When its volunteers pushed for and passed a transit tax this year, the community activists of Together Baton Rouge enjoyed a key victory for the group’s social justice agenda. Before that group got involved, many thought such a tax would not pass.
How do you follow such a successful first act?
That question has been answered as volunteers from many church congregations across the city have focused on projects that are not at all political. A recent update at the group’s luncheon talked about a drive to distribute fresh food in Scotlandville (573 volunteers involved); promotion of a cancer prevention study (rescheduled because of Hurricane Isaac); meetings with teachers on education issues; and organizing communitywide study of Scripture.
But in this election season, the group has not abandoned public policy: The group has volunteers monitoring progress of the Capital Area Transit System, and has held the first of a series of public meetings with CATS officials. “This is the first time I know of that a group of just citizens is holding a public agency accountable,” Monica Bradsher said.
Nor is the group shying away from its potential to influence policy in the city. TogetherBR will host an Oct. 29 assembly with candidates for mayor-president and Metro Council, to be elected Nov. 6.
While the assembly will hear from the 30-odd candidates, it also seeks to hear what candidates think of the concerns that Together Baton Rouge activists care about — but organizer Brod Bagert noted that on some issues, such as transit, the group has a more-specific agenda than on other concerns.
Above all, Bagert said, the group would not surrender its independence, even if it promotes activism on the political front.
The congregations and community organizations that join Together Baton Rouge pay for its costs, with no money from government or politicians. The group’s projects are derived from community needs and discussions. Together Baton Rouge has been and will remain strictly nonpartisan, Bagert said.
“It is not about, predominantly, them or their personalities,” Bagert said of the candidates’ assembly. “It’s predominantly about the citizens.”
Bagert acknowledged the deepening level of cynicism about politics, saying that he’s seen evidence of the “zero-sum political contests” of national politics invading discussion of local issues that cry out for pragmatic and nonideological problem-solving.
A goal of Together Baton Rouge is to be a responsible participant in public life, without being hobbled by partisanship, Bagert said, “the civic sector in the public sphere.”
That does not mean avoiding controversy but addressing problems, he said. “We are called to address not just the results but the root causes” of the city’s ills, Bagert said.
Amid so many preachers and active church-goers, the Together Baton Rouge discussion of its role in civic life might seem a pursuit of a Holy Grail — a down-to-earth and civil discussion of specific problems in its city.
The idea of a nonideological pragmatism defies the current stereotype of left-vs.-right, but is fundamentally consistent with a conservative tradition of community, Bagert said.
Resurrecting a spirit of pragmatism and community ideals might be the most idealistic goal Together Baton Rouge has set for itself.
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for
The Advocate. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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