Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS)

Megan Godfrey, then Executive Director and Lead Organizer of the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS), chuckles when asked about the organization’s founding. Godfrey explains that the story takes on “a million different accounts depending on who was there and who they heard it from.” Regardless of the “how,” the common thread throughout the narratives is clear on the “why.” She notes, “[ACTS] grew out of a group of people coming together to say ‘we need to make change.’” Today, ACTS is an interfaith organization in Syracuse, New York that takes on local issues through a process of empowering leaders within the community to become politically active. Forty-four congregations and organizations are members of ACTS including Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Evangelical Christian, Catholic and pro-labor groups. Godfrey’s description of the their efforts is analogous to descriptions of social media sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook: “[I]f you have a relationship with someone and they have a relationship with ten someones and they have a relationship with ten someones then all of a sudden your web is huge and your connections are…stronger.”

The core issues taken up by ACTS are decided based on “a series of hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations” with member organizations and other leaders within the Syracuse community. Those conversations produced ACTS’s current six-fold organizing campaign focusing on civil rights for immigrants, economic development and jobs, health care, youth violence and education, justice, and food access in the Southside neighborhood. These issues are not static; ongoing and periodic processes of discernment are undertaken in order to make sure the organization is taking on issues most critical to the city’s residents.

Syracuse is a city in transition and, like many post-industrial urban centers, is struggling to redefine itself for the 21st century. Godfrey notes that issues such as transportation, housing or other issues may come to the fore in conversations currently underway. ACTS also encourages its members to take on “holy ground” issues, that is, issues at a neighborhood level that a congregation can take on directly. For instance, a member congregation of ACTS recently persuaded city officials to commit to revitalizing an abandoned house adjacent to the church’s property that had become a center for drug trafficking and violence. Godfrey describes the organization’s work as being “like a kitchen with a million pots boiling,” pots that she cannot stir alone; however, she can find other people who care about these issues and provide them with the tools they need to start—and continue—to stir. ACTS thrives when the organization is able “to equip people who previously saw themselves as victims with the right training and support to become leaders and understand their power.”

Bringing this many diverse organizations together to mobilize around a core set of issues is not always easy. Some would-be supporters lament when their particular issue does not make it to the more focused action stage of development. Organizations are also cautious of who will be sitting around a table convened by ACTS. Some religious groups resist association with other faith groups, and other possible partners resist association with unions, for example. Yet, despite the challenges diversity brings, it is also one of the organization’s strongest assets. “Public officials take notice of the fact that not only does ACTS pull people together but ACTS pulls people together that…[in] the average places you don’t see those people coming together.” Relationships are forged between member groups and government officials, school and parents’ organizations, unions, and non-profit groups at state and local levels such as the New York Stimulus Alliance, and LA LIGA, the Spanish Action League of Onondaga County.

ACTS is an affiliate of the Gamaliel Foundation, a coalition of politically active interfaith organizations in the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. Like Gamaliel, at its core, ACTS is an interfaith coalition. The group looks to the religious leaders within their partner communities for guidance on navigating the theological implications of working together for the common good. Giving people the opportunity to celebrate what Godfrey calls “the foundation” or “the principles of every religion,” goodness, love, kindness and fairness and “to work for that and dedicate their time to that.” She adds: “it’s not just [the organization] having relationships but your leaders having relationships. It’s the people involved in your organization having relationships with each other.” The commemoration of the 10th anniversary of September 11th made these partnerships even more visible. Godfrey recalls, a local imam delivered the homily at Christian churches, one of them Catholic. These interactions are some of Godfrey’s most cherished, when she has “the opportunity to see people come together to watch a Muslim imam get out and speak to a diverse group of people who are applauding him and appreciating him for what he has to offer not judging him based on his religion.”

Karen Machell, a member of a local Catholic parish and leader within ACTS, comments on the coalition’s work: “We’re all in this together, and what happens in the city—the quality of life in the city—affects all of our lives.” [1] Former lead organizer Andres Kwon sums up the hope this way: “Regional collaboration can bring renewal…and it is our job to better understand each other as human beings.” [2] In Syracuse, a city and region that struggles to redefine itself in the 21st century economy, such a call for renewal speaks not only to hearts and minds but motivates ACTS and its diverse partners to action.

[1] “ACTS Teaches ‘We’re All in this Together.” The Syracuse Post-Standard. Sean Kirst. 21 April 2010.

[2] Ibid.