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Sharing the wealth: helping communities help themselves

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On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving Chicago's leading activists and organizers got dressed up and came downtown for their own version of the Academy Awards: the third annual Community Organizing Award was to go to some lucky organization, along with a commemorative plaque and a $20,000 check. The winner was the Chicago Affordable Housing and Community Jobs Campaign, an integrated coalition of groups that gave the Daley administration fits earlier this year when it forced the mayor to commit more money than he'd planned for low-income housing.

Some of the money for the award comes from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the country's largest and best-known philanthropies. The rest comes from the Woods Charitable Fund and the Wieboldt Foundation, two groups determined to prove that grass-roots neighborhood activism still lives in Chicago.

"There's no way around it--the best way for a community to help itself is to organize its various parts into one and to fight for its best interests," says Ken Rolling, associate director of the Woods Fund. "The hard part of course is finding those common areas of interest that bridge parochial concerns. That's what the campaign did so effectively on a citywide level, and that's what we want to encourage with our award and grant making."

The philosophy espoused by Rolling and his counterparts at Wieboldt, Regina McGraw and Carmen Prieto, is largely a by-product of years of labor, civil rights, and community activism. Rolling, a former Catholic priest, was a follower of the late Father James Groppi, who led the struggle for integration in Milwaukee. "I was based in Milwaukee, and we were helping priests and nuns develop justice themes in ministries," says Rolling. "We were very involved in larger issues, like the war and civil rights. But I started looking for other kinds of direct action that helps people where they live."

In 1978 Rolling moved to Chicago and went to work as an organizer for the Citizen Labor Energy Coalition. Eight years later he went to work for the Woods Fund, an endowed foundation that awards about $1.8 million worth of grants each year. "I think I've met just about every major organizer, and most of them are amazingly creative people," he says. "We're looking for membership-controlled groups that are well rooted in the institutions of the community. We're looking for groups whose members are part of local fund-raising. It's paternalistic to say that poor folks can't come up with dollars. Missionaries have that attitude. They come in and say, 'These poor folks. I'm going to get them a latrine.'"

Rolling looks for groups like the Interfaith Organizing Project, an association of black residents and churches that forced concessions from the city and developers building the new west-side stadium.

"I remember going out to the west side with a Woods Fund trustee and sitting down with members of IOP. This was when they were opposing the proposed west-side Bears stadium, which of course never got built. We were sitting in this church and our trustee says, 'I disagree with your position. Something's got to be done on the west side. I think you should be at the table.' The people looked at us and smiled, and the meeting went on. In the long run their strategy of opposition proved to be the best. The only way they could force their way to the table so that they could be part of the negotiations was to oppose the stadium.

"A lot of people harangue against the tactics of confrontation adopted by many community groups," says Rolling, whose fund gave IOP a grant. "But a poor community doesn't have the money to buy its way to the negotiation table. Sometimes opposition and confrontation is the only way to get people in power to listen."

Eventually IOP forced the Bulls and Blackhawks to build replacement housing for all the families moved to make way for the new stadium. "IOP came to the table with its own plan for development of the west side," says Rolling. "Now that plan wasn't completely implemented, but at least they had a plan. They had a solid core of religious and lay leaders who stuck together and worked close for a number of years. Every Thursday night they had potluck meals and discussions. They kept everyone together so that the developers couldn't pick them off one by one with separate deals. The results of their perseverance are measurable: they got replacement housing. They got the city to build a new library and a park. They used the leverage they had to benefit the whole community."

With the stadium completed IOP faces something of an identity crisis, as most groups do at the end of a major campaign. "That's always a challenge for community organizations: How do you sustain yourself through the hills and valleys?" says Rolling. "I've seen organizations where folks get tired and run out of energy. Or one set of leaders moves on and there's no one left to replace them. The great challenge is to build the foundation that keeps a group going through these valleys."

McGraw, executive director of the Wieboldt Foundation, believes that well-organized communities are the key to the city's future. "We fund about 77 organizations a year, and the range runs from $5,000 to $20,000. Almost all of it goes to community groups or groups that provide assistance to community groups."

McGraw, who was raised in New Jersey, began her career in Chicago in 1975 as a canvasser for Citizens Action Program, an organization fighting the ill-fated Crosstown Expressway. "My first night I got sent out canvassing in a neighborhood, and I told the people that we were fighting the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The people looked at me like I was from another planet."

According to McGraw, the decision as to which group gets the annual Community Organizing Award is based on recommendations from activists in the field. "Originally we had each group who wanted to be considered fill out a nomination form. But the organizers let us know that they were too busy, and filling out forms was not something they wanted to be a part of. So now we solicit their opinions."

From the start it was apparent that the campaign was the clear winner. Like the IOP, they began with a well-defined plan: they wanted the city to spend $1 billion over five years to build or rehab 35,000 units of housing.

When the city balked the campaign conducted rallies and bombarded reporters with studies that showed the city was inflating the figures when it reported how much it spent on low-income housing. Eventually the city agreed to commit $250 million for low-income housing over the next five years, if for no other reason than it wanted to get the campaign off its back. "They clearly defined their goals, they did great community turnout, they had effective research, and they used their resources to get publicity," says McGraw. "It was a great campaign."

The campaign's effort was a throwback to the 1960s in that the activists weren't afraid to confront City Hall. In recent years a significant number of community groups have preferred to ally themselves with politicians and political factions. The most obvious example is the United Neighborhood Organization, which has emerged as one of Mayor Daley's chief cheerleaders in Latino communities. In return the mayor has appointed some of UNO's members to city boards and agencies. But this kind of coziness may jeopardize a group's relationships with other politicians and community organizations.

"I think all community organizations have to ask themselves, how do you collaborate and how do you negotiate with City Hall?" says Rolling. "You don't want to be too aligned with one politician. You don't want to lose your base. This is a great challenge for the 90s."

The leaders of the campaign say their fight with City Hall isn't over. "We appreciate this award, but our work is just starting," says David Hunt, executive director of the Chicago Rehab Network, a leading member of the campaign. "The city is backing off the commitment it made, and we're getting the documentation together to prove it." Hunt accepted the award on behalf of the campaign at the November 22 function, which also featured Robert Moses, the fabled civil rights activist.

"At one point Moses was taking questions," says McGraw, "and a young man who identified himself as a rapper wanted to know what were the differences between the civil rights movement and things going on today. Moses said the 60s had a vision for what the country should be, and he thinks that young people today will have to create a new vision. I think that vision will come out of the communities. These are where the people live who best understand the problems and the solutions."

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

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