Gamaliel has built a national movement that is changing policies that impact the lives of families, and challenging deeply flawed public narratives that surround poor families, people of color, Indigenous people, immigrants and youth.
They were all together on that muggy July morning: a reverend, a rabbi, an organizer and a grieving mother sitting in the audience at the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners meeting. Waiting.
They waited to challenge the story of what happened five years earlier when 24-year-old Ryan Stokes was shot and killed by a police officer in the early hours of a July morning.
They came from different races, neighborhoods, faiths and economic backgrounds. But they were connected by a belief that the true story of that deadly night wasn’t being told. They had watched one version play out on the public stage, a story that included commendations for the two officers involved in the shooting. That wasn’t the story they knew.
For years they had waited to tell the story they knew, one that demanded a review of what happened that summer night – and changes. They said almost nothing had changed since the shooting: no overhaul of policies for reviewing police shootings, how suspects are pursued on foot, or how police tell a family one of their members has been shot and killed.
When their turn at the podium finally came, associate minister Kiku Brooks didn’t look at the notes she clutched in her hand. Instead, she shared something else with the commissioners sitting above her on the dais, a silence the Stokes family had felt since that shooting five years ago.
“I came here armed with a hammer to pound into the hearts of everyone in this room – the effects of the involved officers’ actions, and your inactions,” said Brooks, who preaches at Zion Grove Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. “However, when I arrived today I realized I just want to share the tension of silence with you. The silence that his daughter…will hear when it registers to her that her father will never accompany her to any father-daughter dances. He won’t have the honor of walking her down the aisle.”
There is tension and power in silence, Brooks knew, and that tension can spur change in a story and in policy.
On that muggy July morning, Brooks used silence to push the police commissioners to see something was deeply wrong with the story of Ryan Stokes’s death. It compelled those commissioners to respond to Brooks, the community, and most importantly, a grieving mother.
Two months later, the Board of Police Commissioners revoked the commendations awarded to the two officers involved in the shooting. It was far from everything the family and community leaders wanted, but it was a powerful start toward correcting the story of Ryan Stokes.
The group that waited at that commissioners hearing was connected by a faith-based organization, Gamaliel, which challenges the flawed and damaging public narratives that surround poor families, people of color, Indigenous people, immigrants and youth. The group builds collective power through relationships among people from all walks of life – such as reverends, rabbis and mothers – who lead changes in the policies that shape their lives.
Challenging Stories and Inequity
The challenge that Brooks made at the Police Commissioners meeting, and the commissioners’ response, reflect the power of Gamaliel, a power that reaches around the nation from New York to California. Gamaliel is a national organization that’s building a grassroots movement with its 45 affiliates in 16 states.
Storytelling is an integral part of Gamaliel’s mission to empower ordinary people to drive the political, environmental, social and economic decisions that impact their lives. It is work based on families owning their stories; Gamaliel doesn’t tell people what to say. Instead, the group creates space where they can tell their own stories.
Gamaliel does this locally by helping people engage in civic affairs, supporting development of leaders and nurturing collective advocacy, while also embracing the diversity of its membership. It brings together faith, labor and community groups under an aligned vision and in collaborative work to challenge systems of racial, economic and gender inequality in America.
“Our work at its core is offensive,” said Pastor Michael Brooks, co-chair of Gamaliel’s Kansas City affiliate, More2.
Brooks wasn’t referring to the common understanding of “offensive.” Instead, Gamaliel’s idea of “offensive” is where families and its leaders compel decision makers to respond in public arenas and spaces by making it uncomfortable to stay silent.
How to Build a Movement
For more than three decades, Gamaliel has been building a movement of families who lead campaigns and change policies, narratives and communities around the country. It creates space for families to lead – in part through training that helps them understand and identify what is oppressing them, such as sexism, racism or any other “ism,” and who specifically oppressed them.
It’s “a seven-day residential training, and it allows people to really immerse themselves in serious introspection,” said Cynthia Jarrold, Gamaliel’s national policy director. “We train people in a set of experiences, a set of concepts and tools: power, self-interest, one-on-ones, issues and actions, agitation.”
