge needs something like this.”
In 2010, TBR officially incorporated and Broderick Bagert, a New Orleans native who had been in training with the IAF in Houston, took over from Perkins. Since then, Perkins has been working to launch more IAF organizations around the state and to build the statewide group Together Louisiana.
Today, TBR has grown to some 40 members—30 churches, which are primarily though not exclusively Christian, and 10 special interest groups, including the AARP, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.
The group meets monthly over box lunches at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in north Baton Rouge, where members discuss pressing issues. It holds annual delegate conventions, where members pledge their annual contribution, usually around $1,500, and vote in a very democratic process on the major issues it wants to address in the year to come.
TBR also holds regular small group “house meetings,” a key component to successful community organizing, where the organizers cultivate leadership skills among their base and give members an opportunity to bring up topics of local concern that may eventually become larger causes of the group as a whole.
“We do not have national policy directives or people,” Bagert says. “What we work on comes out of local institutions engaging their members and then researching the problems that come up in house meetings, and if anybody’s got a whiff of anything other than that I’d be delighted to hear about it. It is not ideologically oriented.”
Though critics have raised questions about TBR’s funding, there aren’t any deep dark secrets to the group’s books. It runs on a lean budget, roughly $300,000 in a typical year, from which it employs a staff of three that works out of a modest office space on Government Street. Most of its money comes from grants from foundations and dues from member organizations. In 2016, however, revenues more than tripled to some $1 million because of donations and flood recovery grants that the group passed on to member organizations directly serving flood victims.
Contrary to conspiracy theories, TBR does not receive money from controversial billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, nor does Together Louisiana, which is actually funded through another IAF organization, the Monroe-based Southern Institute for Public Life. It is true that the IAF did accept donations from Soros at one point in the early 2000s, but Perkins says it no longer does because of his partisan politics.
As for the Southern Institute for Public Life, its revenues come from the IAF and a handful of grants from national foundations and individual donations (See chart).
“We don’t accept any funding that is directly related to national elections and, frankly, Democratic party politics,” Perkins says. “That is not who we are.”
How to define the mission?
TBR may not be tied to Democratic party politics, but the group clearly has what most would consider to be a left-leaning agenda. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, and many see it as a very good thing.
The problem is TBR seems reticent to say this outright. Instead, it prefers to position itself as a group that tries to speak with a united voice for a divided community. As a community organizer—which, by definition, is a change agent—TBR can’t really have it both ways. Clearly, it wants to.
Over a barbecue lunch in late December, TBR leaders try to explain exactly what their mission is. They struggle to define it.
“We are not an organization that is designed to represent only the poor and disenfranchised,” Wesley says. “Our goal is to work on issues that move Baton Rouge forward, all of Baton Rouge … because a rising tide lifts all ships.”
“But the goals and missions are tied to social and economic justice,” says Edgar Cage, who has emerged as one of TBR’s key leaders.
“I don’t know if everyone would relate to that framework. There are people who would hear that,” he pauses. “That’s not how we describe what we do organizationally …. We represent the least among us, the people who don’t have standing. That still leaves room to get a bridge fixed in a suburban community. We’re not only going to work by census tract, but there is an orientation toward what our (faith-based) traditions call us to do.”
Critics of TBR have pounced on the group’s frequent reference to its faith-based tradition as disingenuous. Rispone’s video claims TBR uses “these religious organizations as political cover. If you oppose them they will claim you are anti-Catholic or a bigot.”
TBR denies this, and there’s no record of the group ever publicly calling out a church leader or member as being anti anything, much less bigoted. But some local churches have been divided internally over positions TBR has taken on issues like the CATS tax, St. George or the ITEP. As a result, some have left the group altogether. Others have never joined because it’s too controversial, its position on issues too polarizing.
Rev. Steve Crump of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge is not among those. His congregation is one of TBR’s biggest supporters and he is a member of its executive committee. But he concedes there is a perception problem, and believes it stems from a larger misunderstanding of the group’s mission as well as a frequent mischaracterization by the media and, even, some TBR members themselves.
“We do have an agenda but that is not necessarily partisan,” he explains. “Political doesn’t mean something bad. Anything that affects finite resources is political, whether that means turning on the switch, giving a handout to someone, making sure the food bank is full. That is a political. So, yes we have an agenda, and yes, we want as many people represented as possible and we are broad based. But we are not partisan.”
Critics of TBR also fault the group’s leadership for its sometimes confrontational approach. Things have become particularly heated between TBR and BRAC, its one-time ally on the CATS tax and food desert issues, over the ITEP. BRAC has questioned TBR’s data and challenged its description of the program as “corporate welfare.”
TBR, in turn, accused BRAC of “seeking to minimize public scrutiny over exemptions in order to maximize taxpayer subsidies to a handful of its own members, which are also its largest funders,” in a 2017 letter to the editor published by The Advocate.
