On the day of the election for a tax to fund the parish’s public transit system, volunteers wearing light blue shirts that read “Together Baton Rouge” knocked on 14,000 doors of registered voters to remind them to vote.
“If you look at the map you can really kind of tell where we were,” said Together Baton Rouge Leader Dianne Hanley, referring to maps illustrating voter turnout. “It really kind of matches.”
The faith-based organization has been publicly advocating on various issues for about a year and half, but tackling the issue of public bus transportation services by helping the Capital Area Transit System get a tax passed has proven to be its most difficult and most rewarding challenge so far, Together Baton Rouge leaders said.
CATS Board President Jared Loftus credited Together Baton Rouge with playing a vital role in the success of the election on April 21.
“They seemed to have the broad canvassing of the community that we lacked last time,” said Loftus, referring to the 2010 election when a less ambitious CATS tax was rejected by voters. “CATS could have never done this on our own.”
The CATS tax election of 2010 was a parishwide vote, but only voters who reside in Baton Rouge, Baker and Zachary, the primary service areas of the bus system, were eligible to vote in this year’s election. The 10.6-mill property tax will apply only to property within the city limits of Baton Rouge and Baker, the two municipalities where it was approved by voters.
In its campaign to pass the CATS tax, Together Baton Rouge mobilized about 600 volunteers who put up 5,000 “Save Transit” yard signs, canvassed neighborhoods, waved signs and manned phone banks, according to Broderick Bagert, the group’s only paid staff member.
Together Baton Rouge leaders participated on behalf of CATS in several debates about the tax, and put on about 120 “civic academies” or informational presentations for churches, universities, businesses, hospitals and nonprofits seeking more information about transportation reform, Bagert said.
Together Baton Rouge was also chosen by Mayor-President Kip Holden last year, along with BRAC, to select the Blue Ribbon Commission that ultimately crafted the bus system reform plan.
“I don’t think the tax would have passed without the involvement of Together Baton Rouge,” said the Rev. Lee Wesley, one of the founding members of the organization. “It was put out there two times previously and failed, but what was the difference? We were well organized and got people out to vote.”
While CATS has been the focus of the group’s energy for the past several months, leaders say transportation is only one part of their overall goal — which is ultimately to bring people together for the betterment of the community.
“The biggest success to me, is that we have established and created a culture change in this city,” said another group leader, Edgar Cage. “It’s not just in the hands of the politicians anymore, it’s the people who have actually grabbed hold of the process, and see that they can make a difference.”
Together Baton Rouge has been in the works for about three years, after Wesley and a group of other black pastors came together to discuss community ills, Wesley said.
The pastors wanted to create an organization that involved other faiths and races to address problems including crime, education and poverty, and sought help from the International Areas Foundation, a national community organizing network.
For a couple years, the group worked quietly, holding house meetings and focusing on relationship building.
Together Baton Rouge now represents 40 dues-paying member institutions reaching an estimated 10,000 people, said Cage, a Baker retiree who was a key volunteer leader on the CATS initiative. It has amassed an annual operating budget of about $200,000 collected through dues, grants and contributions, according to a financial report provided by the organization.
Since the group went public in November 2010, it put pressure on the city-parish to fix a deteriorated bridge in the Glen Oaks area and was co-organizer of a clean up of a North Baton Rouge cemetery.
Together Baton Rouge representatives say they will continue to stay involved with CATS and plan to meet with bus system managers every few months to hold them accountable for benchmarks for service improvements.
Cage said the organization knows Together Baton Rouge put its own name on the line to some extent by being so public with its endorsement.
“We know we’re on the line, and CATS knows we’re on the line,” he said. “And we’re not going to disappoint anyone.”
In addition to transportation, the group is committed to improving parish education, crime, health care and access to healthy food options, leaders said.
Hanley said she hopes Together Baton Rouge’s profile has been raised as a result of the past election, and that other groups in the community looking for help will seek them out.
But Together Baton Rouge’s expanded role in the community doesn’t sit well with some residents. During the weeks before the election, several anti-tax people would call into question the group’s roots with the Industrial Areas Foundation, which was founded by Saul Alinksy.
Alinsky was a Chicago-based community organizer who wrote a handbook of sorts for community organizers, published a year before his death in 1971, called “Rules for Radicals.”
Wesley dismissed the commentary about the IAF as a “distraction.”
He said the IAF provides some training and connected Together Baton Rouge with its sole staff member. He said IAF’s role with Together Baton Rouge is limited, but the group has a “proven track record” for effective community organizing.
Jim Kirby, a member of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church, said he stopped donating to his church when he found out a portion of the funds were sent from the diocese to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which has donated to the IAF for several years and has provided funds to Together Baton Rouge.
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is a national charitable organization targeting poverty and social justice.
Kirby, 79, said he’s trying to form a group that will advocate for local Catholic churches to end their involvement with Together Baton Rouge, adding that he thinks it’s inappropriate for religious institutions to advocate politically to parishioners.
Kirby said that his own church did not take a stand but said other churches had “priests handing out fliers, saying ‘Vote for the tax.’”
“That’s wrong, that’s 100 percent wrong,” he said.
Cage said Together Baton Rouge is a non-partisan organization that will never accept government money nor endorse candidates.
Together Baton Rouge’s decision to get involved with CATS was a “community issue,” not a political issue, Cage said.
“This isn’t about Democrats, Republicans, or being black, white or Independent,” Cage said. “This is whether you want a good transit system for your city. And there’s no politics in that.”
Together Baton Rouge’s slogan hints at its philosophy of a combination of faith and social justice: “Our faith in action. Our democracy in practice.”
Cage said Together Baton Rouge is simply the “Gospel in action.”
“We sit in church on Sundays and you hear the word (of God), you absorb the word and sometimes you just leave and think that because you’re outside the church walls that you should act differently,” he said. “But we’re taking what we feel in church and read in the Bible, and we’re living it.”
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