The Multi-faith ACTION Coalition grew out of a luncheon and meeting at Temple Isaiah led by Rabbi Roberto D. Graetz, Jasmine Tarkoff, and the Reverend Will McGarvey on January 29, 2014. Over 100 lay leaders and clergy, representing more than 50 congregations and 26,000 congregants, attended. Participants learned of the shocking statistics about poverty in our county: Over 200,000 people live in poverty, and one in six people are at risk of being hungry. Participants spoke of their efforts to address poverty. While there were many worthwhile programs that offer direct service to the poor, providing clothing, food, shelter and other essentials, there was not an ongoing, coordinated effort on advocacy. All participants shared a sense of pride in their direct service efforts but also a frustration and concern that the root causes of poverty were not being addressed, recognizing that we cannot move the needle on poverty without examining the systems, policies, and structures that are at the root of the problem.

It became increasingly clear from the discussion that we needed to organize the hundreds of thousands of faith-based families who belong to our county’s churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. These families have strong voices and, working together, can be a force for real change. By the end of the meeting, there was general agreement that we had the potential to make real changes by drawing from our combined resources.

On February 23, 2014, several hundred participants representing over 20 congregations throughout Contra Costa engaged in an intensive program that we consider our founding event: “Voices on Poverty.” The program provided opportunities to discuss problems in housing, food security, jobs, health, and education – the five areas that must be addressed if we are to reduce or eliminate poverty. Participants not only learned the facts about poverty in CCC but, more importantly, heard directly from people who were personally impacted by these issues on a daily basis. Over 100 people volunteered to help take action, and everyone left feeling inspired to make real change together through advocacy.

Within a few months, we established task forces to address each of the five areas, named our new organization, and held another gathering on faith and advocacy at Christ the King Church. The task forces got down to work, following a process that begins with researching a problem, looking at the root causes of the problem, and then aligning with what is already in process or drawing attention to the issue. We demonstrated our advocacy by speaking at public meetings, supporting bills and new programs, and co-sponsoring events that brought the faith community together to make their voices heard. We provided educational forums at congregations throughout CCC. We built an increased understanding of what it means to live in poverty in a county with lots of resources. We have used our voices collectively to be a thoughtful, powerful, strategic entity that can advocate for our families, friends, and neighbors in need.

You may have participated in the signature drive to raise the minimum wage in California. We collected over 2,000 signatures in a short time and pushed the governor to raise the wage. Our goal of healthcare access for all came a little closer to reality when the Board of Supervisors voted to create the Contra Costa Cares program for the remaining uninsured in our county. Our voices have been heard loudly in many forums as we call for more affordable housing and support initiatives such as Propositions I and 2. These are just a few of the actions we have taken.

As the task forces evolved, and our understanding of the root causes of poverty grew, we saw that attention needed to be paid to the racial injustices that impact all barriers to self-sufficiency. We therefore established a racial justice working group that involves all of the task forces. It seeks to support legislation and policy actions reflecting the many faith teachings that command we shall not make unjust laws, deprive the poor of their rights, and withhold justice from the oppressed.

In just five years we have evolved from an unknown organization to a respected faith-based coalition who adds value to debate and has its voices heard. Decision-makers look to us to provide insight into the position of the faith community on issues related to poverty within our county.

Our goal of eliminating poverty is far from being realized. However, the commitment of those faith leaders who gathered in January of 2014 is still very true today. Together, the many faith voices of Contra Costa County can make a difference.