COMM-ORG Papers 2003

Blanc et al.: From the Ground Up

| Preface | Summary | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Appendices | Cited Works and Notes | Acknowledgements and About Authors |

Executive Summary


This report presents a study of the evolution, implementation, and results of the work of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  LSNA, one of the grantees under the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Building Community Capacity program, has a 40-year history of mobilizing neighborhood residents to maintain and improve the quality of community life and to bring additional resources and services into the neighborhood.  LSNA's work is guided by its Holistic Plan, which includes improving local public schools, developing youth leadership, enhancing neighborhood safety, maintaining affordable housing, and economic revitalization.

Overview of the Study

Between May 1999 and July 2002, Research for Action (RFA), an independent, Philadelphia-based nonprofit, worked in collaboration with LSNA on this documentation project.  Over the course of three years, the RFA research team worked with LSNA staff and leaders to collect and analyze data about LSNA’s internal processes, its strategies for neighborhood change, and the impact of engaging with LSNA on participants, especially in the areas of education and housing.  

Overview of LSNA

LSNA, an organization with a staff of 18 in 2002 and a yearly budget of approximately $1,000,000, has remained flexible and intimately connected to the community.  According to both staff and community leaders, during the past 13 years, LSNA has transformed from an organization made up primarily of white homeowners to a racially, ethnically, and economically integrated organization (reflecting the demographics of the neighborhood).  Since 1990, LSNA has developed strong school/community partnerships, created a nationally-recognized affordable homeownership program, and built citywide visibility as a dynamic, community-based organization.  Today, as low-income Logan Square residents face the possibility of displacement due to gentrification, LSNA is fighting to maintain the quality and diversity of community life it has helped to create. 

LSNA’s executive director of thirteen years, Nancy Aardema, strongly believes that the organization's success has been based on building ongoing relationships of personal trust among individuals and organizations.  During these years, the organization has looked hard for ways to nurture numerous and varied types of new social relationships within the Logan Square neighborhood.  According to Aardema, these relationships become the foundation for strong neighborhood-based leadership and the capacity to challenge power inequities and bring about social change.

Relationship building is central to all of LSNA’s work.  As the organization strives to maintain Logan Square as a neighborhood that is diverse economically, as well as ethnically, linguistically, and racially, Aardema believes that the campaign for affordable housing is worth undertaking only if it fosters creative, meaningful relationships.  As Nancy says, 

[Any campaign] has to be worthy of our time, both in terms of victory and building relationships.  So part of our organizing is always relationship building and making it worth staying in the community because it's deeper than a house.  It’s about relationships and creativity.

LSNA's successes in bringing together diverse members of the Logan Square community, mobilizing community members to address shared needs, and accessing outside resources all make it a valuable context for examining how a community organization builds community capacity by creating new sets of relationships, which in turn increase community well-being.

Community Change and Displacement In Logan Square

Logan Square covers 3.6 square miles located north and west of Chicago’s vibrant downtown.  Between 1970 and 1990, the demographics of Logan Square shifted from a majority of residents of Eastern European ancestry to a majority population of first and second generation immigrants from Latin America.  Today, Logan Square’s population of 83,000 remains a heterogeneous mix of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, other Latin Americans, recent Polish immigrants, established white residents, and African Americans.  

While the neighborhood is racially and ethnically diverse, its potential for maintaining economic diversity is threatened as real estate values and taxes rise, development escalates, and market forces encourage the conversion of affordable housing units into condominiums or luxury townhouses.  Since the early 1990s, poor and working class families have had increasingly fewer options for living in Logan Square.  Many middle class professionals, both Anglo and Latino, are long-term residents of Logan Square and contribute to the creative mix that makes up LSNA. In contrast, LSNA members often perceive wealthy newcomers as oblivious or scornful of their poorer neighbors who have helped to build the community as they raised families, made friends, and worked to improve neighborhood institutions. 

An activist priest in the neighborhood describes the sense of loss experienced by working class residents who no longer feel at home in their own neighborhood.   

When the community begins to change, it is not just the houses.  Suddenly “we” need more green space, more play space.  Each time they go and tear something down, they say drug dealers lived there.  There’s a feeling that now “we” deserve a park more than [someone] deserves a home.  When the neighborhood begins to change, then the meaning of the neighborhood begins to change. (Father Mike, Catholic priest and housing activist)

In the fall of 2001, an organizer for LSNA’s Parent Mentor program, which trains parents to work in Logan Square schools alongside the classroom teachers, vividly described the heartlessness of incoming developers and the impact that displacement is having on her school and community.  

