Organizing for Change: Stories of Success

20 additional victories

Compiled by Jane Beckett of the New Prospect Foundation

The substantial improvements to community and regional life that are described in the preceding pages are not unique. Every day, community organizations (and coalitions led by community organizations) foster civic participation that results in less noticed, but very important, solutions to community challenges.

Crime/safety. For example, the democracy-in-action that is community organizing has an ongoing effect on public safety in Chicago and other cities. Community organizations are uniquely able to identify problems, imagine solutions and work to get those solutions implemented through advocacy with police departments, youth service agencies, the criminal justice system, school systems, park districts, property owners and others. Literally dozens of community organizations take the lead in these complex, long-term relationship-based collaborative efforts to improve policing and to bring other resources to bear on safety issues.

School Reform. Chicago's historic school reform legislation invests substantial decision-making powers in elected Local School Councils. Community organizations all over the city have played, and will continue to play, a crucial role in generating candidates, ideas, support and friendly criticism for LSCs ; hundreds of parents and community members who have learned the basics of democratic decision-making within community organizations are now using those skills as LSC members. Community organizations also have provided the impetus for new school buildings, renovations for older school buildings, the introduction of curriculum improvements and action on school safety issues.

Affordable housing. As noted in the first story, affordable housing doesn't happen without a subsidy. It also doesn't happen without the organized support of community members, because political pressure is necessary to make it happen. There are literally thousands of decent, affordable housing units in Chicago today (both new construction and rehab) that would not exist but for the sophisticated action campaigns of community organizations. These thousands of units, in turn, have had a positive impact on their communities: replacing blighted or abandoned buildings, providing safe and affordable housing for families and individuals, anchoring other improvements carried out by neighboring property owners and more.

Safety, school improvement, and affordable housing are central to any community; below, however, are listed a set of accomplishments, all from the past several years, that shows the even wider range of issues that community organizing can address. Since community organizing is, in reality, democracy at work, any local issue can be tackled; and through coalition work, any regional, state or national issue can be as well.

1. Ginger Ridge--South Suburban Action Conference, through its 30 member congregations in a dozen municipalities in South Cook County, mobilized to save 900-plus units of low-income housing in Calumet City. SSAC created a campaign to get the resources needed to renovate the blighted and dangerous Ginger Ridge complex of garden apartments, and also to create a funding stream to support needed services and community development opportunities. Ginger Ridge is now a model for preservation and improvement of affordable housing.

2. Tenants Bill of Rights--Metropolitan Tenants Organization led a citywide campaign that resulted in passage in 1986 of the Chicago Tenants Bill of Rights, a municipal ordinance that substantially increased tenants rights in large- and medium-sized Chicago apartment buildings.

3. Schools as community centers--Logan Square Neighborhood Association organized to create community centers in four local elementary schools. Creating the plan, organizing to get funding and partnering with a wide variety of related organizations has led to school buildings that are open to the community into the evening, offering academic, recreational, social-service and leadership-development activities.

4. Living Wage Ordinance--In 1998, a broad coalition of community organizations spearheaded by Chicago ACORN convinced the city council to pass an ordinance requiring city contractors to pay all of their employees at least $7.60 per hour. This work has expanded to win wage increases for state-employed home-care workers, nursing-home workers, and group-home workers.

5. Public Aid office reform--Organization of the NorthEast and a number of its Mutual Aid Association members succeeded in getting the local public aid office to convene a monitoring process (including participation of recipients and community representatives) that addresses inefficiencies and inequities in the way clients are treated.

6. Commercial-strip revitalization--Brighton Park Neighborhood Council brought a fragmented and discouraged business community together on the near Southwest Side in 1999. Newly energized business people took action on zoning problems, blight, crime and planning.

7. Open land--Developers coveted a multi-acre property that had been the grounds of a Tuberculosis Sanitarium. In the 1970s, the North River Commission led a successful campaign to preserve the land as a public park, nature center and site for senior-citizen housing.

8. Police harassment--Interfaith Leadership Project of Cicero, Berwyn and Stickney won a major change in Cicero Police Department policy. Previously, police officers had been authorized to stop drivers merely for having a foreign appearance; this practice was stopped. ILP had also prevented the Town of Cicero from selling one of its few parks to a developer, and has been the force behind school board actions taken to reduce school overcrowding.

9. Landfill moratorium--In 1985, UNO of South East Chicago pressed the city council into declaring a moratorium on the creation or expansion of landfills on the Southeast Side of Chicago, an area already supporting too many landfills.

