Organizing for Change: Stories of Success


This booklet recounts the stories of four successful community organizing campaigns in the Chicago area in the past ten years. My inspiration to write these stories came fifteen years ago when I was driving through West Town with long-time Chicago organizer Tom Gaudette. "None of these young organizers even realize," he grumbled, "how we fought for and won this housing in the early days of NCO [the Northwest Community Organization]."

He was right. I had no idea that the affordable housing development we were driving past was the result of a community effort. I had heard dozens of old stories as I was being trained as an organizer, but they mostly did not extend beyond the accomplishments of the organization I worked for at that time--just one of the hundreds of community organizations across the country.

Start to ask around, though, and you discover similar success stories in most communities, as well as many policy changes and new programs launched to benefit neighborhoods.

So when I began this writing project in collaboration with the foundations that fund the Community Organizing Award, we had a wealth of stories to choose from. How did we narrow the field?

First, we decided that we would only consider accomplishments within the last 10 years--the lifetime of the Award. Then we eliminated any victories where the end result was in doubt or the determining role that community organizing played was open to question.

Next, we talked about the core definitions of community organizing, which have been developed in the field over many years, and which the foundations use in their funding.

For an accomplishment to be considered for inclusion here, it must have resulted from grassroots organizing efforts that 1) developed community leadership; 2) were carried out through an organization that was accountable to community residents and had a democratic decision-making process; 3) built community power based on relationships among large numbers of area residents; and 4) built an enduring community organization.

This definition grows out of the work of Saul Alinsky, who developed the prototype in Chicago through his work in Back of the Yards in the 1930s. Organizers who work for the Industrial Areas Foundation, the training institute that Alinsky started before his death in 1972, are the first to say that many changes have been made in community organizing practices since Alinsky's day. Like Alinsky himself, community organizing has been enormously influenced by the labor movement and the civil rights movement (which both trace their influences to many other traditions).

In more recent years, organizing has learned from the women's movement, various student movements (black and white, north and south), the many rich political and cultural traditions brought to this country by the waves of immigrants who have arrived in large numbers during the past 25 years, and numerous other sources. And there is still plenty to learn.

Once we had narrowed the selection through dates and definitions, there were still dozens of great stories to be told. It was a difficult choice. We solicited opinions from organizers, looked at geographic and demographic balance, and aimed for campaigns that would illustrate different aspects of the organizing process in the past 10 years. Finally, we settled on four good stories of people coming together through strong community organizations to build power to keep their communities viable and to gain the right to define what "viable" means.

Hollywood has taught us to expect great deeds to be done by people with extraordinary strengths, unique talents or heroic qualities. These four stories, however, are about ordinary people. Through the community organizing process, they became connected to their neighbors and their community. By participating in organizational successes small and large, they rebuilt a sense of hope and found a role to play. They were challenged to develop their talents and to live up to their ideals. Together they learned the skills of grassroots democracy--analyzing the root causes of problems, developing solutions rooted in community, and building and wielding power.

These are not stories of individuals who spontaneously came together to confront a crisis. The mainstream press seems to love the idea of protest spontaneously generating, and to believe that there is something cynical and sullied about action that is planned and strategies that are carefully plotted. However, if community residents are truly going to have the power to make a difference, they have to be very deliberate in their work. Each of these stories involves an organization that has sunk deep roots in a community, and brings people together to think strategically about the future of their community.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to tell these stories. I interviewed a lot of wonderful people, and I want to thank all of them for sharing their thoughts and experiences with me. I express my regrets to the people whose contributions are not included here, and want them to know that what is here is influenced by everyone I spoke to, whether I have quoted them or not.

The quality of everyday life in Chicago is better because these people and many others have built strong community organizations. These organizations have been the vehicle for creating hope where there was apathy and despair, for developing among neighborhood people a sense of their own power, and for bringing about many concrete improvements in the city of Chicago and beyond.

History is not like the weather. It doesn't just happen, and leave us to make the best of it. The people in these stories came together, made plans, built power, and took action. In so doing, they changed the course of history.

--Judy Hertz

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