They're still talking about the day Alex Poerter made his debut as a community organizer in Chicago almost nine years ago. He was a skinny 20-year-old from Germany who wore bright lime green pants as he went door-to-door in Humboldt Park, asking Latinos in his heavily accented English to join his fledgling group, Blocks Together. It's a miracle he got people to sign up, but he did--and he helped them build Blocks Together into one of the city's most effective community groups.
For the most part Poerter has operated in relative anonymity, not wanting to draw attention from the local leaders he's enlisted. But a few weeks ago he was forced out of the shadows when he won the Brick Award, a $10,000 prize that Do Something, a national organization that promotes young activists, gives each year to nine of the country's best organizers.
Poerter has achieved a lot in the city that invented community organizing. Jason Lehrer, an organizer with the Albany Park Neighborhood Council who was trained by Poerter, says, "It's absolutely amazing to consider what he's accomplished since he came here from Germany in those lime green pants. There's a whole generation of activists that he's trained. His influence is everywhere."
Part of the reason for his success is that he has a deep-rooted understanding of what it means to feel alienated and powerless. He was born in Dresden when it was part of East Germany. His parents were nurses. "I was actually raised by my mother, who later on married my dad," he says. "She didn't get involved in the Communist Party. You have to understand, when a kid was conceived out of wedlock the government was trying to get the mother to have an abortion or give up the child so she could be the most productive in serving the regime. My mother decided to keep me and live her life."
That life, he recalls, was grim. "We never had a lot of money. We never had a TV. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment. There was no shower. We had a sink, basically. We took baths in a wooden barrel in the cellar. Were we poor? I guess that depends on how you define poor. The reality is that you could buy anything the government subsidized, but you couldn't buy anything else. Those stories you heard about bananas being available like once a year and people lining up to get them, those stories are true. I remember standing in line for hours to buy some fresh eggs. We crossed the street and a car came by and we had to speed up--and my mom dropped the grocery bag, and the eggs were mushed. I was devastated because we couldn't go back--because by then all the eggs would have been sold. Those were the shortcomings people were used to."
In 1980 he and his parents managed to get a visa to move to West Germany, where he faced a new challenge: being an outsider. "West Germans had a prejudice toward East Germans. We dress weird. We eat weird. It's not as bad as it is for, let's say, Turkish immigrants. But kids went after me because of where I was from."
Like many German adolescents, he also wrestled with his country's past. "In Germany when young people grow up and find out about their country's history two things can happen," he says. "Either the young person says, 'That's all behind, and I don't want to deal with it,' or they totally freak out and they get a huge guilt complex. When I was 16 I visited a concentration camp, and I walked into this room where they have a mound of about 500 pairs of children's shoes that were from children who weren't older than four or five years. I remember standing in front of that mound, and I couldn't talk for a week afterwards."
He says he was sort of drifting when he joined the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a national service program like the Peace Corps. "Our instructor was talking about the different projects in the U.S.--community organizations, shelters. He told about training people and teaching them to take on issues that are important. He had us read Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. I read it in German. It was amazing. It was 'radical,' but at the same time it had a purpose. There was a strategic approach to it. It was all about going out on the street and asking people what they wanted to work to change and teaching them to apply pressure to people who are their oppressors."
The service program sent him to Chicago, where he wound up living in an apartment on the southwest side and working for the National Training and Information Center, one of the country's oldest community-organizing training groups. Under the tutelage of NTIC's staff director, Shel Trapp, he was sent to help start Blocks Together. "I don't know why Shel hired me," says Poerter. "I couldn't really articulate much in English back then. For some reason he decided, OK, I'll give this kid a shot."
With a monthly $600 stipend to live on, he set out to help organize Humboldt Park, specifically the 1300 block of North Ridgeway. "I suppose everyone's going to tell you about my pants," he says. "I was still wearing weird clothes and stuff. People still make fun of it. I wasn't able to speak English well, and I couldn't speak Spanish at all. I don't know how I did it. I developed a different way of communication to express my passion. I think it's a spiritual thing. You can communicate, you can build connections with people even if you don't speak their language. I would be stumbling around in broken English, throwing some words together until they understood what I wanted to make happen."