10. Park District equity--In 1999, JACOB, a congregation-based organization in Joliet, forced the Joliet Park District to redirect its resources toward better maintenance and improvements for parks serving the lower-income East Side. Previously, the Park District board had planned to build a second ice rink in the wealthier West Side. JACOB had earlier succeeded in tying Enterprise Zone tax abatements to job creation, and had spearheaded the adoption of citywide community policing by the Joliet Police Department.

11. Access to ESL classes--During the mid dle and late 1990s the Southwest Organizing Project initiated a major expansion of ESL classes in a region of the city that is home to sizable immigrant populations. At an opportune time, SWOP handed off the administration and support of these classes to a community college (retaining convenient class locations in member churches) after organizing to ensure permanent funding.

12. Clean air--In 1996, a large coalition of community-based and environmental organizations known as WASTE (Westside Alliance for a Safe, Toxic-free Environment) convinced the city of Chicago to close down the Northwest Incinerator, a major source of air pollution in a densely populated neighborhood.

13. Reduction of hate crime--Lakeview Action Council gained the extension of police bike patrols into late-night hours, contributing to a decrease in the number of hate crimes in a neighborhood previously troubled by gay bashing and improving police-community relations.

14. Preservation of SRO housing--Jewish Council on Urban Affairs coordinated a campaign for an ordinance that saved many hundreds of units of housing for low-income single adults.

15. Prevention of displacement--West Siders whose homes were displaced by the construction of the United Center in 1991 were not scattered; due to the efforts of the Interfaith Organizing Project, replacement housing was built nearby.

16. Utility shut-offs--Chicago ACORN succeeded in preventing gas shut-offs during the winter months. Shut-offs fell from 4,821 in the winter of 1999-2000 to 103 in the winter of 2000-2001.

17. Nuisance abatement--Property owned by the Canadian Pacific Railroad was not secured, not maintained and presented a real threat to the safety of children in the community. In 1998, Blocks Together successfully pressed the railroad to secure, maintain and monitor its right-of-way. Blocks Together has also had substantial impact on school maintenance and repair efforts by the Chicago Public Schools. This story has been repeated many, many times by dozens of large and small community organizations.

18. Infrastructure and capital improvements--In the absence of organized citizen involvement, money for repairs and improvements to a community's infrastructure tends to be spent haphazardly at best. Community organizing allows citizens to prioritize the real needs of a community and be heard when the funding for improvements is being allocated. An example: Northwest Neighborhood Federation members knew that sewer improvements to prevent flooding were their highest priority, and organized pressure made these improvements happen.

19. Public works jobs--When public money is being spent on buildings and highways, community organizations can create pathways to employment for residents of nearby low-income communities by advocating for first-source agreements as opposed to the "business as usual" hiring that can result in a largely suburban workforce.

20. Community organizations are frequently the source of the best ideas about how to address social service needs in lower-income communities. They create the tables around which committed but isolated, service agencies, churches, parents, business owners and others can brainstorm solutions, design programs and advocate for the necessary funding to introduce activities such as these:

Northwest Austin Council has brought improvements to the way that juvenile first offenders and first-time drug offenders are handled by the criminal justice system.

Developing Communities Project knew that lack of access to day care was hampering parents' efforts to support their families. DCP lobbied successfully for the creation of a substantial number of subsidized day-care slots on the Far South Side of Chicago.

Many community organizations have been the catalysts that brought affordable senior housing, better parks programming, and branch libraries to their communities.

Economic development projects, and more specifically, efforts to attract or retain jobs, frequently depend on the active advocacy of community organizations. Workforce development resources, too, have often been planned, supported and funded through the efforts of community groups. Westside Technical Institute (pushed by United Neighborhood Organization) and the Marquette Job Development Center (which needed the support of Southwest Organizing Project) are two recent examples.

Even access to health care, one of our society's thorniest problems, can be addressed by community organizing, from establishment of small clinics to the countywide referral system for the uninsured that was won by United Power for Action and Justice.

It should be noted that community organizations do not typically operate these services themselves; rather, they provide the political muscle needed to get these crucial resources off of a community's wish list and into reality.

Effectively done, community organizing makes concrete improvements in people's lives whenever change is what's needed: change in public policy, the actions of public institutions, the allocation of resources, the level of accountability of public officials, the behavior of private institutions and in the attitudes of community members themselves. Effectively done, community organizing builds social capital, civic participation and democracy itself. The examples above are only a tiny portion of the accomplishments of community organizing in Chicago in recent years. 

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