I had 6 parent mentors living in one apartment building (it was a 17 unit building) and they got a 30 day notice and they were offered $2000 to be out in 5 days.  These people started construction even before the 30 days were up.  There were no permits issued, nothing.  They were just told to leave.  And not one of those families came back to Brentano.  So we lost 17.  I lost all those parent mentors.  I lost a few friends.  The fact they were able to do this; they weren’t issued any permits and when they were, they were back-dated. I look at the parent mentors we lost, the children we have lost from the school, the rental units we lost, and the lack of aldermen caring about those people, and even back-dating the permits!  That all ties into what we’re up against.

As existing neighborhood bonds are threatened, LSNA struggles to stabilize the diverse community that it has helped to create.

Democratic Participation in Setting the Agenda for LSNA

All of LSNA’s activities are guided by its Holistic Plan, which is revised annually.  The initial version of the Holistic Plan, completed in 1994, presented a positive vision of the community and provided a roadmap for all the different activities that started springing up when Aardema became Executive Director.  One of the original writers of the plan told us, 

As we continued to get victories in different areas, we just began to realize that we couldn't be everything at once…So what we did was, we brought the community together…We finally realized that we were just running all different places at the same time.  And we needed some kind of filter. 

Thirty-four local schools churches, businesses, block clubs, social service agencies—with seniors and youth, parents and teachers, pastors and residents—worked together for over two years in small committees and large groups to set forth a specific agenda for building a healthier and more stable neighborhood.  Committees were formed for different issue areas.  Each year a “Core Committee,” appointed by LSNA’s elected Executive Board and leaders from each issue committee, engages in a process of brainstorming, visioning, and reflection that leads to an annual revision of the Holistic Plan.  At the annual May Congress, the newly-revised Holistic Plan is presented and ratified by LSNA's Board (composed of representatives of LSNA's issue committees and representatives from almost 50 local organizations) and membership.

The elaborate process of holistic planning creates a well-defined democratic process which engages people in a civic arena in ways that many have not previously experienced.  It teaches members new skills and provides a model which is replicated in other arenas within the organization.  For example, as a Logan Square minister told us,

LSNA has been very active in [making schools] a center of community, not just a place where kids and a group of professionals descend…It is not just a place where you can depend on kids to receive an education, but also the place where you participate in the governance and deciding what goes on there and building it up and helping it grow. 

Findings about LSNA’s Organizing Work in Schools and Housing

Finding One:  LSNA’s robust school/community partnerships grew out of a sustained, successful campaign against school overcrowding in Logan Square. 

During the period that LSNA was writing its first Holistic Plan, it was also leading a campaign against overcrowding in Logan Square schools.   A parent and a former president of LSNA explained the hard work of organizing that enabled LSNA parents to win new school facilities for their neighborhood in the early 1990s:

There were many meetings with parents to prepare for going down to the Board of Education.  What was funny was that no one would commit in a large group.  But we went around and got individual commitments.  We had many, many meetings.  It was a year and a half of meetings.  And then we finally all came together in one big room.  You could feel the tension in the room.  And once we started the meeting it was like, “Well, you know, so and so, you said that if so and so supported it, you will support it," and we would call on the names, “Well, are you here in support?” It was empowering because you finally beat this huge Board of Ed.

Over several years, the campaign resulted in five new annexes and two new middle schools.  Just as importantly, the campaign both demonstrated LSNA's power as a community organization and built a foundation of mutual trust and respect among the principals, teachers, parent leaders and LSNA staff who had been involved in the campaign and witnessed the results.  

Finding Two: LSNA’s school-based programs have been successful in helping hundreds of low-income parents take leadership roles in their families, their schools, and their communities. 

LSNA’s Parent Mentor program, which trains low-income parents, often Latinas, to work alongside teachers in Logan Square classrooms, was initiated by one of the principals who participated in the campaign against overcrowding and who helped write the first Holistic Plan.  Over 900 parents have graduated from the Parent Mentor program and have gone on to attain their G.E.D.’s, seek employment, and become active in the schools and the community.

Isabel, who is now a parent organizer for the program told us,

The program is great because it changes a lot of people's lives.  Not only for myself, but when other mothers first get into the program, their self-esteem and everything is so low.  When they first started, they were like really quiet; they would keep to themselves.  And now you can't get them to shut up sometimes.  I mean you see the complete difference, they really change their life.  They are more outgoing.  They are willing to do more for their kids.  It's like night and day, they're so different. 

