JOEY KENNEDY: Birmingham community organizer Quinn Rallins knows how to demonstrate faith in action
Quinn Rallins is a community organizer in Birmingham and, like the most famous community organizer in the nation, President Barack Obama, is from Chicago.
This month, the organization he leads, Birmingham Faith in Action, celebrates one year in operation.
Faith in Action volunteer Jeb Casey, the son of the late Ron Casey, editorial page editor at The News and once a dear friend, introduced me to Rallins a couple weeks ago over lunch at Urban Standard.
After spending just a few minutes with Rallins, it was clear we're mighty lucky to have him in Birmingham.
Rallins says five Birmingham clergy members "came together and decided they wanted to do some serious organizing in the city."
After one year, more than 25 congregations are involved with Birmingham Faith in Action. Tuesday, at First Presbyterian Church on Fourth Avenue North, the group is holding its first public action "to restore human dignity."
Rallins said at least 400 people will gather at the church to hear speakers discuss two topics: the city's predatory payday loan industry and police officers using pepper spray or Mace in the Birmingham City Schools.
"This is our first action," says Rallins, explaining that during the first year, Faith in Action volunteers met with about 1,000 people in the community to develop a four-point platform:
- Develop better schools.
- Develop better access to public transit.
- Improve public safety.
- Develop a stronger economy and better jobs.
"The bottom line is that communities that are improved in significant ways have organized residents," Rallins says. "They're organized and they're on the same page. There are certain things that the communities have to do if they want to be organized."
"Listening deeply" is the key, Rallins says, and "that's through one-on-one conversations."
Rallins has the necessary experience. From Chicago's Southside, Rallins began community organizing after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. During his years at Morehouse College, Rallins was one of the strongest student organizers in the nation. He has traveled to 20 different nations for organizing and community service work. He took an international relations degree from Morehouse and earned a master's in comparative social policy from the University of Oxford. He was a Rhodes Scholar finalist. His work has been written about many times, including in The New York Times.
Rallins, young at 26 but experienced far beyond those years, was asked by the clergy to be executive director of Birmingham Faith in Action, and because his family has Southern history and his best friend is from Birmingham, Rallins agreed.
"I think there's good work going on in Birmingham by organizations like Greater Birmingham Ministries and Alabama Arise," Rallins says, "but we can help to amplify the organizing work they're doing. That's what needs to be done in Birmingham: It needs to be amplified and taken to a larger scale. There's a strong history of organizing in Birmingham that we can build on."
So, Faith in Action's public role kicks off Tuesday's meeting at First Pres. The meeting will be co-chaired by an African-American, Baptist woman from Collegeville and a white, Quaker woman who is an English professor at Samford University.
The payday loan and Macing topics were chosen for the meeting because they deal with affronts to human dignity, Rallins says.
"If you want to change this country, you have got to go where the greatest need is," Rallins says, pointing out that Alabama lags the other states in just about every major quality-of-life category. "In the same way that thousands of young people flocked to the South in the 1960s, because that was where the greatest need was, the Southeast still is where the greatest need is."
Hard to disagree with Rallins' assessment. Welcome to Birmingham and good luck in helping to change the city for the better.