Keeping the Faith on Social Issues

African immigrants Tony Isama, right, and Chuma Mmje take part in a recent AIM meeting in Silver Spring. Numerous immigrants are active in the group.
African immigrants Tony Isama, right, and Chuma Mmje take part in a recent AIM meeting in Silver Spring. Numerous immigrants are active in the group. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 8, 2005

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) was impressed. Sitting in a Bethesda church one evening last month, he watched as Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) deferentially reported to more than 350 people filling the pews that he was making good on promises to provide more affordable housing.

Duncan was interrogated briefly at the podium before his turn was over. Then came Steele, whose time at the microphone was just as short.

The lieutenant governor told the assembled members of Action In Montgomery, a network of congregations that has become perhaps the most powerful grass-roots organization in the county, that he was making progress on an immigration issue they had raised with him.

For political leaders accustomed to being permitted an evasive answer and the opportunity to speak at length, the AIM treatment is bracing.

"I've never seen anything like it," Steele said last week. "They can get politicians to stand at attention, to pay attention, to be responsive, to account for their actions."

AIM has the sort of below-the-radar influence that can catch a candidate's eye -- Steele is running for the U.S. Senate, and Duncan for governor. Nearly 32,000 adults belong to the 31 churches and one synagogue that make up AIM, a veritable horde of potential voters in a jurisdiction where some 2002 County Council races hinged on a difference of a thousand or so votes. Last year, AIM drew more than 1,000 people to a single meeting.

The group brings together residents from across Montgomery, meaning that its meetings are ethnically and economically more diverse than most county audiences. And while its agenda is secular, AIM is organized around congregations, groups that politicians routinely court.

In seven years of organizing, AIM has achieved some victories, most notably in pushing the county to do more to provide affordable housing. Now it is preparing to become "the largest political turnout group Montgomery County has ever seen," in the words of the Rev. Pearl Selby, pastor of Oak Grove AME-Zion Church in Gaithersburg and an AIM leader.

Barred by law from making political endorsements, the group's get-out-the-vote drive for the 2006 election won't include backing individual office-seekers. Instead, AIM will define an agenda of issues and then let voters know how candidates measure up. Judging from the group's current priorities and discussions about future goals, that agenda will likely demand commitments to affordable housing, to making life easier for Montgomery's many immigrants and to helping those with limited access to health care.

Most advocacy groups bring together people who are concerned about a single issue, such as the environment or the pace of growth or sex education in the schools. AIM organizers, meeting one-on-one or in small groups with pastors and members of their congregations, bring people together and let topics for action bubble up.

"The issues aren't important for us," said Alisa Glassman, AIM's lead organizer. "The issues are just the glue to get people involved in democracy, to get them involved politically."

AIM is an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization founded in 1940 that says its "primary purpose is power" and its "chief product is social change."

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