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Community organizers: A community that needs organizing

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In the mid-1960s, the legendary activist Saul Alinsky used his charisma and charm to talk an idealistic 25-year-old former high school English teacher into a job as a community organizer.

Bob Vondrasek has been an organizer ever since, though he long ago realized the reality is a lot different than the dream. He learned that organizers generally work long hours for little pay and almost no recognition. The burnout level is high: very few last longer than three or four years. Almost none make it a career, as Vondrasek has.

"In this business, you tend to have a lot of kids graduate from college, try organizing for a year or two, and then move on," says Vondrasek. "At most meetings of organizers I am by far the oldest person. The others look at me and say, 'Ooh, you're 55!' They couldn't get over that--like it's ancient."

To help stabilize the profession, Vondrasek and others are now creating what amounts to an organization for organizers, a local chapter of the newly formed National Organizers Alliance. The group's open to labor and community organizers, and its chief goal is to set new wage and benefit standards.

The idea has sparked interest, even if many organizers remain somewhat skeptical.

"If they can put something like that together more power to them, but I'd be surprised if the effort succeeds," says Josh Hoyt, executive director of the Organization of the NorthEast. "The real issue is that most organizers are too busy to spend time organizing on their own behalf."

Alinsky talked a great deal about the need to pay organizers a living wage, but he was a stern taskmaster who helped cultivate the notion that organizers should put their cause and communities above personal considerations. The model organizer advanced by Alinsky in Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, his two primers on the trade, is similar to a gunslinger in the old west. He or she rides into a dysfunctional and disorganized community and organizes its institutions into a single fighting force. The key is to help people help themselves and then ride on to the next town. In neither book does Alinsky raise the notion of a community organization as the source of pensions, health care, or even the kind of wage that might enable an organizer to buy a house or raise a family.

Quite the contrary, such notions were considered hopelessly old-fashioned and shamelessly bourgeois among activists 30 years ago. Alinsky himself was not averse to charging relatively high fees for speaking engagements, but in the last years of his life he regularly toured the country and had little in the way of a routine family life. Alinsky died in 1972.

"Organizers weren't supposed to make a decent wage," says Elce Redmond, executive director of the Northwest Austin Council. "You were supposed to be on some guilt trip. The work was important and you were supposed to sacrifice."

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, hundreds of young, idealistic men and women poured into cities, yearning to eradicate poverty and transform slums. Chicago was a magnet for such activists, and home to well over 100 organizations built on the Alinsky model (Alinsky lived here most of his life). It was the base for such nationally known activists as Gail Cincotta, Heather Booth, and Tom Gaudette.

Vondrasek was one of those early Alinsky disciples. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, Vondrasek returned to teach English at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, his alma mater. "It didn't work out too well for me," says Vondrasek. "I got fired for teaching Catcher in the Rye."

After bouncing around several jobs, he hooked up with Alinsky and has been organizing ever since. He's now staff director of the South Austin Coalition.

"I don't want to complain, and I don't want to sound like I feel sorry for myself--a lot of people have had things a lot worse than me," says Vondrasek. "But there have been rocky times. I've got four grown kids and 33 years of marriage with the same woman--but all of that is very unconventional for this business. We were very poor for a while. Life ain't easy out here. If you learn to pace yourself it can be done. I guess the first lesson you have to learn is that you can't solve every problem overnight."

Judy Hertz, who is also helping to organize the NOA chapter, has a similar story. She was in graduate school at the University of Chicago when she got a job as an organizer for the Southwest Parish and Neighborhood Federation, based in the area close to Marquette Park.

"It's hard to explain why I was drawn to this profession; it just bites you like a bug," says Hertz. "I worked as many as 80 hours a week when an issue was hot, knocking on doors, putting out the newsletter, strategizing with leaders, meeting new members.

"One of our first issues was a campaign against real estate solicitations. We decided we should go to a real estate company on a Saturday morning and ask them to sign a pledge not to do this anymore. Well, Saturday morning comes around and the men who had agreed to lead the demonstration didn't show up. The only people we had were some women who were scared to lead the protest because they had never done any public speaking. But they did it, and it was such a transforming experience. Afterwards, they were so thrilled, so excited. You could see that their perception of themselves had changed. Things like that stay with you for a long time and make the job worthwhile."

Hertz left the federation and went to work for the Rogers Park Tenants Committee. But she left that group about two years ago to spend more time with her children.

"For a while I had a part-time arrangement, but it's very difficult to be a part-time organizer," says Hertz. "The whole issue of raising a family and being an organizer is one I would like to see our group address. Whether it's finding time to take care of the kids or having enough money to send them to college, I don't think that people should have to stop being community organizers when they have family responsibilities."

According to a recent survey by researchers at Roosevelt University, community organizers in Chicago work an average of 54 hours a week. The median salary of the survey's respondents was $33,000, a figure somewhat inflated by the fact that the survey includes chief executive officers for not-for-profit development groups. Some organizers, like Redmond, receive no health insurance or pension benefits.

This is not the first time that local organizers have raised issues like health benefits, but they have never successfully organized a permanent association.

"It's hard to get organizers together because we tend to be mavericks." says Hoyt. "We're very individualistic. We'll organize others, but not ourselves. Getting us together is like organizing a convention of anarchists."

There is fierce competition among organizers over everything from grant money to newspaper articles. And organizers are also divided by personality clashes and ideological disputes. In some cases it's as though their greatest goal is not so much eradicating poverty as each other.

"We have to get beyond the rivalries," says Redmond. "This is not about organizations, it's about individual organizers. The organizations can have their rivalries, but the organizers can still be friends and associates. This is not about imposing one style of organizing. We want organizers to do what they do best. Bob [Vondrasek] and I work the same neighborhood, but we talk all the time. That's the way it should be."

The organizations themselves are also obstacles. Their leaders might take umbrage if paid staffers demanded too much in the way of salaries and benefits.

Traditionally, paid organizers were taught to remain in the background. They weren't even supposed to be quoted in the newspapers. Instead, the local leaders would get the limelight, as part of an effort to cultivate what Alinsky called "native" leaders.

Redmond says such tactics are as outdated as the notion that organizers shouldn't make a decent wage.

"In the old days, an organizer could be exploited and put on a guilt trip," says Redmond, who at age 28 represents a new breed of organizer. "If you asked for anything resembling a decent wage they'd chastise you for taking from the poor. Then they would chastise you if you said something in the paper. That's foolish. That puts a barrier between the organizer and the people he or she is organizing. Yes, we want to develop local leadership, but, hey, we're all out here together. No one person is better than anyone else. That's all about romanticizing the poor: 'Oh, the poor, the proletariat; I can't understand them with all of my middle-class, bourgeois attitudes.' Hey, this is 1993. The game has changed. We don't have a bunch of white middle-class college kids hurrying to come into organizing. This is about creating a profession that encourages people to stay."

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

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