Reverend Betsy Irvine is a member and former interim minister of University Presbyterian Church, retired Executive Director of the Louisiana Delta Service Corps (now Serve Louisiana), and a current interim minister at St. Paul Lutheran church. Her track record of leadership at multiple TBR member institutions speaks to a long personal history of community work spanning spaces both religious and secular. Rev. Irvine’s first foray into institutional organizing came in the 1980s when she sought the mentorship of Calvin Houston, a Black Presbyterian minister who hired her on at the Urban Training Organization of Atlanta, an early IAF affiliate. In her interview, she reflects on the upbringing that taught her to be politically active, the many mentors who helped her develop a public life, and the fulfillment she’s found in living between institutions, helping to knit them together in pursuit of common ideals.
Photo by Lily Brooks
He was an institution man, he believed in community institutions. And he was a New Englander. I think that civic awareness comes easily to New Englanders, because everything is about ‘the town’, and the community. That was his generation. My father had a very clear, moral sense of community obligation, and that revealed itself in almost everything he was involved in.
I was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which is near Gettysburg, but I grew up in Philadelphia. My dad was in the dairy business and we moved to Philadelphia because of his work. My three sisters and I, remained in Philly until I was in junior high school.
We had a lot of diverse religious experiences growing up, we were around a lot of people. Even though my immediate neighborhood in Philadelphia was primarily Christian, I went to more Bar Mitzvahs than most Jewish people do by the time I was fifteen. My parents were typical fifties people, with their four little children, living on a street where everybody had four kids and were either Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Methodist. Growing up, most of my friends and the kids I went to school with were Jewish, and they all lived in a different neighborhood that was right next to ours. I was always intrigued by the sociology of that- where people lived and who they chose to live near. The Jewish kids were primarily second-generation immigrants whose parents had lived in Center City Philadelphia. Many came from merchant backgrounds. For many of them, there was a huge emphasis on education. “You’re not going to be a shoe cobbler. You will be a doctor.” I mean, every kid I went to school with is a heart or orthopedic surgeon *laughs* My father was a member of the school board and he said it was amazing because the push for the best in education was fierce-especially from those families who had started out with very little. We benefitted of course from this because the schools were really great. “Good enough” was not an option. Oh no, it had to be really good, because it was important that succeeding generations did better than their parents.
My dad was very involved in social issues. He was an institution man. He believed in community institutions. And he was a New Englander. I think that civic awareness comes easily to New Englanders, because everything is defined by ‘the town’, and the community. He had a very clear, moral sense of community obligation, and that played out in many ways. My mom, on the other hand, was the daughter of a judge on the supreme court of Pennsylvania. She grew up around campaigns and elections so she hated anything to do with politics. Everything revolved around political campaigns and getting my grandfather elected. He was a well-respected judge. Personally, I adored my grandfather. He was bigger than life. He read Greek, composed music, played the organ and presided over a massive courthouse. My favorite picture, which I have in my family room, is of him sitting in his judges’ chambers with a picture of Franklin Roosevelt looking over his left side. So yeah, we grew up Democrats.
My mother was a journalist. She wrote, and then later on she taught reading. This was the Fifties and Sixties, so, typical for a woman of that era, she worked part-time. She also had a lot of mental health challenges, so she spent a lot of time at the psychiatrist, which was interesting because my parents were very open about that. They would talk about it and we would joke about it in the family.
When I was growing up, a lot of the work my father was involved in was about fighting redlining in the housing industry. I was pretty little, but what I remember were meetings that were held in our living room. My neighborhood was white but there a lot of African Americans in the living room, and I remember being like, Oh, this is interesting. And also, a little scary, because it was very different. This was the time when the big riots were happening in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Watts. I wasn’t really sure what they were talking about in the meeting. I remember asking later, and it was mostly about housing and education issues.
My father would also take me to community meetings with him. I remember as a very little kid I went to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak at the local high school. I was young, seven or eight. I remember being mesmerized by his speaking. I knew it was important, but I wasn’t really taking the content in. What I remember very clearly is when King was assassinated. For anyone my age, the defining moments were Kennedy’s assassination and then King being shot. When King was shot, I was in Lancaster and I remember being furious with some little asshole kid saying, “Oh, it’s probably a good thing.” I remember thinking, like, How could you say such a thing?
