How faith and spiritual grounding helps build power: Interview w/ Joseph Tomás Mckellar of PICO California

A sense of belonging. A consistent way to be with others and make sense of the world. A beloved community. Someplace where everyone knows your name. 

Social scientists, political journalists, psychologists, and even religious leaders have all been talking for some time about the growing numbers of Americans (and people in many countries) experiencing serious isolation, loneliness, and the harmful absence of a firm sense of belonging. The mental health consequences are severe, as is the potential damage to the general cohesion that any democratic society needs to thrive.

It’s also something that we organizers for justice must pay attention to and incorporate into our organizing and organization building if we are ever to achieve the scale and soul our movements need to win. Some unions have some elements of this in their DNA, as do some immigrant rights organizations. But on the average, we as a progressive movement are missing the boat here. The authoritarian right wing, however, is very much not. They’ve hijacked the boat and gotten very good at driving it at increasing speeds.

When Joseph Tomás Mckellar—the statewide Executive Director of PICO California—first told me his organizing origin story, he shared something his Mexican Catholic grandmother once told him which has stayed with him. It’s going to stay with me now, too. She taught Joseph that, “Church isn’t a place you go to, it’s a place you go from.” You go from that community out into the world to act on its values, to serve, to make things better.

I’ve long heard compelling things about PICO California and about Joseph’s leadership in particular. In recent years they have been going through a “renewal” process to examine and update their power analysis, theory of change, and organizing and base building strategies. I’ve been impressed with the rigor and the focus of this process––which also includes a deep look at how they want to evolve the forms of their local and statewide structures to maximize power building and effectiveness. As Joseph shares in the interview, a key part of this “renewal” is recentering the role of members and volunteer leaders in the strategizing, decision-making, and core work of building and wielding power. When they are the “authors of their own futures” instead of just recipients of staff-driven strategies, he argues, they will be more powerful.

I’m not a religious person, but I have a deep and abiding belief in the inherent value of each of my fellow humans, in their potential together to imagine a humane and just world, and in their not-yet-fully-realized power to make that imagination real. This belief has always been at the core of my motivation to be an organizer fighting for justice, and to try to keep getting better at it.

I haven’t had the direct experience of being a member or a staff person of a faith-based organizing group, but I have long admired some of them from afar for the scale of their active membership and the discipline and pragmatism of their leadership and staff in wielding local power. I’ve been intrigued by how organizing and social change work could be animated and strengthened by the already-existing shared values and vision that can exist in a strong and participatory faith-based congregation. 

This conversation with Joseph was enlightening for me as a journey through PICO California’s power analysis of California, their strategic approach to the key challenges and opportunities they’re identifying, and the strength they draw from the faith and spirituality grounding of their vision, values, community building, and social change work.



What's your power analysis of California? What are the dimensions and scale of power you see as needed to win your vision? And how do you understand the basic power picture as it is right now?


We understand power to be the ability to achieve purpose, in the King-ian civil rights tradition. We also understand power as organized people, organized money, and organized ideas. In terms of the kinds of power that PICO and our allies are building, we see five types or nodes of power. 

The first is legislative. Second is electoral, both candidates and ballot measures. Third is narrative. Fourth is organizational. And fifth is coalitional. Within each of those nodes, we need to be analyzing power and building a strategy and infrastructure.


What do you mean by organizational power as distinct from the other categories there?


I'm thinking about how power is organized, how it's operating, as we advance our interests. Organizational power is how well our organizations are functioning and where there need to be interventions made to strengthen their capacity. 

Then coalitional power is the kind of power that can be aggregated and deployed across organizations and movements over a long period of time, for multi-year structural change fights. We also have an interest in ensuring our ally organizations are powerful and sustainable.

To share some examples on the strategic coalitional front: there is the Million Voters Project, or Housing Now! California. In those coalitions we're developing shared data, shared leadership development, shared power building infrastructure, and shared fundraising strategies that are allowing us all to grow our power within each of those five types. 


That’s a helpful framework for the five types or nodes of power. Talk about how you see power relations overall operating in California, historically and now?


We're always trying to learn how power is operating, who has it, how they're using it, and what it takes to win. 