The first group of parent mentor graduates initiated LSNA’s first Community Learning Center.  Since then, parent mentor graduates have started five other Community Learning Centers, organized block clubs, and also initiated a health committee and an immigration committee within LSNA.  The six community-controlled Community Learning Centers in Logan Square schools provide G.E.D. classes, ESL classes, and cultural and recreational activities for 1,400 adults and children every week.  Parent mentor graduates and other community members also attend college classes leading to certification as bilingual teachers.  Participants in and graduates of LSNA’s programs make up the backbone of community involvement in local schools, leading activities like principal selection, Local School Councils, and bilingual oversight committees. 

Finding Three:  Relationships established through LSNA’s school-community partnerships have led to substantial improvements in Logan Square schools.  

Through parent participation in LSNA’s work in their children’s schools, parents begin to develop trusting relationships with each other and with school staff.  These relationships lead to increased parent engagement in the life of schools. 

As parents work closely with teachers, they develop a better understanding of what actually happens in the classroom and begin to develop their own educational aspirations.  According to LSNA organizers, school staff, and parents, when parents become more familiar with what is happening in classrooms, they become more engaged with their children's homework, reading to their children, and  participation in activities like Family Math and Family Literacy.  The presence of parents in the schools also creates new kinds of relationships between adults and children in classrooms, leading to greater engagement by students in their classes.
Teachers and parents tell many stories of children developing new interest in school because of parent mentors in their classrooms, seeing their own parent in the school, or having the parent pay more attention to their children’s schoolwork and learning.  One parent mentor told us a common variation on this theme. 

To me, being a parent mentor means being able to communicate with the students as well as the teachers.  And when you're able to share some of the things that you know about the subjects, it seems to bring out a lot of good in a kid.  I've noticed that in certain classrooms that I go to, the kids, they want to participate even more, even the ones that weren't even really doing well.  The teachers notice how well they're making progress because they're interested, and I keep their interest going.

Since 1996, all LSNA elementary schools have experienced significant increases in student achievement, even while the demographics remained constant.  For example, from 1996 to 2001, the percentage of students at one school reading at, or above, the national norm on the yearly Iowa Test of Basic Skills rose from 17.5% to 29.3%.  In math, the scores rose from 19.5% to 31.4%.  Even more dramatic are the gains which occurred in the movement of student scores from the lowest to second lowest quartiles, a telling change because parent mentors usually work with the students who are most behind.  These increases in test scores compare favorably with citywide averages, especially given the relatively higher rate of poverty and higher numbers of non-English speaking students in Logan Square schools.

Finding Four:  During the three years of the documentation study, LSNA was able to develop a coherent and sustained organizing campaign for affordable housing. 

As part of a citywide Balanced Development Coalition, LSNA asks elected officials to endorse a platform that would require all developers to set aside 30% of new housing units as affordable housing.   Although few low- and moderate-income residents in Logan Square would benefit directly from the set-asides, LSNA supports this platform in the context of a broader campaign which includes new affordable homeownership programs, support for rental subsidies, property tax abatements, and advocacy for public housing residents.  Participation in the citywide Balanced Development Coalition is a way for LSNA to strategize with people from across the city and produce public actions that challenge public officials and private developers to take a stance against rampant displacement.   

Many other efforts by LSNA helped move this campaign forward between 1999 and 2002.   These included: meeting with city officials to convince them to continue providing funds to subsidy rents for low-income families; holding public meetings to successfully block several undesirable zoning changes in Logan Square; bringing 500 community members together for a Housing Summit; and staging a mock funeral procession of several hundred people for lost housing in Logan Square.  

In May 2002, we observed over 1,000 people at LSNA’s 40th Annual Congress loudly respond “Yes” to a speaker asking if they wanted to keep living in Logan Square and if they wanted to keep working for affordable rents.  At the same event, school district administrators and state politicians publicly supported the need for affordable housing in Logan Square and the citywide balanced development platform.  Most striking, LSNA’s newest alderman spoke about affordable housing on behalf of his fellow aldermen, promising to work closely with LSNA to ensure affordable housing in the neighborhood.   This event contrasted sharply with the initial phase of the affordable housing campaign which RFA had observed three years earlier at the onset of our documentation project. 

Finding Five: During the course of this study, a group of grassroots housing leaders emerged and coalesced to coordinate LSNA’s affordable housing campaign. 

