Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Kim Bobo was raised in a conservative evangelical family. In 1974, while attending Barnard College, she met a number of activist figures who influenced her ideological development. One was Gustavo Gutiérrez, a prominent spokesman for the liberation theology movement which was then spreading across Latin America. Another was Marie Runyon, an ACLU activist who showed Bobo that one “could actually have a career in social justice.”
While at Barnard College, Bobo joined Bread for the World (BFW), a group that fused social-justice activism with religion and was led by Rev. Arthur Simon, brother of then-Senator Paul Simon (D-IL). Specifically, BFW coordinates letter-writing campaigns urging members of Congress to allocate more taxpayer dollars to anti-poverty programs in the U.S. and abroad. As an undergraduate, Bobo organized New England anti-hunger groups for BFW, later describing the experience as an “introduction to organizing in terms of social justice.” After graduating in 1976, Bobo joined BFW professionally, becoming a fulltime organizer in 1978. In the next decade, she helped to create more than 60 new chapters of BFW, eventually becoming its national organizing director.
In 1986, Bobo published Lives Matter: A Handbook for Christian Organizing. In 1987, she went to work as an instructor at the Midwest Academy, a prominent radical organization operating out of Chicago. “Because the Academy had a long connection with the labor movement,” Bobo would later recount, “I was often involved in training with labor about looking for partnerships, and so I kept suggesting working with the religious community.”
During her first two years at the Academy, many of Bobo’s efforts to connect religious activism and labor were unsuccessful. But in 1989, when a group of United Mine Workers went on strike in Pittston, Pennsylvania, Bobo organized a national religious support committee to aid the strikers. In 1990 the strikers succeeded in winning the concessions they wanted, and Bobo was credited with the victory. A year later, with her national status rising, she co-wrote and published Organizing for Social Change, which became the Midwest Academy’s bestselling training manual on community organizing for progressive change.
In 1991, while still with the Midwest Academy, Bobo partnered with Monsignor Jack Egan, Rabbi Robert Marx, and United Methodist Bishop Jesse DeWitt to establish the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, later renamed Arise Chicago. In 1995, with her organizing skills in high demand, Bobo began to lay the groundwork for a national labor-religious organization. Jack Egan, a close friend and associate of the late Saul Alinsky, helped Bobo secure a meeting with John Sweeney, who was just then establishing his leadership at the AFL-CIO. With the support of Sweeney, Jackie Kendall of the Midwest Academy, and the influential priest/labor activist George G. Higgins, Bobo established the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice in 1996.
From the Committee’s inception, Bobo served as its Executive Director, originally running the group from her home. Within a few years, the organization added another 29 affiliates, including Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (founded by Rev. James Lawson). By 2005, this number had grown to 59 affiliates. That same year, Bobo changed her group’s name to Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ). Initially, IWJ worked closely with the AFL-CIO; over time, Bobo also developed working relationships with Change to Win and the Service Employees International Union.
With the growth of IWJ, which operated as a “sister organization” of ACORN, Bobo rose to national prominence in the greater progressive movement. She became a leading figure in Jim Wallis’ Faith in Public Life network and, in 2007, founded the New Sanctuary Movement to aid illegal immigrants facing deportation.
While Bobo advocates for open borders, the central concern of her life continues to be “worker justice” and the effort to unionize workers throughout America. In 2008, Bobo parlayed her call for “worker justice” into the book Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid. Declaring that the practice of employers stealing from their workers had become “a national epidemic,” Bobo argued that the Labor Department must be strengthened and the labor movement expanded, since “unions, by the very nature of what they do, fight wage theft.” (According to StopWageTheft.org: “Common forms of wage thef are non-payment of overtime, not giving workers their last paycheck afer a worker leaves a job, not paying for all the hours worked, not paying minimum wage, and even not paying a worker at all.”)
According to Bobo, Barack Obama’s 2008 election as President represented an opportunity to strengthen her campaign to combat wage theft. “When the new administration comes in,” she asserted, “unions will be in a position to help set the agenda.” The solution, she proposed, is to “target industries” by “send[ing] investigators out to find large numbers of workers whose wages are being stolen.” “Once we get more staff,” she promised, “we can put investigators in the workplace.”
In 2009, Bobo expressed her support for the community organization ACORN, which was mired in a scandal where some of its workers had been videotaped, in a sting operation, agreeing to take part in serious crimes. In early 2010, Bobo met with ACORN founder Wade Rathke to discuss how fellow progressives could work to “prevent ‘stings’ from crippling our work” in the future. Says Bobo:
“ACORN had done more to build citizen wealth for low-income families than any group in the nation. It had registered more low-income voters than any other community organization. It had provided much of the leadership for the living wage movement […] But when the organization was attacked by the right-wing, it was unable to withstand the attacks, and not enough of us stood up in its defense.”