19 Activists to Watch
By Peter Dreier
In 2010, as the foreclosure epidemic raged, George Goehl, executive director of National People’s Action (NPA), and Stephen Lerner, Service Employees International Union organizer, brought unions, community organizations and faith groups together to pressure banks and the Obama administration to do more for families losing their homes. As the New Bottom Line coalition, they mounted protests at bank headquarters around the country, generating media attention and helping Attorneys General Eric Schneiderman of New York and Kamala Harris of California successfully push for a stronger national settlement with several major banks, which resulted in more than $26 million in foreclosure relief.
The emergence of Occupy Wall Street strengthened the coalition’s hand, so Goehl worked with the New Bottom Line and others to sustain the momentum with explicit demands for foreclosure relief, fair taxes, student debt relief and campaign finance reform. The coalition trained about 100,000 recruits in civil disobedience and organized protests at the headquarters and stockholder meetings of Cigna, General Electric, Bank of America and other corporations.
Last year Goehl led more than 1,000 people in a protest at Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s suburban home to demand that he and the Obama administration support a financial speculation tax on banks and require banks to help families with underwater mortgages refinance their loans. As a result of the grass-roots pressure, Obama announced earlier this year that he was replacing Ed DeMarco, a Bush appointee who runs the agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and has stridently opposed government efforts to help homeowners hurt by the Wall Street mortgage meltdown and the dramatic plunge in home values. So far Congress has not confirmed Obama’s pick to replace DeMarco; Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC).
The 44-year-old Goehl has been an organizer for two decades, working with an Indiana housing rights group, a Chicago neighborhood organization and a national immigrant rights coalition. In 2007 he took over the reins at NPA, which had led the movement to pass the landmark anti-redlining Community Reinvestment Act in 1977. Goehl has knit NPA’s loose network into a more coherent organization that can juggle local and national issues simultaneously and shepherded NPA into alliances with unions and other activist groups — a remarkable accomplishment in the turf-conscious world of community organizing.