There's a set of threats and history that situate us in this moment. There has been a 40 year strategy, amongst forces that stand against our values and priorities, to dismantle the social compact that was created between the 1930s to 1960s in California.

Post-World War II, there were massive investments made in building the public good and public institutions, building public universities, our roads and highways, building the suburbs. There was an intergenerational compact that was relatively strong, this belief that it was incumbent upon the current generation to invest in the wellbeing of future generations. That compact has very much frayed over the past 50 years. There's been a backlash to the growing racial diversity in California as the question has been raised for mostly white folks who sit at the top of the caste system. Who is benefiting from the public institutions that we have built over generations? Is it my kids? Or is it someone else's kids who I deem as being lower on the hierarchy of human value? 

That has manifested in things like Proposition 13 that limited property taxes in 1978, the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994, Proposition 209 which ended affirmative action in 1996, and the Costa Hawkins Act which has greatly limited our ability to provide stable, affordable housing for folks. 

And it continues. The California Business Roundtable has a measure that they've qualified for the 2024 ballot that would make it significantly harder to generate tax revenue to end structural disinvestment and redistribute wealth and opportunity in California. We understand that there are corporate forces who benefit from that fraying of the intergenerational compact, who are perpetuating the consolidation of wealth and power, who benefit from racial segregation and racial animus between people, and who are actively undermining government's ability to provide for the common good.

Some of those corporate forces are big agriculture, big oil, the financial and real estate industries in California, and to some degree big tech who are increasingly advancing a strategy to buy influence and curry favor with Democrats in the state legislature (although there are certain leaders in the tech industry who are partnering with us and other social change leaders to transform our economy). 

California is viewed as this liberal blue bastion. The reality is that the same corporate forces that are active in other states are active here. It just looks different. They just operate in a different way to advance their interests.

That has led to three primary threats that we feel like we're confronting every day in one way or another. The first being the threat to multiracial democracy. The second being the threat and impact of growing economic inequality. Third being the climate emergency, which is becoming more acute.


That’s a compelling and challenging picture of the history and the current power of those corporate and reactionary forces. Tell me about how PICO California and your allies are working to build your power?


These are some of the interventions that PICO and our allies are making to confront these threats, to confront growing corporate power and the consolidation of wealth.

One is to change the electorate to reflect more of the diversity of California. As part of the Million Voters Project, we think we can bring in a million more young people, people of color, low-income people, women into becoming regular participants in the electorate. We could start to change the math in terms of what it takes to win elections as part of that. 

Secondly, we need to elect candidates into office who share our values and are committed to bigger change. 

Third, we also need to use the power of the ballot, especially at the local level to move candidates and electeds toward our vision and to circumvent corporate power’s hold over city councils and county boards of supervisors. We don't use the ballot measure tool enough at the local level. In the absence of a willingness of these local government policymaking bodies to advance change in the interests of our families, we have to use other tools to accelerate policy change in cities and counties.

Fourth, we have to create a more compelling, a more unifying, and a more impactful moral narrative at scale -- one that is rooted in our interdependence, in care for every person and our planet, in abundance and love. It’s needed to contend with our opposition's ability to really reach people and move them through their narrative. 

Last but not least, we're really committed to this idea of doubling down on multiracial, multi-faith solidarity, belonging, and power building in our movements, both within our organization and across coalitions. 


There are several angles I would love to explore. First, how does the faith and spirituality grounding to your organizing influence or inform your power analysis? 


It's a beautiful question. I would say a couple things about the faith and spiritual roots of PICO. One of the things that we hold fast to as a multi-faith entity is the idea of the sacredness of all creation. This idea that the Divine is present in all of us. There is this call to find the Creator, find the Divine, find God in all things. 

My son is 19 months old and he's just a joy. It's a fascinating experience to see him develop. It affirms this core belief in the sacredness of every human being because he, just by his nature, not yet having been influenced by the world around him, he’s so curious and accepting and loving, so interested in people and things around him. He wants to interact with and cherish all of it. He's teaching me and my family something about our core nature and the core beauty and sacredness of who we are. 

