Essex County Community Organization (ECCO) is a multifaith network of 59 congregations and the North Shore Labor Council that works to create a world where everyone belongs, where we all can thrive, and where we all have a say in the decisions that shape our lives. ECCO works to address the root causes of injustice through policy change and uniting people across lines of difference to build power.
Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin, Executive Director at ECCO, spoke with us about how ECCO immigrant women leaders successfully campaigned to increase funding for affordable housing in Salem and what’s next for ECCO in 2024.
What led you to create this organization or take this leadership role? Can you tell us about your connection to this work and the specific need you saw for women, girls, and gender-expansive individuals?
Growing up in a community of Jewish civil rights activists, I was raised believing that the story of the Exodus, of people moving from oppression to freedom, was not just history or legend, but an invitation to work for liberation in every generation. My own family made an exodus of sorts when they fled to America, barely escaping an antisemitic mob that came to murder them in their home. Though I grew up in relative privilege, I inherited the lesson that my own family’s experience of oppression, and the Jewish people’s more broadly, compels us to work in solidarity with oppressed people to confront injustice and pursue liberation in our own day.
As a college student at Yale, I volunteered at a soup kitchen, but felt our efforts were a bandaid solution to deeper problems. Searching for a more transformative model, I learned about a homeless women’s advocacy Mothers’ For Justice (MTJ), a homeless women’s advocacy group. Under MTJ’s leadership, I got to be part of a citywide campaign to pass the New Haven Child Poverty Referendum, which would give homeless women and children greater access to housing, food, and support services. We won the referendum with over 90% of the vote.
MTJ’s work inspired me to become a professional grassroots organizer, committed to working in solidarity with people directly affected by injustice.
Though I loved organizing, eventually I felt called to go to rabbinical school, after witnessing the Religious Right sway a national election by organizing in favor of gay marriage bans. I felt called to help build an alternative to the Religious Right in which people of faith and values might work together for justice and freedom.
Years later, finding ECCO felt like an answered prayer. As a multifaith, multiracial movement for justice, ECCO is giving me and so many others the chance to work for systemic change by building the kind of people power that is only possible when we organize across lines of difference and root ourselves in our deepest values.
Part of your mission is that you’re working to create a world where everybody belongs and everyone thrives. How is ECCO working to foster opportunity within the communities you serve?
When ECCO immigrant women leaders in Salem learned that the city had only allocated $2 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding to affordable housing, they campaigned to increase that amount. Citing that city’s neglect of the Latine community in collecting feedback and setting its priorities, our leaders organized diverse ECCO communities across the city to fight to increase affordable housing funding. As a result of their efforts, the Salem City Council increased its ARPA allocation for affordable housing from $2 million to $9 million.
This effort has opened up several pathways to opportunity. First, the increase in affordable housing funding will create more affordable housing, which will yield concrete opportunities for low-income families to find homes where they can afford to live. Because women and girls make up about two-thirds of those receiving federal housing assistance, they will disproportionately reap the benefits of a growth in affordable housing stock.
Second, our campaign gave immigrant women in ECCO the opportunity to learn the necessary organizing, advocacy, and leadership skills to drive a citywide campaign. The leaders, mostly low-income daycare providers and house cleaners with limited access to traditional education, came to see themselves and be seen by others as powerful agents of change.
Finally, the campaign created opportunities for ECCO’s diverse communities to form deep relationships. Though ECCO immigrant leaders drove the campaign, they knew they lacked the political power to win alone. Instead, they forged relationships with BIPOC and White leaders from across Salem. Such bonds are not only meaningful in their own right – they build power to win more victories in the future.
What’s one thing people might not know about your organization?
Even though ECCO works on painful issues of injustice, we also take time to cultivate joy. We find joy in getting to know and appreciate each other, in dreaming of the kind of world we want, and in celebrating our victories. Each summer, we organize a giant boat cruise dance party where people from a range of backgrounds dance with each other – our Latine leaders teaching us Salsa and Bachata, our African American leaders teaching line dances and leading a soul train, everyone cheering each other on. Making space for joy isn’t just a distraction from the injustice we are fighting. It’s a radical act of refusing to give up, and a source of strength to keep going when things get hard.
What’s next for you? What project or goal is ECCO working on right now?
This year, ECCO is launching an exciting new initiative called the North Shore Organizing Hub. As an innovative integration of training and campaign work, the Organizing Hub brings together people from diverse backgrounds to learn key organizing skills and to put them to practice on critical campaigns. Through the Organizing Hub, we will support leaders to organize in three main campaign areas:
Affordable housing Building on victories over the past year in Lynn, Salem, Beverly, Rockport, and Gloucester, we will work to increase affordable housing on the North Shore by campaigning for affordable housing zoning changes, rent stabilization, funding allocation, and accessibility.
Police Reform Over the past two years, we won a campaign to get the city of Lynn to create CALM, an unarmed crisis response team that is separate from police. Now, we will work to ensure that CALM gets off the ground, is culturally competent, and is accountable to the public.
Immigrant Rights After winning recent campaigns, our immigrant leaders will launch a new campaign for immigrant rights, created for and by our immigrant communities.
What does liberation look like to you?
One of my favorite poems that inspires my vision of liberation is “Red Sea,” by Latina Jewish poet Aurora Levins Morales. In it, she reimagines the Israelites leaving Egypt and crossing the Red Sea.
This time we're tied at the ankles.
We cannot cross until we carry each other,
all of us refugees, all of us prophets.
No more taking turns on history's wheel,
trying to collect old debts no-one can pay.
The sea will not open that way.
This time that country
is what we promise each other,
our rage pressed cheek to cheek
until tears flood the space between,
until there are no enemies left,
because this time no one will be left to drown
and all of us must be chosen.
This time it's all of us or none.
As in Levins Morales’ poem, my vision of liberation sees us as deeply interconnected and united in pursuing the better world we imagine. Unlike the Hebrew Bible’s version, where the Egyptians need to drown in order for the Israelites to get free, this vision of liberation is not a zero-sum game. Rather, real liberation transforms both oppressed and oppressor into seekers of justice, environmental sustainability, and mutual abundance, who know we are blessed with more than enough.