When Kennedy was shot, I was 10 and I remember our teachers were crying but they didn’t tell us anything. We were sent home early. So, we were going home early on the bus, and the kids were being really noisy and the bus driver, who was African American, stood up and he said, “If you knew what happened today, you kids would be really quiet.” I mean, his reprimand is seared in my memory. And I thought, I don’t know what happened today. So, I went to my piano lesson, and my piano teacher said, “Did you hear what happened today?” And I said, “Yeah”, but I didn’t know. Then I went outside, where there was a gardener guy who had been raking leaves, and he told me, “They shot the president.”
We would check in on homeroom and then we would take the bus downtown. And it wasn’t like we were going off to smoke dope, we took the bus to Franklin & Marshall College. I would sit in the Franklin & Marshall library and read all day long… But that was our revolution, to get on the bus and go to F & M and sit in the library and read.
When I was in junior high, my family moved to Lancaster, which was, essentially, rural Pennsylvania. Very conservative, white, and Republican, and there were no Jewish people at all. So, I felt lost. My time in Lancaster, it was horrible. It was high school. I don’t know about your life in high school, but mine was not very much fun. I wasn’t happy in my skin anyway, and certainly not happy with all the cliques and all that teenaged stuff. Lancaster was so very different. Everyone seemed to know each other and the energy was just really different. I was an athlete, I played field hockey, I ran track and swam. So I spent a lot of time in sports, that was kind of where my energy went. When in doubt, run.
In my senior year, my best friend and I decided we had nothing more to learn from Manheim Township High School, as most seniors in high school think. So, we just stopped going. We would check into our homeroom and then we would walk out of the school and catch the bus downtown. It wasn’t like we were going off to smoke dope. We took the bus to Franklin & Marshall College and would sit in the college library and read all day long. I think I just wanted to be around college people. I was academically already there, so, I just read in the library. And it wasn’t until the spring that the guidance counselor called my parents in and they said, “Betsy may not be able to graduate because she doesn’t have enough days in school.” My parents were like, “What do you mean?! Where was she?” But they were totally understanding. My friend Laura’s father was a psychologist and he managed to get us out of trouble. He said, “These girls are just fine, they have good test scores, they’ll be fine.” So that was our revolution, to get on the bus and go to F &M and sit in the library and read. Pretty tame!
I ended up attending college at Ohio Wesleyan, where I studied history and philosophy. I loved philosophy and I wanted to pursue an academic career. I was really interested in Medieval and church history. I wasn’t really interested in theological issues; I was interested in history. But I knew I needed languages to study the history I was interested in, so that’s when I decided to go to Germany. After college I went to live in Germany for a couple years because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I thought, Oh, I might as well learn a language, see a little of the world.
When I came back from Germany, I moved to New York with my older sister. I worked in a German investment bank putting my language skills to work. Banking was dreadful so it was during this time that I decided to go to seminary. I never wanted to be a minister, but the program offered in seminary appealed to my intellectual and academic interests. I was also drawn to larger issues of social change. I was very strategic in where I chose to go. I did not go to a denominational seminary whose primary purpose is to train clergy. I went to Yale, where most of the people were like me. Many didn’t want to be ministers but they were rooted in those traditions. So, I went, and all my co-workers at the German bank said, “You’re going’ to seminary?” And I said, “I know, isn’t that weird?” My mother was most surprised. She said, “You hated going to church!” - which was true.
When I was at Yale, William Sloan Coffin was the chaplain. Coffin was a very famous guy during the anti-war years who, after leaving Yale, went on to become the minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, which is the huge sort of bully pulpit for Protestant progressivism, up there near Columbia. And after that he was head of SANE—Society for Antinuclear whatever. Coffin was quite a force. And we experienced the tail end of him at Yale. If you know anything about early rock n’ roll, the Doobie Brothers sang, Blood in the streets in the town of New Haven—that was about William Sloane Coffin and Dr.Ben Spock encouraging students to burn their draft cards, and the ensuing riots in New Haven. So, he was my hero!
