ICPJ works in collaboration to bring community voices to decision-making tablesThe Nonprofit Journal Project

At the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ), we help to build capacity in communities to do organizing work that addresses the root causes of racial and economic injustice and the climate crisis. Our work is collaborative, intergenerational and intersectional, and prioritizes building relationships with individuals, organizing groups, and particularly, in faith-based spaces.

Through community conversations and educational forums, we invite people to learn how certain issues may be affecting them or their community, and how they can connect, organize and impact decision making in that area.

One challenge in our work is having the capacity to do long-term organizing while also focusing on the urgent needs of our communities. For example, we’re currently working, and have been for some time, on The People’s Budget for Justice and Equity, a collaborative action campaign around Washtenaw County’s next 4-year budget, which will be voted on in November 2022.

Our campaign is centered on participatory budgeting, a process where the community helps decide how the budget is spent. They determine what projects receive focus and how resources are used, instead of decision-making happening behind closed doors with meeting notices. By gearing up our educational and organizing efforts now, we hope to not only influence this multi-year budget, and next year's election when it comes to who will support it, but to also create energy and excitement around the idea of participatory budgeting for the future. 

At the same time, where I live in Ypsilanti, we are still experiencing a crisis in terms of COVID-19. People don’t have the resources to even start healing, let alone to begin rebounding as a community. There’s an immediate need to address funding around American Rescue Plan dollars and COVID-19 recovery, and to watch how the county is designating that money. I’m wondering how we keep the attention wide enough so we can put what we learn from this process forward into our upcoming budget efforts.

Lately, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the roles people play in creating the changes we need for transformation. I’m thinking about intersectionality in how we approach and stack solutions for the different problems we see. I believe we need more interconnectedness within our groups and organizations, centered in a trusting space. 

As organizations, we cannot do all of the things, even if we feel compelled to. And we don't want these areas of work to be moving without one another because that diminishes power and impact, and can make it feel like we have different goals, which is not true. So how do we stack solutions to the issues we’re trying to solve so that we can have a wider coalition and move multiple things at one time?

We know the systems themselves are interconnected, and we need to work collectively also, but how can we be clear about our different roles, and work in ways where everyone feels their contributions are important, within their capacity and aligning with what they're trying to offer? We have to layer these things, otherwise, it's so easy to have groups pointing at each other instead of where we need to be focusing.

COVID-19 has brought greater challenges to our communities and to our work. At ICPJ, we’ve been mostly online. We have many older folks in our communities and our membership, and everyone’s comfort level is different when it comes to in-person gathering. It’s been hard to manage this, and to do community outreach via Zoom. 

A sense of urgency has brought us out in the community recently, to try to improve education around Washtenaw County’s Apportionment Plan. This decides how many commissioners we have and the boundaries of our county districts over the next 10 years. Based on what’s happening, some of our communities will gain or lose a lot, and these are communities that have majority people of color, Black people, and low-income people living in them. The people we’re trying to reach are the hardest for us to get to electronically. 
The Apportionment Plan will be decided by November 15, and could happen sooner. We’ve been holding info sessions and pop-ups to educate and gather input from community members. We want people to see the maps that’ll be voted on, and to be able to share how they feel about the resources in their community, whether their interests around racial and economic justice are supported, and whether it matters to them to be in one district over another. 

Bringing this feedback to the committee’s meetings, the next being October 18, is a way for us to bring people into that space even if they physically can't be there themselves. It says, here’s how more people feel, because the ways we do public engagement do not reach those people.

We’ll see how this works, but based on the information we could find, more people are currently paying attention to this apportionment process, and are showing up and asking questions about it, than were at least the previous two rounds. More people even just know it's happening.

The lack of agency people feel they have in their own lives, and to impact their community is of great concern to me. I’m hopeful when I see people realize for the first time that their voice can change the narrative, and by displaying that voice, they can impact their lived experience. That can start as a glimmer in someone, it can cause them to come back and go further into an issue, and then maybe they see a win somewhere. That's what we do this for. 

Desirae Simmons is a co-director of the Interfaith Council on Peace and Justice in Ann Arbor. She lives in Ypsilanti. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how major social disruptors today are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.