Over 1,000 Indianapolis residents, along with a core group of high-level city officials, are set to attend a March 6 kick-off convention of the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCAN). The more than thirty participating congregations that comprise IndyCAN will use this event as a launching point for dialogue between the city's policy-makers and local Hoosiers hardest hit by the economic recession. The public is invited.
Mayor Greg Ballard, City-Council President Maggie Lewis and Public Safety Director Frank Straub will be in attendance, addressing the audience. Also, expect personal testimonies collected as a result of IndyCAN's extensive grassroots research.
"The convention will be the beginning of a process of working together," said Reverend Linda McCrae of Central Christian Church. Located downtown, Central Christian attracts members of various socioeconomic backgrounds from all over the city and is active in IndyCAN. "There is a force and a power in this very grassroots group that will both hold the city accountable and also be for them a source of support for moving important issues forward."
Numerous Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations actively participate in IndyCAN and more continue to join. While the network now boasts a broad, diverse membership, it originated from a small group of clergy interested in the faith community's role in local development.
"Some local organizers brought clergy together to speak about the challenges facing Indianapolis and our call to respond to sacred scripture," explained Father John McCaslin, pastor of Saint Anthony's Catholic Parish and an early IndyCAN supporter. "We were each drawn from our shared faith traditions — of loving our neighbor — and a strong fellowship developed."
Over the course of last year, as more leaders brought the message of these interfaith sessions to their own congregations, IndyCAN's structure took shape. Local Organizing Committees (LOC) of five to nine people formed to spearhead the network within each congregation. In April of 2011, the first group of 200 lay people began a focused effort to speak directly with families and compile a list of target issues. They also sought the input of public policy experts and the support of local government officials.
"IndyCAN has gone through the process of talking with 20,000 people, whether through 1-on-1 interviews, community meetings or weekend services," noted Johnnie Underwood, an IndyCAN LOC member of National New Era Baptist Church.
Every LOC around the city has made a concentrated effort to arrange personal conversations with their congregation, which has turned IndyCAN into an all-inclusive, interfaith community. As a faith-based organization that bridges differences in religious doctrine, IndyCAN is able to reach thousands of Indianapolis residents every weekend.
"It's multiethnic, multicultural, and multi-denominational," said Underwood. "We don't draw any lines here."
Addressing key issues
The conversations have helped shed a light on a number of key issues that IndyCAN hopes to address in the next five years: pathways to employment, public safety, housing and healthcare.
By developing leaders within struggling communities, IndyCAN hopes to create a direct connection between these communities and city officials. In time, IndyCAN believes the collaboration will help promote targeted public policies with positive results as diverse as its membership.
"We were pretty strategic in completing our research last summer," said Anne Belcher, a parishioner at Saint Thomas Aquinas, "and we were fairly successful in meeting with city officials in housing and crime. We wanted to know how the city makes decisions and where the black holes exist in relationship to how money is being used."
The organization says it would like to see greater investment in public projects that hire locally — and pay livable wages.
Anita Bjork, a member of Redeemer Lutheran Church, insists this will have a major impact on a neighborhood because "the people who are impacted within the communities will help to find the solutions, feel invested and take ownership."
While IndyCAN's structure may be unique, the group is not shy in expressing its desire to imitate the successful programs of other cities. One example is the Staples Center Community Benefits Agreement in Los Angeles, which requires developers of the area surrounding the L.A. Lakers basketball arena to hire locally displaced individuals, pay living wages, and earmark money for green space, residential parking and job training programs.
"We would like to see a policy like this put into place with the new hospital," said Bjork, referring to Eskenazi Health. "Some of the hiring should come from areas hardest hit by the recession."
Operation CeaseFire, a nonviolence intervention program present in twenty cities nationwide, is a project both IndyCAN and the Public Safety Director support. It pairs individuals "at-risk" of violent crime with a team of criminal justice workers, mentors, employers and other interested parties. Together, the group assesses the participant's needs and offers their support in exchange for the individual's abstinence from crime.
"In early January of this year, we had six homicides within a week," said Angela Eubank, a member of Christian Love Missionary Baptist Church whose son was murdered in 2005. "At IndyCAN we are trying to bring in some pieces of CeaseFire that have shown to reduce violence by sixty percent."
Cyclical pattern of crime
IndyCAN cites a Georgetown University study that predicts the state will create 511,500 job vacancies by 2018 that require more than a high school diploma and less than a college degree; additionally, many of the state's growth industries are experiencing a shortage of trained workers. According to the IndyCAN, these represent ideal opportunities to lift thousands of Hoosiers out of poverty, including previously incarcerated individuals.
"People can turn their lives around if they are given the opportunity with a good job," said Larry Smith, a convicted felon with over thirty years of work with the city and state. Smith's statement is shared by many with criminal records interviewed through IndyCAN's research. Unable to find work to support their families, thousands of Hoosiers experience a cyclical pattern of crime and jail.
The city's participation in the convention proves public officials are eager to tap into the organization's direct connection to increasingly marginalized sectors of the population.
"The power is in the relationships that we're building, that starts in each congregation," explained Reverend Linda McCrae. "What the faith community brings is our understanding that the greatness of a society is measured by how the most vulnerable of its citizens are faring: the poor, our children and elderly."
IndyCAN knows its greatest asset lies in the outreach programs of its members. The group is happy to harness this strength in order to facilitate communication between its congregations and policy-makers, but is adamant in its loyalty to the Indianapolis community — not to a political party. Prior to the most recent mayoral election, IndyCAN made a conscious effort to voice their concern to both candidates. Each agreed to collaborate with the organization if elected and attend its founding convention.
As the date approaches, IndyCAN sees its convention as a perfect opportunity for the city to continue the positive momentum generated by a successful Super Bowl. Still, it recognizes that the convention represents only the beginning.
"The key is to have a long vision and engage citizens," said Father McCaslin. "Our hope is to build up and develop local leaders that want to make Indy a safer city with better job opportunities. This is a marathon, not a sprint."