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She's leaving home: Heather Booth looks back on 25 years of struggle



Her bags aren't packed yet, but friends and political allies are on the phone. The word has slowly leaked that Heather Booth--one of Chicago's premier political and community organizers--is leaving town. Her husband, Paul Booth, has already left; he's in Washington, D.C., where he'll work as director of field services for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Heather Booth says she will join him as soon as their Lakeview flat is subleased, probably in May.

Behind her she leaves 25 years' worth of memories--not to mention the bumps and bruises--of the struggles waged on behalf of environmental, feminist, consumer, and political groups. Her most enduring contribution to Chicago is the Midwest Academy, which from its offices on Ohio Street teaches the fundamentals of organizing and activism to hundreds of activists from across the country.

"Heather may not be so well-known in Chicago, even though she's based here, because her greatest contributions are more national than local," says Don Rose, who worked with Booth on Tim Evans's mayoral campaign. "But where she's participated in local campaigns, she's been a valuable asset."

"Heather will be too modest to take the credit, but you can look at women's groups, utilities groups, labor groups, community groups all over the country and find leaders who learned the trade from Heather Booth," says Jackie Kendall, the Midwest Academy's current executive director. "I think of Miles Rapoport, for example, who was one of our first interns at the academy. Now he's the assistant majority leader in the Connecticut state legislature. There's a whole generation of leaders all over the country who came through here."

Booth will remain president of the academy but will devote most of her time in Washington to the Citizen Action Fund, a nationwide coalition of community groups she organized in 1980.

"It will be hard to leave Chicago," she says. "I was raised in New York, but this is where I got my start."

That was in 1963, when at the age of 18 she enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. "I'd been somewhat socially aware as a kid," says Booth. "But coming to the University of Chicago was like magic for me. There were all these struggles, all these movements. This was the 60s--anything was possible."

In 1964, Booth joined hundreds of other northern college students moving to Mississippi to help register black voters and organize freedom schools.

"That was the summer that Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were killed--that was the summer of Mississippi Burning," says Booth. "It was 25 years ago, but when I read books or letters from that time it seems like yesterday. It was a frightening experience. I remember this one bomb threat, we had to lie flat on the floor of a freedom school for hours. Members of the White Citizens Council had surrounded us. We didn't know what to do. Should we leave and risk being shot? Or should we stay and risk being blown up?"

That fall, she returned to Chicago. Within a few years, she had graduated from college, married Paul Booth--then national secretary of Students of for a Democratic Society--had two children, gotten a job as an editorial consultant for a market analyst, and settled down. Or so she thought. A few months after being hired, she was fired for encouraging the secretaries to organize for their rights.

"The boss treated them cruelly," says Booth. "There were no health benefits, they got lousy pay. I was very idealistic. I didn't think you should be silent in the face of injustice. The boss told them: 'I'll give you your demands, but Heather has to be fired.' What could I do? I left."

She also sued her boss, the case coming before the National Labor Relations Board. In 1972, nearly three years after she'd filed, she won a $5,000 award. She used the money to found the Midwest Academy.

"We started the academy because it seemed the movement was falling apart," Booth says. "My husband and I had left SDS in 1967, when it started to lose faith in the American public. We were called the 'old new left.' We had kids; we believed in the nuclear family; we didn't do drugs. We believed there were a lot of positive lessons to learn from the 60s, but better strategic planning was needed. It was a chaotic time. People were saying: 'We don't need to know how to chair a meeting,' or 'We don't need to develop a membership list.' There was all this energy; it needed to be organized and channeled."

From the start, Booth and her codirector Steve Max believed that organizing should have three goals: changing people's lives, giving them a sense of power, and building democratic institutions. In some respects, they preached the same strategies of organizing devised during the 1930s and '40s by Saul Alinsky. The main difference is that Alinsky devoted most of his efforts to organizing locally based groups; Booth encouraged students at the academy to build state or nationwide coalitions. "It's good to organize people in Chicago," says current executive director Kendall. "But it's even better if the people in Chicago can organize with a group from Detroit or Boston."