At Yale Divinity School I met my husband, Stuart, who went to seminary to study ancient languages (people go to seminary for all sorts of reasons!). After we graduated we moved to New York City for a year and then moved to Atlanta when Stu started his PhD in Hebrew Bible at Emory. So the Californian and the girl from Philadelphia moved to the deep South, a place which terrified me from my earliest years. As a child growing up during the Civil Rights movement, my earliest memories of the south were newspaper and television clips of the burning buses during the interstate travel campaign across Mississippi. 1963 and 1964. The news clips from Mississippi and Birmingham, alongside of the ads in the backs of the National Geographic gave me plenty of reason to never cross the Mason-Dixon. The National Geographic ads were for military schools for delinquent children and they were all in the south—South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida. So, I thought quite naturally, Oh my God, they must have a lot of delinquents in the South because they have all these military academies. So, my impression of the South was that it was very prejudiced and very dangerous and very militaristic. And then we ended up in Georgia.
When I graduated from Yale, William Sloane Coffin basically said, “You will always have a job. You will not always be employed, but you will always have a job. There’s always work to do.” And that has sort of been my mantra forever. There’s always work that you are called to do. If you get paid, that’s great. And if not, you still do it.
We lived in Atlanta from 1981-1986, and I loved it. I grew to love Atlanta a lot. I had a wonderful job which, ironically, was with an IAF organization— the Urban Training Organization of Atlanta. When I graduated from Yale, William Sloane Coffin told our class, “You will always have a job. You will not always be employed, but you will always have a job. There’s always work to do.” And that has been my mantra ever since. There’s always work that you are called to do. If you get paid, that’s great. And if not, you still do it. Coffin advised us, “When you arrive in town, find the people who are doing things that are interesting and really capture your vision, and attach yourself to them.” So, when I got to Atlanta, I met a guy named Calvin Houston. Cal was an African American Presbyterian Minister who ran the Urban Training Organization in Atlanta, which was a very early IAF organization. I introduced myself to Calvin and I said, “I want to hang out with you guys and shadow your work. Teach me. Plug me in where you can.” Then they put me to work. I wrote a grant, and it paid for my work there.
The Urban Training Organization worked to organize the East Lake Meadows housing projects, which has since become a very famous part of Atlanta because of the deep inequities around public housing and real estate development. Urban Training (or UTOA) worked with neighborhoods and institutions like nursing homes and prisons, doing internal work on interracial dialogue, and it also supervised all of the internships for the three seminaries—Columbia, Candler, and the Interdenominational Theological Center, which is the African American Seminary. Our jobs were to supervise all these seminarians who were working in prisons, hospitals and non-profits.
After Atlanta, I went back to Germany, because Stuart had a research year. I ended up getting a job as a chaplain to foreign students, because they all spoke English *laughs* These students were from Africa and Ethiopia and Jordan and China. I was part of the Evangelishe Studentengemeinde (the German Student Congregation), and it was a very active and progressive group of students. They had small spirituality or faith groups, but the bulk of the work and activity happened in the workgroups, or Arbeitskreise . These were small, weekly meeting working committees organized around social and political issues. I was assigned as facilitator to several of these groups. Like most things in Germany, it was very well organized. I mean, Germans are so methodical, and they really worked hard on these workgroups. The students prided themselves on being revolutionary and progressive, and they were deeply committed to doing the research and the hard work of organizing public actions. I learned a lot about hard work. Really hard work. The work was especially hard because I was also working in another language, so I was exhausted every night.
Some of the workgroups tackled issues like political asylum. At that time, as now, there were many asylum seekers in Germany. This was in the eighties and people were coming from Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, and Iran. Some of them were students, some weren’t. The major social activity was to go to a demo—a demonstration—as a group. Every weekend there was something or other to attend. A lot of friendships were formed over those “Demonstration outings”!
