Framing the issues: video as an organizing tool | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Framing the issues: video as an organizing tool

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In the summer of 1991 Bruce Orenstein made a video that played on all the local news shows, and for a few days he knew how it must feel to be David Gergen.

But while Gergen spins the press and wins media coverage for presidents, Orenstein was working on behalf of black women from the Henry Horner Homes, a CHA housing complex on the west side.

"The video brought attention to a lawsuit filed by the Henry Horner Mothers' Guild against the CHA," Orenstein recalls. "Footage of intolerable third-world conditions in Horner wound up being featured on every news station in the local market, as well as on national news shows. Through that video, women who are usually ignored got their message out."

The video was the second of 14 tapes Orenstein has produced through the Chicago Video Project, his not-for-profit production company. Orenstein calls his videos tools for organizing. They are short, punchy takes intended to galvanize viewers to action on such matters as crime, housing, and education.

"This is not art and it's not journalism--it's video organizing," says Orenstein. "I use video technology the same way corporations do. But while they use it to advance their monied interests, we're using it for social change. That's what this is all about. I'm interested in using video to bring about changes that improve people's lives."

Orenstein, 41, came to video late in life. He never studied film; his favorite movie is Duck Soup, which he has seen ten times, closely followed by Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

By training, he is a community organizer. He got his first organizing job in 1971 with the Industrial Areas Foundation, founded by the late Saul Alinsky.

"I learned early on most of the basic tools of organizing," says Orenstein. "You have to know how to frame an issue. You have to personalize an issue. . . . You have to have legitimate goals that can be reached. People have to see a reward for their efforts."

Orenstein has organized in communities all over Chicago as well as in Indiana and Seattle. His last full-time organizing job was in a mostly Hispanic community near the steel mills on the far southeast side. "That's where I first realized that videos could be effective tools," says Orenstein. "We started taping some of our meetings, and I realized you could use videos to direct attention to an issue."

Backed by funding from several local foundations and working out of his house, Orenstein began the Chicago Video Project in the spring of 1991. His first project was for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, a group with branches in Englewood and Lawndale.

"ACORN was in the middle of a major campaign to get the city to demolish abandoned buildings," says Orenstein. "It's a serious problem. These buildings become drug houses or they get burned down. They're cancers on a community. But the city never seems to do anything about them. I remember organizing abandoned-building campaigns years ago."

The eight-minute tape Orenstein made for ACORN opens with a shot of children jumping rope outside a dilapidated building. Then there are a series of quick comments--or sound bites--from residents bitterly describing their frustration with the city and their fears that the buildings have become havens for dope dealers and thugs.

Orenstein frequently writes lines for the subjects of his videos, to make the finished product more effective. In the ACORN video one person says, "The city goes after people with parking tickets, why not people with abandoned buildings?" And another utters the line that will become a refrain in the video: "Government isn't going to care unless we make them care. That's the politics of Chicago." Both were scripted by Orenstein.

"I constructed the tape so it would have all the elements I would use in a house meeting," says Orenstein. "I've been through hundreds of those meetings. You start off by going around the room, asking each person to say why they are here, what they think about abandoned buildings."

The remainder of the tape identifies the city as the target for blame. "The city's response has always been that they are doing the best they can but there are so many cases and so few lawyers and so on and so forth," says Orenstein. "I'm sorry, but that has never been a satisfactory answer to the families trying to raise children across the street from one of these buildings."

The video hammers this point home by revealing that Chicago spends far less than either New York or Philadelphia to demolish or board up abandoned buildings. As for the city's response about the judicial backlog, it's used against them in a scene showing a confrontation between activists and Building Department bureaucrats in the hallway of City Hall. The activists corner Building Commissioner Dan Weil and demand action on their issue. Weil tells them the courts are too busy, while a henchman glances nervously at his watch. The gist is that the bureaucrats end up coming across as whiners and wimps.

Orenstein calls this technique political jujitsu, where an opponent's point of view is used against him. It's what Reagan Republicans did so brilliantly for years when they successfully convinced middle-class voters that Democratic soak-the-rich tax-hike proposals would hit hardest at the Average Joe.

"We are polarizing the issue, the way any good organizer would," says Orenstein. "We are saying, 'You are right and they are wrong.' This is what you have to do to mobilize people. This does not pretend to be what journalists call an 'objective' view. This is a position tape. Is it propaganda? Well, yeah, it's propaganda. But everything in it is accurate. The city's record in this area was bad."

Char Woods, who works with Orenstein as his senior producer, says the tape is not all that different from the type of work many television journalists do.

"We still have to tell a story, we still have to make the issue clear," says Woods, who used to work as a producer for a PBS affiliate in San Francisco. "If I were doing the ACORN piece for PBS I'd include more comments from the city officials. My bottom line would be that the situation regarding abandoned buildings is awful and something should be done about it. But there [would be] no guarantee that something was going to happen. Here we sit down from the beginning and work with a group to figure out what will happen as a result of our piece."

In the case of ACORN's campaign, the results were positive. After a year of lobbying, the group convinced Mayor Daley to spend an extra $4 million a year demolishing or boarding up abandoned buildings. "I'm not going to fool myself--[these tapes are] only as good as the organizations that use [them]," says Orenstein. "And ACORN used it well. They worked very hard."

The Henry Horner tape was produced on behalf of residents who went to court in an attempt to get the CHA to improve living conditions at the west-side high rise. That film opens with a horrifying walk through a hallway, showing flooded floors, crumbling walls, peeling paint, and dark, winding, graffiti-scarred staircases. Later a resident says, in another line scripted by Orenstein: "The CHA should be held to the same legal responsibilities and standards as any other landlord."

The film was billed as a video news release and shipped to TV stations on the day members of the Mothers' Guild held a press conference to publicize their lawsuit. That night the local stations aired the video, the reporters repeating Orenstein's words.

"They kept asking our question about why the CHA shouldn't be held to the same standards as other landlords," says Orenstein. "We were trying to shape media coverage of an issue, just like George Bush or Bill Clinton. We wanted to show articulate, rational women--women who had values, who wanted to raise their kids in a decent, clean environment. That's a very reasonable position. It's an irrefutable position. I'm proud of the piece, though unfortunately conditions have not improved at Henry Horner. The case is still dragging through the courts."

It cost about $7,000 each to produce the ACORN and Henry Horner pieces. Most production costs are underwritten by grants the project receives from philanthropies such as the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Wieboldt Foundation. Orenstein now operates the project out of an office in a renovated Goose Island factory. Lately he's gotten a bit more daring with his productions, particularly in his use of background music.

"I'd like to enlist assistance from talented producers across the city," Orenstein says. "The project is a great outlet for people who are independent producers or old-time journalists who feel discouraged with the state of the business today."

Despite his success, Orenstein says he will not move into making feature films or TV commercials for politicians. "I'm getting better at using equipment and I enjoy making videos," says Orenstein. "But at heart I remain an organizer."

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

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