"One of the most important things about the academy is that activists can go there to network," Booth adds. "It's so encouraging to see that there are other people in other communities all over the country struggling with the same problems. You realize you're not alone. We wanted to show that all organizing does not have to be factional."

In the early days, they were headquartered in the basement of a church near Clark and Fullerton. The first training groups were mostly feminists.

"The most important principle we taught is to make sure you are specific about your goals," says Booth. "It's not good enough to say, 'The Freedom Train is coming.' That's too abstract. We want to change people's lives. We have to fight to win specific goals, like a day-care facility, or a tenants' group."

Over time the academy grew, until by the late 70s it had a staff of four and an annual budget of over $100,000. That was when it caught the attention of leaders from another burgeoning movement, this one on the right.

"Congressman Henry Hyde wrote an editorial in the Tribune that accused us of subversion," says Booth.' "A congressional investigation followed, because we were getting federal funds to train VISTA volunteers. They investigated us for over a year. There were these two agents who followed us to training sessions. It was weird; they'd sit in their trench coats and watch us. I was petrified. Once I went up to them and asked: 'Don't you understand what we're trying to do? Haven't you ever been mad at your boss, or felt ripped off by a store?' They just stared at me. Eventually the congressional subcommittee cleared us of any charges, but for a while I was petrified."

In 1980, Booth stepped down as executive director of the academy to found the Citizen Action Fund, a lobbying group.

"Citizen Action has about 1.8 million dues-paying members," says Booth. "Our budget is about $20 million. We're made up of groups organized all over the country for specific issues. Some are more involved in environmental issues, others consumer issues. We send our organizers door-to-door to sign residents up. It's very political. We leaned on Senator Alan Dixon, for instance, to vote against the Bork Supreme Court nomination. And now we're calling for a boycott of Exxon because of the oil spill in Alaska. We're not that strong in Chicago, but we have a good base downstate through our member organization, the Illinois Public Action Council. Mostly we're strongest among the so-called Reagan Democrats--lower-middle-class voters who are hit by economic issues."

Ironically, Booth and other activists have been unable to sway these voters from voting Republican in the last few presidential elections. More disturbing has been their inability to bridge the racial gulf in Chicago politics.

"I suppose if I have one major disappointment about Chicago it's that there is a major gap between blacks and whites here," says Booth. "There is a strong feeling in the black community that the press was biased for Daley and against Evans. Those feelings have to do with misinformation in stories, headlines, or picture captions, as well as investigations not done. And then in the face of all of that, the liberal watchdog group CONDUCT says it will investigate black talk-radio stations. It's like two different worlds. Blacks are worried about bias, and whites say they're going to investigate blacks."

Still, many white Chicagoans do feel, perhaps legitimately, that black political leaders like Eugene Sawyer and Tim Evans are not doing all they can to control their more outspoken, racially provocative allies.

"It really bothers me that white voters feel compelled to judge all black politicians by the actions of a few," says Booth. "Tim Evans has never, ever uttered anything vaguely anti-Semitic. In fact, if you read the first articles in the Tribune about Steve Cokely, you will see that Evans denounced anti-Semitism. Yet so many members of the white and liberal communities fell back on their previous assumptions and prejudices after the Cokely affair. Meanwhile, no one ever asked Daley to be accountable for the words and deeds of his white supporters who had been members of the Vrdolyak 29."

There's no hope that politicians will bridge this gap anytime soon. No doubt it's a problem that will await Booth should she return.

"You don't stop struggling because of a few setbacks," says Booth. "Whenever I'm teaching an organizing class, I ask: 'How are rights won? Are they given to us by some benevolent president or mayor? Or did they emerge from the struggles of people?' If we don't learn that change comes from struggle, we're lost.

"And it's not a pretty struggle. I tell the kids who ask me about Mississippi that it wasn't pretty. It was hot, smelly, and dirty. I got chiggers in my legs, and it was boring. You can't imagine how incredibly boring and frustrating it is to knock on doors and try to get people to register. So I'm confident about the struggles in Chicago. One of the wonderful things about democracy is that people can change."

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

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