We know as we grow older the world has its way with us and we experience all kinds of trauma, from racism and classism to sexism and homophobia. We develop scar tissue and we develop a fear or reluctance around others. But at our core is this loving, accepting, curious being. And I think that the way that manifests in our organizing is first, it informs our politics. We believe that it's easy to create false idols as we go throughout our hyper-individualistic, hyper-consumeristic, hyper-capitalistic society to worship the acquisition of things and to tie it to our own sense of worth and value in the world. 

We are fighting for a world where the policies that govern how wealth and opportunity get distributed and afforded to folks preserve that core belief in the sacredness of everyone and everything. So that's one. 

The second is that because people are sacred and because they have inherent dignity and, because they are vessels for the Divine, we also believe they can and should be the authors of their own futures rather than just consumers of a future that's being given to them.

This is an intervention we're trying to make in our organizing. We are trying to be more disciplined about operating in a way that suggests we really believe that. That means we are centering everyday people's voices in the making of decisions about what we're working on and the development of strategy, which I do not think we have been good at in the past. I think increasingly we have relied on paid, college-educated staff to do the thinking for others. Then with good intentions we try to sell it and recruit people into that strategy. It is limiting our impact and it is an affront to this core value we hold –– as a faith-based, spiritually rooted network –– in the inherent beauty, dignity, and promise of every human being. 

Another way in which this manifests for us –– the faith and spirituality –– is in the commitment to multiracial belonging. I think a lot of organizations might see the rationale for having a big tent of folks who share values but are different racially, gender wise, sexual orientation wise, maybe even ideologically –– to be together as very pragmatic. They might say, well, we need more people because the opposition is beating us and so we’ve got to get as many people as possible to build power and take action together. That is a valid rationale. 

But I think as a faith-based organization, we also believe it is how God intends us to be. So this deeper commitment to that kind of solidarity isn't just for pragmatic reasons. It's because we are committed to becoming the kind of people who stand with and for each other, sharing in life’s pain and joy, carrying one another’s stories and dreams, as we link arms and contest for a better future.

Then faith and spirituality give us a reason to hope against hopelessness. In the parable of Pandora's box from Greek mythology, all these terrible things come out of Pandora's box like fear and destruction and inequality and oppression, all these things that we're fighting against. But the last thing to come out of Pandora's Box is hope. Faith is to believe that which you do not see. The reward of this faith is to see what you believe. Faith is a quiet force that pulls us through the dark moments.


How is the organization shifting toward that side of the spectrum where members and leaders themselves are engaged in doing analysis and vision and also deciding strategy? How are you changing that from the staff-driven way you described? And let's be clear, the vast majority of progressive base institutions in the country of any variety –– community, labor, or otherwise –– do function in that staff-driven way. How are you changing it in PICO California? 


We just did a three day gathering with our directors, clergy, grassroots community leaders and organizers around the state where we spent a ton of time demystifying the notion of a theory of change. I actually brought in Anthony Thigpenn; he spoke to our folks for an hour. It was like this interview you and I are doing. One of the things I asked him, I said, “Anthony, a lot of folks here, when they hear the notion of theory of change and political strategy and power analysis, they get very intimidated and they say, that's for someone else to do, that's not for me. What do you say to that?”

And he looks at the group and says, “every single one of you are strategists. Every single one. For you to sell yourself short is limiting the power and impact we can have. I'm here to tell you if I can figure it out, each of you can figure it out. It's about a practice. It's about a way of thinking and operating in the world.” 

It was so beautiful, Deepak. We developed this set of questions that we need to be asking ourselves all the time that will help us understand our power environment, which then informs our strategy.

But too often we jump right to how we're going to do what we're doing; and it's not informed by a structure-based organizing premise. I've been using that idea [from Jane McAlevey’s work] all the time since you shared it when you and I had that beer. I think it's brilliant. This is hopefully helping us get to some of that structure-based premise. 

Now we're going to go on a three to four month long process of developing revised theories of change within each of our local affiliates in the cities and counties we operate in. Parallel to that is developing a collective network-wide theory of change that will be communicating with each other as we go, along with new governance and decision-making structures for the network. It is all based upon this core hypothesis that we have to democratize participation in the development of our strategy if we are going to unlock new levels of scale in our organizing. 


