Jackie Phillips 12 M.Div. plays key role in passage of Connecticut in-state tuition bill

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

“Who says religion and politics don’t mix?” says Jackie Phillips, a third-year M.Div. student who, beginning with a summer internship in 2010, embarked on a year-long journey of faith-based community organizing that ended with a law giving undocumented Connecticut students access to in-state tuition rates.

PhillipsWhen Phillips, a committed member of the United Church of Christ, entered Yale Divinity School she was uncertain that ordained parish ministry was for her. The one thing she was sure of, as Phillips puts it, was that she came to seminary “wanting to combine faith and social justice.” Consequently, during the summer between her first and second years, Phillips decided to take the course “Leadership and Public Ministry,” part of YDS’s Supervised Ministries program. The curriculum is designed to teach students how to act as religious leaders and work with others to create change in community.  Teaching the course that summer were Pat Speer, a professional organizer from Bridgeport, and Anthony Bennett, pastor at Mount Aery Baptist Church—one of Bridgeports’s biggest African American congregations.

“Leadership and Public Ministry” was Phillips’s first experience with broad-based community organizing. Bennett introduced her to a multi-faith organization he co-chairs called CONECT, which stands for “Congregations Organized for a New Connecticut, an organization consisting of 30 different congregations within Fairfield and New Haven counties. Participants range from Catholic to Baptist, Orthodox Jewish to Muslim, and everything in between.

“We want to be as multi-faith as possible,” said Phillips, who worked as an intern out of St. Rose of Lima in New Haven’s Fair Haven neighborhood, a predominantly Hispanic Catholic parish.  Her official title with CONECT and St. Rose was “parish organizer.” At the end of her summer 2010 internship,  St. Rose pastor Rev. James Manship asked that she stay on and work part-time over the course of her middler year in 2010-11, and Phillips agreed.  “It’s not a traditional parish internship where I’d be working on worship, preaching, or anything like that—which is probably obvious since I’m not Catholic to begin with,” says Phillips, who was baptized Episcopalian as a compromise of sorts between her Catholic mother and Congregationalist father. Despite not being Catholic herself, Phillips says, she fits in very comfortably as a parish organizer.

CONECT itself partly relies on the aid of the Industrial Areas Foundations (IAF)—a national community-organizing network established by Saul Alinsky. The goal of the IAF is to organize on a grassroots basis, and in the case of CONECT the people in each of the congregations involved are where ideas come from.  The grassroots, broad-based dimension is a bottom-up alternative to the top-down approach typical of non-profit organizations.  Another significant difference between broad-based organizations like CONECT and non-profits is that the latter tend to be centered on a single issue (such as homelessness or domestic violence), whereas the former are multi-issue,  based on issues affecting the broad-based membership at a particular point in time.

“We try to address things that come up specifically in each congregation,” said Phillips. To do this CONECT has ‘house meetings’ within each congregation. At St. Rose, for instance, approximately 250 people go through house meetings, each involving about 10 people. Then all the problems brought up in house meetings are taken into consideration, and from these a common, specific issue is discerned. In the case of Phillips’s work with group meetings at St. Rose, the most persistent problems concerned immigration—specifically, those affecting undocumented persons, and, in particular,  their lack of access to low-cost, in-state tuition rates at the state’s colleges

“In house meetings last summer, people kept talking about how not enough students from St. Rose were getting access to higher education,” said Phillips.  “And a lot of people were dropping out of high school because they didn’t see any future, they didn’t think they could go to college.”

To encourage all of the institutions of CONECT to go forward on St. Rose’s issue of in-state tuition, Phillips organized ‘cluster meetings’ between Hispanic students from St. Rose and representatives of fellow congregations under the CONECT umbrella. Under her guidance, St. Rose students presented their issue to clusters of congregations in Bridgeport, Fairfield, and New Haven, and each cluster then gave its approval to make in-state tuition an issue for the entire organization.