As the debate has intensified, the two sides have produced dueling statistics, editorials and position papers. Neither side disputes the ITEP needed to be reformed, but the disagreement is over how the changes are being made and, in BRAC’s case, in the way TBR is going about making its case.
Knapp says the accusation in The Advocate letter were patently false, one of several “misleading, bullying, damaging, and divisive tactics employed by TBR.”
Bagert says his group has reached out to BRAC and cannot understand the chamber’s unwillingness to work with them.
“We have reached out probably a dozen times throughout the last two years to say, let’s talk. But this (ITEP issue) was some kind of third rail.”
Counters Knapp: “It’s a little rich for them now to portray that it has all been an unfortunate misunderstanding, deflecting their own culpability … and then wondering about how our organizations might be able to engage respectfully with each other moving forward.”
All of this might not be so much of a problem if TBR were not so closely tied to so many churches. But even some local faith leaders say they’ve felt the wrath of the group’s leadership on occasion, and it didn’t sit well with them.
“It comes off that if you disagree with them you are not Christian or faithful, or that if you are not involved with them you do not care about the poor,” says one local faith leader, who is not affiliated with the group but is sympathetic with its causes. “I don’t think they see that and I don’t think that is their intention—but that is the reality.”
Defenders of TBR say criticism goes with the territory of community organizing. Rev. Raymond Jetson, president and founder of Metromorphosis and recently retired pastor of the influential Star Hill Baptist Church, says TBR would not be doing its job if it were not making people mad.
“There are people in this community who are bothered by the work of TBR,” Jetson says. “But if you are doing community organizing and addressing critical issues in a community and everybody likes you then that’s probably a sign you’re doing something wrong.”
There are plenty who believe TBR is not doing anything wrong but, rather, doing a good job, especially in bringing together churches and community groups of mixed races and backgrounds to work on common issues. Just as its first victory with the bridge in Glen Oaks suggested, the influence TBR had on the ITEP overhaul shows how powerful community organizing can be—not just in Baton Rouge but in Louisiana.
“It’s not very often that a nonprofit organization can really affect long lasting change and that is what Together Baton Rouge has done with the ITEP,” says Louisiana Budget Project Director Jan Moller, whose group is a member of Together Louisiana. “It’s the proverbial David and Goliath story, and David won.”
It’s been a long time since big industry has faced credible opposition in Louisiana. TBR and the IAF didn’t set out to take the place of unions, but there was a void and the role the community organizing groups are now playing effectively fill that void—and with an added advantage. Unlike the unions, TBR is neither tainted by scandal nor corrupted by politics.
“When they say something it draws attention because they have power,” Young says. “And they are gaining in momentum and power because they are scandal free, so there is nothing to blunt the growth of their influence.”
That influence is now spreading throughout the Capital Region and elsewhere in the state. In recent months, TBR has helped form Together Ascension and also an organizing committee for a new group on the west side of the Mississippi River that will include members from Plaquemine, Iberville and West Baton Rouge parishes. Northern and Central Louisiana Interfaith is also expanding in its area of the state, and Perkins recently formed Together New Orleans. (The Jeremiah Group, which still operates in New Orleans, is no longer affiliated with the IAF).
As the number of IAF affiliates in Louisiana grows, it’s perhaps unsurprising that skepticism and opposition to the groups also would increase. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In north Louisiana—a bastion of Bible Belt conservatism with a history of nasty racism that makes Baton Rouge look positively harmonious—the IAF-affiliate Northern and Central Louisiana Interfaith has been operating for nearly a quarter of a century with a legacy of accomplishment and, significantly, a lot of buy-in from the business community.
Tom Nicholson is the owner of Strauss Interests in Monroe, and a former chamber of commerce leader and bank board president, who was active with Interfaith for years. He believes it’s important to understand what community organizations like TBR can do for a community.
“Interfaith has always been about building bridges and not about being bearers of a hard agenda,” he says. “They’re not trying to unionize our companies or our schools or whatever. They’ve been very successful in finding interests of common concern for the whole community.”
So far, that hasn’t changed, even with the ITEP issue, though Nicholson concedes he’s not as active with the Interfaith as he once was. But as a wealthy, successful business leader he says it’s important to look beyond the current controversy in Baton Rouge to what groups like Interfaith and TBR are trying to do. It’s a mission that he believes, if done right, really will benefit the community as a whole.
“You’re supposed to make the world a better place, and Interfaith has done that,” he says. “It’s been one of the most effective bridges between the white community—and particularly the people with money in business—and the people who were on the south side of town and had dark skin. They have been very effective at creating the dialog and the platform for the dialog, and I was and still am enthusiastic about that.”