The Raleigh branch, ROAR (Raleigh Organizing for Action and Results), started last year by walking the inner-city neighborhoods, listing the obvious problems–the unreadable street signs, for example, and the vacant lots that were so overgrown, prostitutes had made one of them their home office. ROAR turned the list over to city officials, who’ve jumped on most of it, the leaders say. Next up: an “audit” of the city’s bus system. It starts this Saturday, when 200-plus folks are expected to ride the routes, talk to the passengers, and ask such questions as: “Do the buses go where you need them?” “Are they on time?” Oh, and: “Why in the world don’t Raleigh’s buses run on Sunday?”

Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods), a sister branch, is a year older, and it’s been instrumental in getting officials to attack lead poisoning in low-income communities, preserve child-care subsidies for needy parents and evaluate the range of job-training programs offered in the Bull City. Recently, Durham CAN scored a victory when the county commissioners adopted a living-wage standard of $9.51 an hour for their employees and agreed to study whether to require it as well for every company that gets county contracts.

These two organizations, together with other affiliates in Charlotte and Winston-Salem and a coalition of Latino groups throughout the Piedmont, are the spearhead of an ambitious, grass-roots organizing effort called North Carolina United Power (NC UP) that has as its goal empowering the working class and low-income people to act as a political force.

On Sunday afternoon, that effort was alive and excited as almost a thousand folks filled the auditorium at the Durham School of the Arts for NC UP’s first-ever statewide assembly. Picture a hall with people of all ages, including lots of small children; almost everybody is part of a church, congregation or mosque group; the crowd is roughly one-third black, one-third Latino, one-third white; the speeches are in Spanish and English, and every speech is quickly translated from one to the other.

The speakers are impassioned, but what really wins the day are the translators, especially when three minutes of English is summarized into 45 seconds of high-octane Spanish–that’s just guaranteed to bring the folks out of their seats, especially the ones who thought to bring their rattles.

“Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede!” comes from the back of the hall, led by a contingent from Durham’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. “Yes, we can!”

Can what?

Not surprisingly, the eight issues on NC UP’s statewide agenda are not the ones you’ve been reading about as the General Assembly prepares to return to action on May 10. No corporate tax cuts here. UP first, instead, is “fairness for military families,” including a living-wage requirement and better base housing for soldiers and a guarantee of protected earnings for reserves called to active duty for one year or more. The rest of the agenda: ending homelessness; jobs programs with on-the-job training, day-care subsidies, after-school programs and affordable health care for every child who needs them; bilingual services in critical public agencies; and easing Motor Vehicle rules so immigrants can get valid drivers’ licenses.

It’s a hefty agenda, and while NC UP has a famous lineage–it’s backed by the Industrial Areas Foundation, which goes back more than half a century to radical activist Saul Alinsky–it’s still a political toddler around these parts, as the IAF’s organizer here, Chris Bishop, readily acknowledges. Thus, a long list of invited politicians, from Gov. Mike Easley on down, failed to show on Sunday, with only local congressman, Rep. David Price and state House Rep. Paul Luebke on hand.

Still, the point is to build for the long-haul, and that they’re doing. “We’re engaged in a process of collective learning and action together,” Bishop says. “We look for issues where we can have an immediate impact–that are winnable, achievable, that have a beginning, a middle and an end.”

That’s how they’ve gotten traction in Durham, he says. Now, he’s turning his sights to Raleigh, where it seems clear that there are–Bishop says this so dryly–“many opportunities for people to win together.”

The little secret you hear in the Raleigh contingent is that city staffers are urging ROAR on, quietly encouraging whatever it can do to introduce social-justice and progressive politics to the City of Oaks. That’s what Patrick McNair has in mind, certainly. A member of Oak City Baptist Church in East Raleigh, McNair is a Marine Corps vet with a start-up computer consulting business. His interest is in better job-training programs for people who are unemployed or under-employed.

“The idea is not to hound anybody, but to better the system,” McNair says simply.

Is he interested in running for office himself? He laughs, shaking his head. “Nothing like that. Our goal is to work with the people who do run for office and help them get more accomplished.”

Jane Richardson, part of the Sacred Heart Cathedral contingent in ROAR, agrees. “I think the City Council is quite open to our ideas,” she says. Why is that? “Well, most groups they see have come together over a negative,” Richardson says. “We’re looking for positive results. And we will just keep coming back.”