People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO) was founded in 1972 under the leadership of Father John Baumann, a Jesuit priest who was trained in Saul Alinsky-style community-organizing tactics in Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s. Baumann then took his skills to Oakland, California, where he established PICO to serve as “a regional training institute to help support neighborhood organizations.” PICO’s acronym derived from its original name, Pacific Institute for Community Organizations. In 2004 the organization adopted its current name; it is alternately known as the PICO National Network.
Describing itself as “nonpartisan and multicultural,” PICO states that its mission is to “increase access to health care, improve public schools, make neighborhoods safer, build affordable housing, redevelop communities, and revitalize democracy.” Immigration is also an issue of concern to PICO. Implying that the United States traditionally has been, and remains, inhospitable to its newly arrived immigrants, the organization says: “[W]e need to insure that new Americans are welcomed and not exploited.”
Using “people of faith” as its foot soldiers, PICO seeks to maximize “the potential for transformation — of people, institutions, and of our larger culture” — particularly as regards health care, public education, low-income housing, and immigration.
Taking a bottom-up approach to social change, PICO “helps congregations identify and solve local neighborhood issues before addressing broader issues at a city, state or national level.” PICO’s proposed solutions nearly always entail expanding the power and control of government, while displacing the private sector. As PICO puts it, “government can play a vital role in improving society.”
In 2009 PICO shifted its emphasis heavily toward a campaign — which it undertook in conjunction with the organizations Faithful America (the political arm of the National Council of Churches) and Sojourners — pushing for the implementation of socialized medicine throughout the United States. Toward that end, PICO recruited nearly 600 clergy to preach about the benefits of government-run healthcare and to mobilize their congregations in support of such a system. The organization also stated that 10,000 religionists would soon lobby members of Congress “to work together to make quality health-care choices affordable for all families,” i.e., a federal takeover of the healthcare industry. PICO likewise aired “Abundant Life” radio ads in key congressional districts, stressing that “every person, created in the image of God, is of limitless value” and is therefore worthy of taxpayer-funded health care.
PICO is a sponsoring organization of the We Believe Together – Health Care for All network. Other notable sponsors include the Center for Community Change, the Gamaliel Foundation, the Islamic Medical Association of North America, the Islamic Society of North America, School of the Americas Watch, Sojourners Magazine, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and Michael Lerner‘s Tikkun Magazine.
In early 2009, a Presbyterian pastor and PICO activist from Nebraska stated: “God cared about this issue long before it touched any of us…. With so many uninsured and underinsured, it is coming into our national conscience. But it reached God’s attention long ago, with the first uninsured person.”
From its inception, PICO has recruited congregations of all denominations and faiths to collaborate on its crusades to bring about the social change it desires. Today PICO has 53 affiliated federations working in 150 cities and towns in 17 states. Its members come from more than 1,000 congregations representing some 40 different religious denominations and faiths nationwide.
To cultivate additional leaders to spearhead social-change initiatives, local PICO branches provide “intensive leadership training that teaches people how … to successfully use the levers of power to bring resources and political attention to their communities.” On a larger scale, PICO also sponsors intensive, six-day National Leadership Development Seminars four times annually. These seminars (which are conducted both in English and Spanish) provide leaders with “an in-depth review of the theory and practice of congregation-based organizing.”
PICO receives funding from a number of sources, including: California Commerce Bank, the California Endowment, the California Wellness Foundation, the Carl & Celia Berta Gellert Foundation, the Carrie Estelle Doheny Foundation, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Citigroup Foundation, the Community Foundation, the Community Technology Foundation of California, the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, the Edwards Mother Earth Foundation, the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, Interfaith Funders, the James Irvine Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Needmor Fund, the Public Welfare Foundation, Raskob, the San Francisco Foundation, the Stupski Family Fund, the Taube Family Foundation, the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program, the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, and the Y & H Soda Foundation.