After a typical training program, members return to their communities and take calculated risks to confront symbols and organizations that perpetuate structural oppression. It could be the Board of Police Commissioners, Congress or the Baltimore City Council. They might fight for greater access to jobs and training for people of color on public construction projects, better bus service for working families, or fairer access to food stamps.
“We are about building collective power that can transform this nation and can create a movement,” said Ana Garcia-Ashley, Gamaliel’s national executive director. “We can be instruments of our own liberation.”
When Garcia-Ashley was hired as executive director in 2011, she was the first woman of color and immigrant to lead a national faith-based organization mobilizing low-income families. That was a reflection of Gamaliel’s commitment to align its work with its values of diversity and inclusion.
As part of that commitment, Gamaliel publicly pledged to hire and promote more women and people of color. Today, over 60 percent of Gamaliel’s local organizing staff are people of color, and 60 percent are women. More than half of its board are people of color, as are five of seven national staffers.
Under Garcia-Ashley’s leadership, Gamaliel has developed policies and curriculum that address gender inequity and structural racism. To deepen its national training materials, the group has partnered with the Grassroots Policy Project, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s CEO and President Luz Vega-Marquis, and PolicyLink’s founder Angela Glover Blackwell. Gamaliel focuses on three core areas to build collective power: civil rights for immigrants; criminal justice reform; and transportation equity. In addition, its affiliates work on a myriad of other local issues in their communities.
We don’t take on anything nationally unless our folks are driving it locally,” Gamaliel’s national policy director Jarrold said.
And Gamaliel has been winning policy fights locally around the country.
Setting Jericho Table
One of Gamaliel’s biggest wins was one of its first in Kansas City, when it helped build what came to be known as Jericho Table.
Historically, Black communities and women were excluded from Kansas City’s large and lucrative construction projects, which are typically flush with well-paid union jobs that can help build careers and lives.
When another massive project began ramping up in 2009, one that would literally remake Kansas City’s downtown and cost about $1 billion over 14 years, according to Pastor Michael Brooks, those long-simmering concerns blew into the open. Gamaliel’s new affiliate, More2, recognized that everyone – contractors, subcontractors, unions and city hall – were all pointing at others as the causes of racial and gender inequality in the city’s big-ticket construction projects.
In response, More2 brought all the players on the new project together at Zion Grove Missionary Baptist Church, along with roughly 1,000 members from More2’s 20-plus member congregations.
There, the players agreed to sit down regularly and talk about racial and economic disparities, along with potential solutions, in the project. That meeting was the first in a series that came to be known as Jericho Table.
“More2 brought everyone together. Everyone agreed to the table,” said Brooks, senior pastor at Zion Grove Missionary Baptist Church.
But a verbal commitment wasn’t enough.
As that first meeting wound down, every leader walked to the front of the church and signed a poster-size commitment to Jericho Table. This is the Gamaliel way: Hold key players accountable to address systems of racial and economic inequality in public spaces.
Since that massive downtown project, Jericho Table has broken up.
“There is probably still a need for a table, so things don’t go back to business as usual,” Pastor Brooks said.
Early next year, Gamaliel will take the next step by opening a new chapter of its criminal justice work. The organization plans to launch a campaign to end mass supervision: the dramatic rise in the number of people placed on parole, probation or some other type of extended supervision, such as electronic monitoring. Mass supervision keeps millions of families in debt and imprisoned, according to Gamaliel.
Relationships are the glue that bonds Gamaliel’s collaborative and national network of families, affiliates and leaders, as they work toward a common vision of achieving equity in education, criminal justice, jobs and transportation.
By working together in this network they can fundamentally change how powerfully people of color, immigrants and young people participate in democracy, Gamaliel’s Garcia-Ashley said.
On the ground, this means things like taking back the power of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners by placing it under local control. Today, its members are appointed by the governor. Tomorrow, Gamaliel wants local voters to make those appointments. It’s part of a goal to reform policing and reduce police shootings in the city.
Over the last thirty years, Gamaliel and the national movement it helped to build made a lot of progress, Garcia-Ashley observed. But, there is a long way to go to dismantle structural racism and other systems of economic, gender and racial inequality in the U.S.
“We are in it for the long haul, whatever it takes. We will invest the time and resources needed to transform our communities and this country into a more just and equitable society,” she said.
Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News.