The organization he helped form was rooted in block clubs. So Poerter and his cohorts had to go door-to-door trying to find people willing to step forward and become leaders on the major issues people in the community had identified: crime and city services. Over the course of two years he helped lay the foundation for what has become a well-established community organization--its annual convention recently drew more than 500 residents.
In 1994 he returned to Germany to visit family and friends, but a year or so later he was back working for NTIC. In 1997 the organization assigned him to form a new group, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, in the community around 47th and Western on the southwest side. Poerter says it was one of the toughest assignments he's ever had. On the surface it seemed quite similar to his work in western Humboldt Park. Both communities have been grappling with demographic changes for two decades, as blacks and Hispanics move in and whites move out. But unlike Humboldt Park, where the local political organizations are relatively weak and divided, much of Brighton Park remains under the control of strong Democratic organizations: Alderman Ray Frias's 12th Ward regulars, and Mayor Daley's 11th Ward machine. These organizations welcomed a neighborhood group about as warmly as the East German communists would have welcomed a rival political party.
Poerter guesses he "did 450 door-knocking interviews in Brighton Park. I had to get a feel of who the residents were and whether they wanted to get involved in improving their community. It was pretty scary. It was really bad. Lots of crime. People who answered the door would say, 'I've lived here 20, 30 years. It's gotten so bad I just want to get out of here alive. Please move on.'" But he managed to get people to join anyway.
One of the Brighton Park Neighbor-hood Council's earliest fights was against former 11th Ward alderman Patrick Huels, who, for reasons that were never sufficiently explained, down-zoned several commercial strips in the ward, relabeling the areas for residential use. Suddenly dozens of merchants were operating in violation of the city's zoning law, which made it difficult for them to expand, sell, rehab, or even get a bank loan without going to the alderman for approval. The council called in the press and sent busloads of merchants to protest at City Hall. "The regular organizations were very unhappy with us," says Poerter. "They planted people at our meetings to get up and walk out. They would yell at our leaders, 'You don't represent the neighborhood.' It was intimidating." The city hasn't changed the zoning back, but the merchants sent a message to the 11th Ward regulars that they were not going to allow themselves to be at the mercy of the alderman or city inspectors.
The council, which has become one of the city's most effective community organizations, has had more success on other issues, including getting the city to crack down on drug houses. "The first time I met Alex he knocked on my door," says Jennifer McQueary, now the council's president. "I couldn't quite place his accent. We have all sorts of accents out here, but it was like nothing I'd heard. I asked him, 'Do you live around here?' He said, 'No, I'm from NTIC.' He asked if I'd be interested in helping my community. I told him yes. Then before I knew it I was really more involved than I ever thought. A lot of the reason I got involved was Alex. He is unbelievable when it comes to uniting your community to work as one unit."
Poerter's job is to do all the nitty-gritty work of organizing, from recruiting local leaders to helping them hold meetings, marches, and press conferences. "Alex taught me the things any organizer needs to succeed," says Lehrer, who was an organizer in Brighton Park before moving to Albany Park. "You have to have self-confidence, and you have to be humble. You have to be superarrogant to believe that you can actually take on a problem, and yet you have to respect the people you are working with and be willing to listen and learn. This is a tough city. The people in power are trained how to screw people over. They concede nothing."
Daley, probably still irritated that anyone dared to defy the 11th Ward regulars, has yet to congratulate Poerter for bringing national acclaim to Chicago. But Poerter has received many congratulations from fellow organizers. "I think Alex can expect a lot of razzing from his peers--we don't want it to go to his head," jokes Matt McDermott, executive director of the Southwest Organizing Project and the last local organizer to win the Brick Award, in 1998. "Alex really deserves the recognition."
Poerter will fly to New York to receive his $10,000 grant, which goes to the council. Winning the award qualifies him for Do Something's $100,000 grand prize, which would also go to the council. The winner will be announced at a banquet on November 17.
Then it's back to Brighton Park. "I'm very idealistic about what any organizer can accomplish," Poerter says. "I believe in helping unite people so they can speak with one voice. Sometimes I feel truly inspired. Other times I get tired. I've knocked on a lot of doors. Sometimes I feel physically drained and I need a break. But I always come back. People say organizing is not a job--it's who you are. I relate to that. I feel I'm in it for life."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.