Say a little more about how you’ll concretely do that and why it matters, especially from the perspective of power building and changing the power equation.


We have a fundamental belief that we do not have enough people nor enough power to advance the agenda that we know our families need. That requires us to get bigger. We have to grow and we have to embrace new strategies in order to grow. One of the things we are trying to do, that we hope will help facilitate this cultural and practical shift in PICO, is to create new structures to channel our power. We believe structures channel power, and we haven't been necessarily rigorous enough about evaluating the degree to which the current structures in our network are actually channeling power.

We have these boards at the PICO California state and local levels made up of very well intentioned, beautiful human beings. Almost a hundred percent, they're directly-impacted people from our base. But they haven't necessarily been tied to a formal decision-making structure nor operating in the way that we would need them to operate in order to facilitate the kind of strategic deliberation and decision making that we know needs to happen more robustly in the network. One of the things we're going to do at the statewide level is to break up the current governance structure. We currently have a small board of directors that is in charge of not just regular nonprofit governance and maintenance, but also strategic decision-making. We're going to expand that board slightly, but keep it still small and nimble. We're going to have it focus on oversight of the statewide Executive Director, approving an annual budget, monitoring our financial health, complying with state and federal law, et cetera. Then we're going to create a new governance and decision making body we're calling our Leadership Council, that is going to be made up of three representatives from each of our nine affiliates –– one staff and two leaders –– so that we make sure we have a preponderance of grassroots volunteer leaders that's going to be in charge of strategic decision making and organizing.

Now where this could break down is if the individual local federations don't also improve their culture around decision-making, transparency, and rigor and participation. So one of the things we did at this three day gathering, Deepak, is we had each of the federations map their current decision-making structure and processes. It was so revealing because what it showed is with the exception of maybe one affiliate, it's all extremely informal, not clear, not transparent. So we've got a big task here. I don't know if we were going to be able to do it, but it's to reform the statewide structures to channel power, but then also simultaneously the culture and practices and structures at the local level. Those are a couple examples of the interventions we're trying to make.


That's amazing. Related to this, I understood that in the recent “organizational renewal,” PICO California has made a strategy choice that in addition to the traditional congregation-based approach to building the federations and building power, you are now going to also directly organize individual spiritually and faith-motivated people, not necessarily “through” a congregation. What's the relationship of that new base building idea to your power analysis and where you all are going?


Historically there's been only one on-ramp for folks to get involved in our organizing and that has been to be living in a low-income impacted community, to also be a member of a congregation, and not just be a member but also to know that there's a “justice team” or an “organizing team” that exists in the congregation. And not just to know that the organizing exists, but how to get invited to one of its meetings. There are all these barriers to getting in the door to participation in our organizing. Once you're there the magic happens, people get hooked, but the narrowness of our on-ramps has limited our ability to grow and get to new levels of scale. 

It is also the case that the nature of faith and spirituality is changing very quickly in our country. Fewer and fewer young people are formal members of a traditional faith or spiritual institution.

And yet we know from both anecdotal data and quantitative surveys that people have a deep longing to be in community with others at a moment of increasing isolation and loneliness. People feel the upheaval and the convulsing that is happening in the world around us, and they're hungry to find deeper meaning in it and to interrogate the deeper questions of what it means to be human at a time such as this. We believe PICO has a unique contribution to make to power building and to society at large by creating new on-ramps for people who may not be members of a formal faith institution, or who are but who don't happen to have a PICO organizing team in their congregation, to get involved in the life of our work. And it can't just be about traditional organizing either.

If folks are going to get involved who know the world is broken, who have this longing but have no organizing experience, we can't just hit them with, “Hey, get involved in our Senate Bill 567 campaign.” We need to meet them where they're at, which means we have to invest in opportunities for relationship building, community building, spiritual exploration. One of our new initiatives is called our “Spiritual Home” project, and we intend to create programming and infrastructure that allows people to experience more of that realm of community and to use it as a bridge into the kind of more traditional organizing and campaign work that we do. 