I worked primarily with foreign students, because they could hardly speak German, but everybody could speak English. So, I had a lot of Middle Eastern and African students in my office. A lot of them were looking for housing. They had asylum cards, which was just sort of a resident alien card. It was a rough life for “asylanten”. Minimal housing, no jobs, a strange language. It was really hard. Our job was to help them resettle. I worked with three other chaplains, who were quite wonderful. I’m still in touch with them. The chaplaincy owned a huge house in Munich. Students lived on the top floor and then we had like three or four studio rooms where people could come and have their meetings, because like any city, everybody lived in really tiny apartments. So, you never went in peoples’ houses because it was too small. Instead, you had these central places to meet, and it really brought out how important the student union was. I mean, the student union in America is like where the bookstore is, and where you go to get coffee. In Germany, the student union was literally a union hall. Lots of activity, lots of community space, lots of interactions.
After a year in Germany, we came home to one more year in Atlanta. Then Stuart got the job at LSU, which brings us to Baton Rouge. My first impression of Baton Rouge was that it was really hot. Really hot, as in the temperature- like nothing I had ever experienced in my life This was ‘86, so that was during the oil bust. We came here and every house was for sale. It was really, very depressing. I was kind of lost, but I was put in touch with a guy who had been a chaplain at LSU and had moved to Atlanta, and he said, “You need to meet Phil Woodland.” Phil Woodland was a really pivotal person in my life. He was the minister at University United Methodist Church. And for Methodists with any historic background in this city, Phil was a real voice of social change in the 60s and 70s. So, he was one of the first people I met.
When I first got to town, I also met Father Fred Kammer at the Catholic Diocese. He later became the head of the Catholic Conference of Bishops, and he was a very progressive voice in a not so progressive institution. At that time, the Catholic Diocese was led by Bishop Stanley Ott, who was beloved by protestants and Catholics alike. He was a gentle person.” Peace” and “Reconciliation” were his middle names. Bishop Ott was well known for the work he did in the many prisons around East Baton Rouge. He was this diminutive man who liked to sing Baptist hymns. I asked him one time where he learned those hymns. Turns out he grew up in New Orleans and his best friend was the son of a Baptist preacher, so he would go over and listen to the Baptist hymns, which were so different than the Catholic ones. I loved going over to the Catholic Diocese at that time, because Father Fred had all these study groups on economic justice and responsibility. There was a lot of prison work going on. There was a lot of work with refugees. It was fun and energizing to be around those people.
Phil Woodland managed to get me a position organizing a legislative seminar for clergy so that they could learn about the Louisiana Legislature. Being new in town, this was a good project because I met a lot of people that way.
While I was organizing the Clergy Day at the Capitol, I shared an office at the Catholic Life Center with a woman named Doucette Pascal. Doucette became my surrogate mother-grandmother. She was a real rabble-rouser in terms of race relations. She prided herself on growing up in New Orleans and belonging to one of the first groups of white Catholic women to have a dialogue with black Catholics, probably in the 60s. She seemed to be ninety when I met her, but I knew her for so long, she couldn’t have been that old. She had long white hair in a French twist and wore crazy hats. Father Fred and Bishop Ott did whatever she said because they knew she was right. When my first son was born, I asked her to come and stand with us and be the token grandmother at the Baptism. She was also a neighbor, lived around the corner from us. On Sunday afternoons I would either walk a kid over there or put them on the bike and I would spend many afternoons sitting in her living room with babies playing at our feet and C-Span on the television. Her husband, Bob Pascal, taught in the law school, and he was real, super Catholic. He would always ask me questions about John Calvin, and I would do my best to present poor old John Calvin in a good light. He wasn’t buying any of it. Bob and Doucette were characters and I loved them both very much.
Doucette’s funeral was held at St. Aloysius Church, a big Catholic church near LSU, and it was packed full. Anybody who had participated in any sort of social activism was there to honor her. Mary Mikell, Pam Bartlett, myself, and couple other women from UPC were sitting right behind Bob and the family. At one point, they had a hymn and of course we sang. I mean, Protestants sing, that’s what they do, we like to sing. Catholics don’t sing. They have a chanter and they don’t seem to know the hymns, it’s just not part of the liturgy. But when it was time to sing, we members of UPC stood up and belted out this hymn. Bob turned around and says, “I should have known the Presbyterians were behind me!” I said, “We are singing’ her into the pearly gates, Bob.”