Many of the current leaders of the affordable housing campaign had originally approached LSNA to address their own immediate housing needs.  As they developed relationships with LSNA staff and leaders, many newcomers to the organization began to connect their individual issues to a community-wide vision for affordable housing. 

One example was Dawn, a recently separated mother who faced being forced out of Logan Square due to rising rents, but was able to qualify for a rental subsidy with LSNA’s help.  Drawing on her anger over the injustice of unfair housing costs and policies, Dawn now speaks out for others who are struggling to find and keep affordable rents.  Dawn told us,

When I first became involved with LSNA, I was a single mom and was suddenly going to have to pay the rent on my own.  I was the last person to receive [the subsidy from the Low Income Housing Trust Fund] because the funds were used up.  Knowing how much it would help me and other people who were in need of it, I agreed to work to keep the fund going. There is a subtle “class” intimidation out there that says, “If you’re on a subsidy, you have no right to speak for yourself.” Keeping involved was easy because [the housing organizer] treated me as her equal and we learned from each other.

Another housing leader, Roxanne, once homeless and a former resident of public housing, was able to buy half of a two-flat home for herself and her children through LSNA’s affordable homeownership.  Roxanne now faces rising taxes and pressures from developers and is fighting to maintain her house and her identity as a homeowner.  She sees this as part of a larger struggle for the community as she knows it,

It’s not about me trying to save my house.   It’s about the numbers, about the energy.  It’s about unity, about bringing people together.  It’s about people just being able to be–and not [having to] defend themselves.

In addition to community members like Dawn and Roxanne, LSNA has other leaders who bring a strong sense of social justice along with institutional connections.  For example, Father Mike is a Catholic priest who deliberately chose a parish in Logan Square because part of his mission included wanting to fight for affordable housing and social justice for low-income and minority citizens.  As Father Mike told us, he takes a strong moral stand against displacement and encourages others in the community to take public action:  “Because of my role as a leader and a religious leader in the community, I am very much a person of action.”

Finding Six:  LSNA’s advocacy and organizing work on the issue of affordable housing is embedded in a multi-pronged approach that includes programs and services for renters and homeowners.

In 1994, LSNA and local banks lobbied state policy makers to modify the existing affordable home­ownership program to make it accessible to people who could not buy an entire building.  Forty-five families bought houses through this program.  Approximately 50 more families bought houses through similar programs, and 16 have enrolled in a new plan to buy apartments in a cooperatively-owned building.  The neighborhood banks continue to work together to hold housing fairs and provide seminars on homeownership issues.  LSNA’s housing counselor estimates that, during the period of our research, hundreds of people have participated in counseling, workshops, and fairs about home equity conversions, default/foreclosures, pre-purchase concerns, and challenging tax assessments.  In addition, LSNA has conducted outreach to hundreds of renters and has attained rental subsidies for 64 units by enrolling landlords in Chicago's Low Income Housing Trust Fund which provides rental subsidies to qualified landlords and tenants. 

Recommendations for Building Community Capacity 

Based upon our study of LSNA, Research for Action offers the following straightforward recommend-ations to community organizations and funders who would like to learn from the example of LSNA.  While these recommendations may appear simple, they constitute a complex set of guidelines for building a community in which people both care about each other and are able to act on their own behalf. 

  1. Foster strong interpersonal relationships and trust among individuals,
  2. Develop grassroots leadership,
  3. Integrate long-term strategies to build power and change policy with short-term strategies that provide skills and resources to community members, 
  4. Maintain a vision based on the needs and dreams of community members.

Concluding Comments

As RFA completes our study of LSNA, we have several remaining questions about the future direction of the organization’s work.  First, we wonder whether the organizational culture and values fostered by the current Executive Director are embedded deeply enough to outlast her tenure at the organization.   Second, we wonder if LSNA’s growing involvement in the arena of citywide policy advocacy and organizing will alter its current approaches to relationship building, leadership development, and democratic participation on the neighborhood level.   Finally, we wonder how LSNA will change as the Logan Square neighborhood itself continues to change. 

These questions merely underscore the vitality and dynamism that LSNA embodies in its approach to building community capacity.  LSNA’s successful approach to building community capacity is evidenced by its ability to integrate multiple voices, to draw on many skill-sets in the neighborhood, and to access many different types of resources.   The organization’s program and strategies are deeply connected to the lives and realities of low- and moderate-income Logan Square residents, who describe profound changes in their self-esteem and self-confidence resulting from their involvement with LSNA.  Finally, LSNA is composed of individuals who care about each other and who respond thoughtfully to shifting pressures and opportunities in the external environment.