It's going to be a big experiment. We'll see how it goes. The one other thing I'll say, because it's tied to our narrative work, is that in the last 18 months we did a big public opinion research project to understand who these Californians are who are receptive to and motivated by a faith-based, spiritually-rooted message about racial equity and economic opportunity. And we’ve developed a model for understanding them called our “Devout & Diverse” universe. 

It turns out there's about three and a half million of these Californians, the vast majority of whom are not connected to PICO, but who we know, for political and power reasons, we need to move, activate, and message to in order to advance a longer term agenda. So we know who they are and know where they live. We know enough about their demographics and about their voting history to then integrate them into civic engagement and organizing activities as a part of our broader theory of change and strategy. But all of these folks are potential individual members of PICO California. 


So smart. Now, I’m weaving a few things from our conversation when we saw each other in LA about structure-based organizing and structure-based power analysis. Do PICO California and your allies in the Million Voter Project have a strategy and picture of: here's the electorate we aspire to create to build a governing majority if we all do our respective jobs together in coordination? Is there that level of looking at the electorate and coalition organizations each taking responsibility for what your particular role and contribution is? How is that broader coalition-based power analysis and theory driving what PICO California’s piece of the puzzle is and how you’re working to accomplish that?


It's a great question, Deepak. I think we're part of the way there. We're not where we need to be. We subscribe to the idea of a million voters roughly that we want to recruit into a voting block that we can rely on election over election to vote with our values and priorities. That represents in any given statewide election somewhere in the realm of 6% to 10% of the electorate, which is well within the margin of victory for most competitive races or ballot measures.

Now, what is PICO’s share of that? We've been doing electoral organizing with some level of rigor since 2012, so we have some historical precedent to know what our scale potential is. Over the next five to seven years, we need to be at the place where PICO can reliably turn out 250,000 voters, which would be a quarter of the overall Million Voters Project share. Those would be primarily people of faith, people receptive to our worldview and message. 

To get there we need to have 5,000 core team leaders, leads of our organizing campaigns and initiatives across the state. I'm excited to say that in the past two years we've gone leaps and bounds in developing internal data collection and analysis capacity to track the legitimacy of that number –– not just what people are self-reporting, but verifiable independent methods.

So 5,000 core active leaders who are connected to a universe of 25,000 members, activists, community leaders. Those might be members of a team. Those might be folks who show up every once in a while to take action on something. But we need the ability to reliably mobilize a universe of 25,000 Californians. Then we think we need to be able to message to 2 million of that 3.5 million voters that I mentioned –– and not just like, oh, they saw a social media post. But we have some way of tracking the degree to which their beliefs and ultimately their behaviors are changing. Now there's a lot of debate and work we're doing to figure out how we really measure that. 

So we're part of the way there. The part that I don't think we're as rigorous about yet, Deepak, is… which are the local, state, and federal districts where we need to build deeper organizing capacity because they represent a balance of power in Congress, in the state legislature, in local municipalities? And in the world of limited resources, we need to deploy a greater share of those resources in those districts. We're getting better at it, but we have a ways to go. 


That is very real. 

As a current concrete example of your power analysis, let’s look at your recent win with the Homelessness Protection Act (SB 567) and the housing fights over the last several years including Prop 10 (the 2018 rent control ballot measure that failed), and the 2019 Tenant Protection Act which passed. Can you share your power analysis of how you won what you won this year in SB 567, but also what you had to compromise on given the power of the opposition?


This work is being done in partnership with others. We are trying to get to the place where we're more rigorous and honest about how much power we have, our partners have, and our opposition has. Maybe this is some of your influence, Deepak, on the broader movement here. 

What happened is there was data analysis of membership, of organizing capacity, of victories, but also a bunch of interviews with legislators, with people in positions of power, with their staff, with funders that allowed us to develop a map. What we're trying to do here is say, where are we vis-a-vis our opposition? If power is an exchange of interests, in part, are there ways of moving some of these forces more in our direction? 

I've learned a lot about how power is operating in the housing realm. We do not have anywhere near as much power as we need to fundamentally shift the politics and the economics of our housing system. The real estate industry has an immense amount of power. 