I’ve found that I’m most comfortable when I am working between institutions as opposed to deeply in one institution… I love being in between institutions, understanding their different languages, doing the translation of the high ideals of one institution into the language of another.
After serving for several months as a part-time Associate at University Presbyterian Church, I took a job with the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. It was a brand-new position that they had created called Louisiana Cross Lines, a statewide ministry to women and children in poverty. I worked as a consultant and facilitator to local congregations, to help them identify issues in their community that were affecting families—boy, there’s a real thread here, isn’t there? Then we would help them do the needs assessment and the community assessment and then develop programs. I traveled around the state for that job all the time, got to know a lot of different communities.
I did the work with Louisiana Cross Lines for seven years and, meanwhile, I had four children in there. I was pregnant with my fourth child, Silas, and it was the end of the year when the bishop of the Methodist church decided he needed my position to place a minister that they couldn’t find a parish for. So, he basically said, “You have to go.” ‘Cause I was Presbyterian, I had no claim on it, and they had this other guy they needed to get in. So, it was like, “Okay, that’s it.”
After that, I became a chaplain with the hospice of Baton Rouge for a year, which I loved doing. Randy Nichols, one of my best friends, and I were hospice chaplains together. It was totally different. Pastoral care for dying people, working very intimately with families. Very rarely did I work with a dying person because they were usually too sick and not really available to a chaplain, but I worked a lot with families. And it was a very diverse group of families. In a single day, I could go from the Country Club of Louisiana to trailers in Walker. So, it was really good work. I enjoyed it a lot. I did that for a year, and then we went on sabbatical to Scotland, where I got a part-time position at the University of St. Andrews, working with students. They were fascinated by Martin Luther King Jr., so I developed this whole lecture series on the American Civil Rights movement which I did for a number of groups there.
When we came back from Scotland, I had a sort of one-on-one with Maggie Richardson, who was acting as interim director of the Louisiana Delta Service Corps. She told me about what the work was like and she said, “I heard about you from someone else, and this looks like a really good fit.” She started to talk to me about it and I said, “Oh my goodness, this is exactly what I would like to do.” Because it was about promoting social change in the world, it’s just that you don’t talk about Jesus. You just change the world because that’s what you’re supposed to do, it’s the job you’ve been given, it’s the job to which you’ve been called. And it was working with young people, which I really enjoyed doing. It’s that age group of college and a little after college that I really love. It was also working with lots of non-profits around the state, which I also really like, working with varieties of institutions. I think, with a lot of my work, I’ve found that I’m most comfortable when I am working between institutions as opposed to deeply in one institution. That’s why I never wanted to be a parish minister, because 95% of the time they work for their church. But it’s the work outside of the church that I care the most about. I love being in between institutions, understanding their different languages, doing the translation of the high ideals of one institution into the language of another.
I was very happy at Delta Service Corps, and I was fortunate to have just wonderful staff people, especially after Lisa came. We were very, very close and worked closely together for many, many years. We brought Louisiana Delta Service Corps out from under the umbrella of the Lower Mississippi Delta Service Corps and became a stand-alone state program. That was the best thing in the world we could’ve done, because the cultures of those states, the cultures of those institutions, our focus—everything was different. That really showed up when we had our Tri-State meetings, what was called our “super-training” *laughs* You could just look at each corps and see. The corps from Arkansas was 90% white, the corps from Mississippi was 90% African American, and the corps from Louisiana was about 50/50. And then there was the fact that all the other programs were run by old white men, and ours was run by myself and Lisa Moore, so we had very different attitudes about what to do and how to do it, and it was just a really bad energy. These guys were real bubbas. They were old white guys who were used to running organizations from the top-down. Louisiana was such a different place because it was much more urban, we had a much more mixed corps group, the corps members were better educated, and every time we got together it was like oil and water. So, I talked to my board of directors and they said, “Why don’t we become our own independent program?” Then I did a lot of talking with Washington to figure out what that would look like, and they said it could be a freestanding program. I had to go through the whole thing of becoming a separate 501 (c)(3) and all that sort of stuff. Then we broke away, and it was the best thing we ever did.
