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Getting organized in Rogers Park

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It's been a tough year for the old Rogers Park Tenants Committee. This 1,300-member community organization has had something of an identity crisis. In February it changed its name to the Rogers Park Community Action Network, figuring that the members' scope of activity far exceeded tenant work. Several longtime employees left, the network almost ran out of cash, and then its board divided over the issue of whether to invite the Guardian Angels to patrol the Morse Avenue business strip.

In May, however, a former organizer for the community group, Jahahara Harry Armstrong, returned to become executive director. And in the last few months, the network has been on the rebound.

"I'd like to say we're in focus--back stronger than ever," says cochair Silvia Nebel. "A lot of the credit has to go to Jahahara, who is an excellent and charismatic organizer."

In the past several months, she says, Armstrong has soothed tensions between board members and made contacts with the city's top foundations. "My first challenge is to make us more economically self-dependent," says Armstrong. "We've lost staff and we want them back. It's been a rough time for communities and community organizations. We've been in a recession. A lot of people are burned out--you see that in our local school councils. It's time to reenergize; it's time to come back."

Though Armstrong has lived here for ten years, his roots are in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was born 39 years ago and got his start organizing. "My dad, Cleveland, was a construction worker, and my mother, Elizabeth, worked as a salesperson for J.C. Penny," says Armstrong. "But they were both very active in the community. They grew up in Hope, Arkansas, by the way, same town as Bill Clinton. I must have picked a lot of things up from them, though we had our differences. They admired Martin Luther King; I was part of the Black Panther Party. Fred Hampton was one of my heroes. I thought King was a nice guy, but he was wrong. Turn the other cheek, love your enemy--no! You should hate the enemy and love yourself."

One of Armstrong's first acts of protest came in the 1960s, when he was working on the grounds crew at the football stadium in Kansas City.

"It was right before a nationally televised game between the Chiefs and the Patriots, and me and some of the guys were in charge of painting the Patriots logo on the field," says Armstrong. "We painted the Patriot as a black guy. When the tarp came off, George Toma, who was head groundskeeper, went nuts. He came running down to the field and said, 'You can't do that; it can't be a brother.' Old George would have caught hell from management. I said, 'Why not? Lots of black guys play for the Patriots.' We finally compromised and made the guy sort of tan."

A high school baseball star, Armstrong spent three years at the University of Kansas and then dropped out to work in the Allis-Chalmers farm equipment factory in suburban Kansas City. "I was only going to stay for the summer, but I wound up staying for six years."

He became a union organizer, and soon made connections with trade unionists throughout the world. "I admire Mzwanele Mayekiso and his brother Moses, who founded COSATU--the Congress of South African Trade Unions--and the civic associations, which are like community organizations in black townships," says Armstrong. "Whenever I get down about the struggle here I think about those people and what they face. They were held in jail several times for treason. I'll talk to them and they'll tell me about people killed and people in jail. Mzwanele came to Chicago. He hung with me at Robert Taylor and Ida B. Wells--in our townships."

In 1987 Armstrong came to work for the Rogers Park Tenants Committee as an organizer, joining Ralph Scott, Judy Hertz, Hervenia Mitchell, Sonja Fremon, and Aaron Miripol on staff. The committee, then in its heyday, not only took the lead on organizing--operating a tenants' hot line--but was active in school reform and campaigns to remove lead-based paint from apartments. Armstrong went door-to-door in the community, signing up members.

"I like going door-to-door; I'm not afraid to mix it up," says Armstrong. "One time I saw a big crowd of people standing outside our office, watching a fight between this black girl and this Hispanic girl. The Hispanic girl was in a headlock and her eyes were popping out--she looked like she was ready to die. I fought through the crowd and pulled them apart and this guy says, 'Are you Folks or People?' meaning which gang am I with. I told him, 'Neither, I'm Rogers Park Tenants Committee.' He said, 'You shouldn't do that.' Like I'm supposed to, you know, just let this girl die. I said, 'Hey, man, I can live with it.'"

In 1990, Armstrong felt he needed a break.

"I planned to go to South Africa and work with COSATU, but the money didn't come through," says Armstrong. "So instead, I took a one-month trip back to the continent. I visited Senegal and Gambia in western Africa. I saw a little bit of everybody in the faces of the people. I saw my father, friends who had died, me as a little boy. It was joyous and also depressing. I saw our roots and along with the beauty there's ugliness. There's begging, prostitution--colonialism lives. There's a caste system--light-skinned people have advantages."

At one point Armstrong visited Goree Isle, just off the Senegalese coast, which had been a transfer station in the slave trade. "People told me that it would be very moving, that I'd hear the voices and cries of the slaves being torn from their land," says Armstrong. "I'm a very sentimental fellow, tears come easy. I thought I would cry. But it didn't happen. I saw two brothers there and they were collecting money. I turned them down and they started off on me, saying, 'You African Americans, no good.' I told them to get the hell out of my face. I said, 'You son of a bitches sold us into slavery and that's why we live in the United States, and you're still trying to pimp us.'"

Upon his return, Armstrong went to work as an organizer for the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization. In May he came back to Rogers Park--as the group's executive director.

"I came back right in the midst of a serious dispute over the Guardian Angels," says Armstrong. "It was a dispute that was pulling us apart."

The Guardian Angels were invited to Rogers Park by senior citizens and merchants affiliated with the Community Action Network who were worried about the increased numbers of muggings, holdups, and break-ins in and around Morse Avenue. Other members of the network distrusted the Angels and felt their presence would blemish the neighborhood's image.

"It was tense for a while, we had members of the group fighting--I mean, almost coming to blows," says Armstrong. "Some people said the Angels are frauds. Others didn't like their paramilitary uniforms. I tried to stay out of it. I saw points on both sides. But listen, people in this community were being mugged. And the seniors took a very proactive stance--they organized. They distributed petitions. I don't know if the Guardian Angels will cut down crime. But getting them here is part of the struggle to get a community to organize."

Over the summer, several members quit the board over the matter. "It's not something I find easy to talk about because there were so many bitter feelings," says one former board member. "A lot of people felt that Guardian Angels act like false saviors. I think resources and efforts could have been used in other directions, like community policing."

Current board members, however, insist that the Guardian Angels are just one aspect of the community's fight against crime. "It was never going to be only the Guardian Angels," says Ifak Kress-Stamm, a local artist and the network's other cochair. "It was always about getting people united behind a common issue so they can see that we share certain ideals and goals and that we should stop living an isolated existence. Anyway, I'm not sure that was the only reason some people quit the board. For some it was more like: how long can you stay on a board?"

While the organization was putting itself back together, there were also financial problems. "We had some cash-flow problems, all community organizations do at one point or another," says Armstrong. "I thought we would miss some checks. We didn't do that. Some good folks from the foundations sent some money early. I'm grateful to get foundation money, but I always wanted to be self-sufficient, and get more of our money locally. I know I won't stay here forever. Part of me will always want to go back to the south side or the west side. But if I can leave this organization self-sufficient and if I can get more community members involved, then I have done my job."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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