Now we won this really important victory: SB 567, the Homelessness Prevention Act. It will prevent tens of thousands of people from becoming unhoused and it will provide more protections for 3.2 million Californians who are rent burdened. But it is not going to go anywhere near as far as we had hoped it would at the outset.

Originally we had a rent cap of 5% a year. Originally we had stronger just cause eviction protections. All of that got gutted because we could not contend sufficiently with our opposition, which isn't just real estate, it isn't just some of the for-profit developers. It is also, believe it or not, some of the pro-criminalization and mass incarceration forces in our state. 

We did some deeper power analysis with one of our partners called Smart Justice California, looking at contributions in the last midterm election in 2022 to candidates in contested districts across the state. What we learned is that the real estate industry and law enforcement unions have gone in together to create these Super PACs to go after candidates who are both in favor of our agenda of ending mass incarceration and who are also pro-affordable housing and pro-tenant protections.

They know that voters are less likely to agree with arguments made about why we shouldn't build more affordable housing, why we shouldn't protect tenants and stop homelessness. They understand voters are more susceptible to arguments that are rooted in a fear of rising crime. So the real estate industry actually exploits people's fears about crime as a way of advancing their free market development agenda. 

So it's an interesting lesson that we've learned in this process of how our opposition is playing chess, how they're building unlikely alliances. I think it's caused us to ask ourselves in the next round, how do we also develop some of those more unlikely alliances. For example, mom and pop landlords who are almost always on the opposite side of any renter protection. But can we think creatively in the next round about a package of legislation that keeps families in their homes, that gives renters some protections, but that also gives mom and pop landlords and small landlords of color some of what they need in order to stay in business and keep their housing affordable. They are also under a lot of economic pressure with inflation and delays on getting paid back rent from their tenants. These are folks who are not in it to make huge sums of money. So that's an example of where I think we could have won a stronger bill in SB 567 if we had some more of those alliances.


So interesting. On the incarceration lobby and the real estate actors, I just want to make sure I'm hearing you right. Are you saying that they're getting people elected who they know are going to vote the way that they want them to vote on housing issues, but the public messaging they’re using is on crime and incarceration because they know that works better with voters?


Exactly right.

Ads and mail were being funded by the real estate industry, but were publicly supported by the law enforcement unions that are only about crime. They have nothing to do with housing. [See the in-depth report from Smart Justice California with examples of the campaign literature and video ads here.]


The final question, as always, what have you learned? What do you know now about power in California that you didn't know five years ago? Or what have you changed your mind about in recent years? 


The first thing that comes to mind is this recognition that the premise upon which the debate about housing is happening needs a fundamental shift. We've been contending with each other based upon the premise of supply versus demand, which is fundamentally about maintaining housing as an investment vehicle which we know has increasingly been used to consolidate wealth and power. So much of the debate is about how much in subsidies should we give to incentivize developers to build more housing and how we deal with “landlord tenant challenges.” That is keeping in place the power imbalance that usurps people's dignity and keeps them dependent their whole lives. So we keep debating and fighting on that premise. 

That is why we think this idea of “Social Housing” -- creating more housing that is not susceptible to the whims of investors on Wall Street -- is a major part of where we need to get. But it challenges commonly held beliefs about capitalism and private property, so we're sober about what it's going to take to get to a necessary scale and the production of that kind of housing. The good news is that there are economies and societies across the world who are doing this very well, who I think we could learn a lot from.


So smart and you’re getting at the root cause, and at what to do to build the power to really go at that instead of tinkering around the edges.


The housing crisis has continued to get worse in California and across the country. Last year, Deepak, I think there were 22,000 evictions in the entire year in the city of Los Angeles. In the last five months alone, there have been over 50,000 evictions and the rate continues to increase as the protections that tenants had during the pandemic have expired. 

So from a power and strategy perspective, I think we have to channel that sense of urgency, that sense of crisis into an organizing strategy. I don't think we're there yet. It still feels like the tenant rights, affordable housing movement is too small and too tactical. But the best organizing happens oftentimes through crises. So we're in a crisis. It's a slow boil but it is getting worse. We need some different kinds of interventions and infrastructure to capitalize on that and fundamentally shift the housing system in our state and country.



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