“A lot of advocacy groups look at big-scale problems in general,” Phillips observed. “In organizing we look at issues, and focus on issues that are winnable.” In 2007 the Connecticut General Assembly passed an in-state tuition bill, but former Republican Governor Jodi Rell, vetoed it. With the prospect of the new governor in 2010, Phillips and CONECT believed their efforts might pay off if the elections worked in their favor.

CONECT tries to be as strategic as possible about meeting with people in power and taking the most direct approach to work for a positive change.  With this in mind, in October 2010, just before the November election, Phillips aided in organizing what she calls “an action,” or assembly, bringing together about 1,000 people belonging to different CONECT congregations with Dan Malloy, then the Democrat gubernatorial candidate.  During this assembly, the governor-to-be assured CONECT that he would be in communication with the organization if he were elected. After Malloy’s election, CONECT maintained contact with him and, in later conversations, Malloy assured CONECT that he would sign the in-state tuition bill if it passed the legislature.

Another key figure was State Senator Martin Looney, the New Haven representative in the state legislature, a friend of Manship, and a member of St. Rose parish who attended St. Rose School as a child. A Connecticut senator since1993, Looney is among the ‘who’s who’ of state politics. When CONECT set up a meeting about the in-state tuition bill between a group of young people, their parents, and Looney, Looney said it was an issue on his radar and agreed to re-introduce the bill in the January legislative session. “My role was to get people together and form an agenda for this meeting,” explained Phillips.   “But at the meeting itself I tried not to say anything myself because the point is for the people to engage with their senator.”

Phillips essentially conducted the crucial background work: getting people together, getting an agenda together, and also training leaders on what to say and how to say it in the event of testifying in public hearings. It was not only members from St. Rose who testified in hearings on the bill. In addition to Anthony Bennett, Phillips also arranged for testimony by Barbara Schellenberg of Congegation Beth El in Fairfield and Rabbi James Prosnit of Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport. Bennett made the case that access to education  is important for all minority communities, whether for African Americans in his own community or Hispanics in communities like St. Rose.

This demonstrates how broad-based organizing works: it relies on having a diverse network of power and support, such that even though in-state tuition is an overwhelmingly Latino immigrant issue in Connecticut, the issue still found advocates from a broad base of African American, Jewish, Italian-American Catholic, mainline Protestant, and other communities.

Phillip’s efforts at broad-based organizing paid off. Having begun her organizing at the beginning of her internship in May 2010, and watching the bill pass through the state committee after a climactic public hearing in March 2011 featuring the crucial presence of CONECT testimonies,  Phillips could not have asked for a better conclusion: the Connecticut Senate and House passed the bill, and it was signed into law by Malloy on June 13.  Not to be confused with the federal Dream Act, which focuses on a path to citizenship for undocumented students in college or the military, the in-state tuition bill—formally entitled ‘An Act Concerning Access to Post-Secondary Education,’ H.B. 6390—gives undocumented Connecticut students access to in-state tuition rates, instead of saddling them with the frequently unaffordable out-of state tuition charges.

 “I see organizing as ministry whether it’s around immigration, education, health care, or whatever the issue is because, as I understand it, the central message of the gospel and tenant of Christianity is about God’s call to love, serve, and engage those in your community,” said Phillips.

It is one thing to talk progressively and to give money,  Phillips notes, but when it comes to doing things at the local level Christians often seem like they expect other people to do the ‘ground work.’ “Frankly, I think mainstream Christian churches could be better than that,” she said. She finds organizing meaningful not only because it involves “walking the walk instead of talking the talk” but also because “you see people from all these different faiths and denominations get together and fight for common causes that goes beyond everyday spirituality and worship.”

Looking to the future, Phillips believes the next CONECT campaign might be related to predatory lending, home foreclosures, or health care concerns. As for her  own plans after graduation, Phillips is considering going into professional faith-based organizing.   The one potential hurdle, she quipped, is the career organizer’s lifestye, which Phillips termed “kind of crazy.”

Posted: 09/05/2011