I loved the work with Delta Service Corps, again, because I got to know about so many things going on in the state, but I didn’t have to do the work *laughs* I didn’t have to run Fair Housing New Orleans, I didn’t have to run the Macon Ridge Redevelopment Corporation, but I got to know a lot about it because our corps members were there and they reported on it. We got to know their supervisors, and that’s how I first met Lady Carlson, about twelve years ago. We had a Corps member with the IAF working group out of Shreveport and Lady Carlson was the supervisor. So, we would meet halfway for our check-ins, at the Faraday Public Library or in Alexandria. She was new in North Louisiana, where she had just arrived there as an IAF organizer.
Photo by Lily Brooks
I know there’s this mantra and the mission is creating these relationships, but you don’t just ‘relate’ to people. You deepen relationships because you have experiences together. You experience educational things together, you experience loss together… I mean, it’s those shared experiences and celebrations, and I think that’s how those relationships deepen.
In 2008 or 2009, when I was still with the Delta Service Corps, I got a call from Brod Bagert. I had heard the name, big political name in New Orleans because of his uncle, who served as a state legislator. But he wanted to come and have a meeting with me. (My first “relational meeting”). Brod came and talked about the IAF sponsoring committee in Baton Rouge, and I kept asking him, “How are you different than Interfaith Federation of Baton Rouge?” I was intrigued by what he was saying, but I was also sort of leery of an outsider coming in. I saw Brod as an outsider. But I was intrigued, so I started to go to some of the meetings, and then I became really intrigued because of the make-up of that early leadership. Reverend Wesley and all the early leaders, there was such a variety of leaders, from the Episcopal Priest at All Saints who they ran out of town because he backed the CATS deal, and Chris Andrews from First United Methodist Church, and lots of folks from the Unitarian Church. I met and admired leaders such as Rev. Knighten and Rev. Rushing and so many others.There was big name representation from both white and African American churches as well as lots of smaller institutions and it seemed to bring a different, fresh approach to the way people and institutions related to one another. I was very interested early on and pleased that Delta Service Corps could join as an institutional member.
In those early days, as now, there was a lot of early growth energy. It was hard for people to understand, “What’s a house meeting? What’s a relational meeting?” Because we had never done it that way. For a lot of us who had been involved in The Interfaith Federation, it was typical, where you send a representative from your church and then you have a big meeting and you have subcommittees, and your goal was to create a soup kitchen, or this or that—it was very issue oriented. But I understood. I mean, it makes a lot of sense, of course, doing it in a relational way.
Certainly, I valued my relationship with Brod. I mean, for good and bad. He was a very frustrating person to be with, but he was also an incredible force of personality. He’s so smart and that sort of thing, and I felt I could argue with him and that would be okay. With Edgar, very early on, I developed a good relationship. With Dianne Hanley as well—these relationships go way back. Later on, with Mike Button. And with Press Robinson, who I had known with Louisiana Cross Lines, and I had known in several different ways. Press came late to TBR, but resurrected that substantial public life of his.
I think my most meaningful, transformative relationship I’ve formed through TBR has been with Lady Carlson. We’ve ended up becoming really close friends. Early on in her time here, we started walking, once a week, every week, and we never talk about TBR. We talk about our shoe size (we’re same size of shoe), we talk about her upbringing—hers in Texas and mine in Pennsylvania. We talk about being black and being white—everything. Every time we walk we go to a different neighborhood. It’s my way of introducing her to Baton Rouge. ‘Cause, y’know, when she first got here, she had her house and then the legislature and then the TBR office, and she worked so hard. I said, “No we have to walk. All problems are solved by walking.” So, we walked around LSU, we walked around the Garden District, we walked downtown and around the library, and the Capitol—we walked everywhere.
