Poverty Action Alliance mobilizes volunteers and builds coalitions

Ilana Schatz had just found out about a rally in Oakland. It was taking place the following day, protesting Gov. Pete Wilson's recent proposal to end overtime pay.

"This is terrible," said Schatz, running a hand through her wavy dark hair. "It means that bosses could implement 12-hour days and employees couldn't do a thing about it." She excused herself as a call came in from Bob Johnson of the California Labor Federation.

"Bob? I've found a speaker for you. It's Rabbi [Zari] Weiss of Kehilla Community Synagogue. By the way, you should get the rally listed on KPFA. Yes, they can do that. Here's the number…"

As project director of the American Jewish Congress' Poverty Action Alliance, Schatz spends a lot of time on the telephone. In addition to locating speakers for rallies, a typical day might find her disseminating information about an upcoming action, or mobilizing volunteers for community projects or lobbying.

The alliance started with a simple Yom Kippur food drive in 1994 and has grown steadily ever since. Its most recent Yom Kippur food drive collected the equivalent of 30,742 meals and involved 38 Jewish organizations, located from Monterey to Santa Rosa. As part of its mission to examine underlying causes of poverty, the alliance is also involved in discussions around welfare reform and housing for the homeless.

Right now, Schatz is excited about her most recent innovation: a fax and e-mail action-alert system. As a result, Poverty Action Alliance will be able to send news to a wide audience in the time it takes to make a single phone call.

"People's lives are full, and it's hard to find extra time." says Schatz. "So it's up to us, who are doing this work, to find easy ways for them to be involved." The new system, she says, will allow even people with five or 10 minutes to spare to participate in alliance actions.

"If these technologies had been available in the past, it would have made my life a lot easier," says Schatz. She has just started advertising the e-mail and fax system in synagogue newsletters and at Jewish agency meetings, and expects to build a list of 200 to 300 names.

One of the aims of the system is to build communities and coalitions. "We'd love to be able to tell people if there are others in their neighborhood who are doing the same kind of work," she says.

Not wired to e-mail or fax yet? Never fear. You can still be involved through the mail. Just send the alliance your address and you'll receive regular updates.

With welfare reform legislation currently making its way through the California state Assembly, the alliance is particularly eager to build a strong base of lobbyists. "We know that legislators count each personal letter as though it's from 200 citizens," says Schatz, "so those letters can really make a difference."

And e-mail and fax will make a difference to the number of people who find time to write. "In a way, we're modeling our system after ones used by the Christian Right," says Schatz. "They've had a lot of success with technology. Now it's time for a progressive response."

She frowns as the telephone on her desk rings again . Then, with a shrug and a smile, she reaches for it.