* Leading promoter of faith-based progressivism
* Founder of Interfaith Worker Justice and the New Sanctuary Movement
Born on December 3, 1954 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.”
During her time at Barnard, Bobo joined Bread For the World (BFW), a Christian advocacy organization seeking “to educate and equip people to advocate for policies and programs that can help end hunger in the U.S. and around the world.” Led by Rev. Arthur Simon, brother of then-Democratic U.S. Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, BFW coordinated 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 from Barnard in 1976, Bobo joined BFW professionally, becoming a fulltime organizer in 1978. Over the course of the ensuing eight years, she helped to create more than 60 new chapters of BFW, ascending to the position of national Organizing Director in 1980.
In 1982, Bobo earned a master’s degree in economics from the New School for Social Research in New York City.
In 1986, she published Lives Matter: A Handbook for Christian Organizing.
In 1987, Bobo began a 9-year stint as a trainer at the Midwest Academy, a prominent radical organization operating out of Chicago. “Because the Academy had a long connection with the labor movement,” she 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 Midwest 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 Church 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 John Sweeney, Jackie Kendall of the Midwest Academy, and the influential priest/labor activist George G. Higgins, Bobo in 1996 established the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (NICWJ) — which would change its name to Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) in 2005 and would work closely with such entities as the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and the Service Employees International Union.
From the time of NICWJ’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).
In 2001, Bobo was a special honoree at the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America’s Eugene Debs/Norman Thomas/Michael Harrington dinner banquet, an annual event which was named in honor of three prominent American socialists.
While the rapidly growing IWJ operated as a “sister organization” of ACORN, Bobo rose to national prominence in the greater progressive movement. She became a noted public speaker in Jim Wallis’s Faith in Public Life network and, in 2007, helped found the New Sanctuary Movement to aid illegal aliens facing deportation.
While Bobo advocated for open borders, the central concern of her life continued to be “worker justice” and the effort to unionize workers throughout America. In December 2005, Bobo and Father Michael Pfleger were two among many “religious Left” signers of an anti-Wal-Mart letter, which was part of a union-backed campaign to smear and undermine the company because its employees were not unionized. “It is hard to imagine why Wal-Mart would consciously choose to make 1.3 million workers suffer in the name of ‘low prices,’ a suffering we can no longer let stand,” read the letter.
In 2008, Bobo published 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,” she argued that the U.S. 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 Bobo, Barack Obama’s 2008 election as U.S. President represented an opportunity to strengthen her own 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, Bobo proposed, would be 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 2008, Bobo began writing a regular column for the online magazine Religion Dispatches.
In 2009, Utne Reader named Bobo as one of its “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.”
In 2009 as well, Bobo expressed her support for the community organization ACORN, which at that time 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” again in the future. Wrote Bobo in June 2010:
“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.”
The Center for American Progress (CAP) listed Bobo as one of its “14 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2014.” Praising her as a “champion of workers’ rights for decades,” CAP credited Bobo with spurring the “conversation around economic inequality.”
In December 2014, the socialist magazine In These Times published an interview in which Bobo said: “We believe that the economic system in this country, monopoly capitalism, is not serving the common good and not serving the vast majority of workers in the country. We need to figure out how to get from where we are, to something hospitable to the vast majority of the people.”
In the same interview, Bobo discussed the “discriminatory practices” that she said were “embedded” in U.S. labor laws:
“Race and class are intermingled in ways that are used against us. Anybody who is vulnerable is likely to be a victim of abuse in the workplace. African Americans often feel vulnerable and are often victims of abuse. Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are even more vulnerable. Women’s wages are not what men’s wages are. Almost two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and you’ve got this whole sector of jobs that continues to be viewed as women’s work and has historically been paid less.”
In 2015, Bobo stepped down from her post as Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice.
In 2016 Bobo became Executive Director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy (VICPP — a nonprofit committed to” “racial, social, and economic justice”; “honoring diverse voices”; “learning from and acting in solidarity with people who are marginalized”; “participating in justice coalitions”; and promoting “diversity and inclusion.”
In December 2019, Bobo authored an opinion piece for the Virginia Mercury on how “worker rights are returning to Virginia.” In her article, she accused Republican political leaders in her state of “repeat[ing] the myth that the only way Virginia could keep its pro-business reputation and strong economy was by ignoring worker rights.” Further, Bobo touted the efforts of Democrats to push for an increase in the state minimum wage, a statewide standard for paid sick leave, and a repeal of “Right to Work” laws, which make the payment of union dues voluntary rather than mandatory.
In April 2020, Bobo applauded Virginia’s Democrat Governor, Ralph Northam, for signing legislation that made illegal aliens residing in that state eligible for college tuition discounts normally reserved exclusively for legal state residents. Said Bobo: “Virginia has made history as the first southern state to implement this law, joining twenty states that offer in-state tuition to students who are undocumented. In these states, students, employers, and the entire society have realized tremendous economic and social benefits.”
After a white gunman in Buffalo, New York killed ten black people in a May 2022 mass shooting, Bobo issued a public letter that: (a) warned “how dangerous unfettered racism and hate is in our country”; (b) decried Virginia’s “sordid history” of “lynching Black men, closing public schools so Black and White children wouldn’t go to school together, tearing apart Black neighborhoods with expressways, and discriminating against African Americans’ mortgage applications”; (c) lamented that racism “exists in healthcare … is embedded in our labor laws … [and] is rampant in our criminal justice system”; and (d) declared that “racism and hate drove or exacerbated most of the social and equity problems [that] Virginia faces today.”