Recently, shortly after George Floyd was shot and the protests and everything, Lady and I were walking downtown and there was no one around, it was Saturday morning. And we walk close together, I mean, not hand in hand, but we’re just, like that *measures a space of about six inches* And this guy in a lawn mowing truck pulls up to us and he leans out and he says, “You two are beautiful.” And I looked at him and then I looked at Lady and I said, “Is he saying that because he thinks we’re good looking, or is he saying that because I’m white and you’re black?” And she goes, “I think it’s a little of both” *Laughs* So we waved at him and he drove on.
As we walk, we meet friends and stop for visits along the way. I think this relationship is meaningful in so many ways and on so many levels- for me, at least, this is so.
Together Baton Rouge, it’s strength and what it means to me— I know there’s this mantra and the mission is creating these relationships, but you don’t just ‘relate’ to people, you deepen relationships because you have experiences together. You experience educational sessions together, we experience loss together. Like during the flood, just all those people coming to the office and working on the phones together, and sharing food and sharing lists and celebrating together, and going to the capitol together, so that we share space, we share history, we share an experience. Then, of course, through the work teams. When you’re on a team that’s meeting once a week, you see someone all the time, it really does deepen that relationship. Then with something like the cemetery clean-up, you know, when you’re out there in your T-shirt and shorts and holding a shovel, it’s different than being at the luncheon together. I think that’s the power of AmeriCorps, too. I mean, it’s those shared experiences and celebrations, and I think that’s how those relationships deepen. Because you don’t just relate in a vacuum, you relate by doing things together.
Now that my interim period is up and I am unemployed by University Presbyterian Church *laughs* I want to work more and do more in the coming year. Personally, I’ve always really appreciated the intellectual challenge and the education that comes with Together Baton Rouge. Being part of these webinars that have gone on during the pandemic, I mean, the academic in me just loves that. So I’m thinking, let’s have some study groups, where we really look at things, we step back a couple of paces, and say, “Okay, let’s look at the historical context, let’s look at some of the bigger, philosophical and political features of something.” I mean, I find that really stimulating.
I think Together Baton Rouge does a good job of equipping regular people—not designated leaders, not voted upon leaders, but just the hoi polloi, the rank and file—to be effective voices in the public sphere. Through the trainings, the lunches, the white papers, the gatherings—they do it by modeling it. People take turns being the leaders, people take turns running the meeting, people take turns doing these sorts of things, and they learn by actually doing stuff. Going to the legislature, asking the questions and testifying and doing all that sort of thing. So, it’s equipping people to be confident voices in the public sphere, and part of that is teaching people that you don’t just go into places because you think it’s a good idea. You go in prepared, which means that you do your research, you ask the questions, you do all those meetings—it’s hard work, but it pays off. Because we’ve had successes, and together Baton Rouge is known for its preparedness. I’ve heard it said that “They tremble in their boots when they see us coming” *laughs*
The CATS win is one of the TBR victories that really stands out in my mind. The Medicaid expansion win, as well. That was huge. And that was, of course, lots of different groups working on that. But, the Medicaid expansion, the CATS, just the little ITEP things that we would win along the way—I think those were some of the major ones. And, some were unappreciated,—like when someone would go down to testify and they would just put off a vote because it was clear that TBR had whisked away the facade that this really is creating jobs for people in Baton Rouge.
I think being a leader is allowing people space to experiment and to practice and exercise leadership skills. There’s this kind of code about leadership in Together Baton Rouge. There’s ‘Leader’ with a capital ‘L’, and then there’s leaders with a small “l”. I understand that TBR needs the institutional leaders, they need the ministers of the churches. But that can be very frustrating to me, because I don’t want to be the minister of the church. I like them personally, but the leadership that happens in churches and many institutions isn’t necessarily carried out by the titular leader. And yet, there’s a lot of emphasis on that titular leader. I understand that, because that’s the face of Shiloh, that’s the face of Methodism, of Presbyterians, that’s the face of whatever institution they’re representing. But I hope, that in the interest of having that titular leadership, that we don’t downplay the true leaders, the worker bee leaders, in different institutions.