By David Moberg
George Ostendorf and John Reynolds are unlikely partners. In the normal course of events, they might have never even met. Ostendorf lives in Arlington Heights. He’s white, 52 years old, and managing director of an investment firm that he and his partners recently took public with considerable financial success. John Reynolds lives on the city’s west side in the poverty-stricken Lawndale neighborhood. He is black, 36 years old, and works as a data-entry operator for the Chicago Police Department.
Yet, over the past two years, Reynolds has come to know and like Ostendorf. “George is a great guy,” Reynolds says. “He’s down-to-earth, straightforward. We genuinely hit it off.”
The feeling is mutual. “I don’t know what life is like for him,” Ostendorf says of Reynolds, “but he’s a genuinely nice person, a very caring person in a society where I think it’s tough to step up and do what he does. He’s what guys my age would call a stand-up guy in a neighborhood where there aren’t a lot of stand-up guys.”
Reynolds and Ostendorf didn’t get to be buddies by sharing an interest in sports or poker or bird-watching–they’re allies in a vastly ambitious project to transform the public life of greater Chicago. As part of a disparate coalition of 85 people–blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians drawn from both the city and suburbs, from virtually every major religious faith and secular groups as well–they’re among the early leaders of a new metropolitan citizens’ organization. This Sunday the group hopes to assemble more than 10,000 supporters at the UIC Pavilion to help launch United Power for Action & Justice, an association of nearly 300 different churches, unions, social service agencies, and community organizations reflecting the racial, religious, economic, and geographic diversity of the Chicago area.
“That configuration has never come together in Chicago, never,” says veteran organizer Ed Chambers. As executive director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, Chambers has guided this undertaking for the past two and a half years. “If it works, it’s a new politics for the 21st century.” So far the project has worked out surprisingly well, especially since it’s based largely on appealing to some abstract notions about citizen power and a deep-seated but ill-defined desire for bettering society. After Sunday the project will begin to move toward the “Action” part of its name, deciding on what issues to tackle and what solutions to propose. And that will certainly test the “United” moniker. After a lifetime of organizing–starting roughly four decades ago with the fabled Saul Alinsky–even Chambers isn’t sure what will happen. He says he’s been pleased by the response of middle-class suburbanites, but “I have a question about whether there will be enough glue generated between Latinos, African-Americans, working-class whites, and middle-class whites. Will they go into action together? I know they’ll come to an assembly.”
Getting them to an assembly, however, has required enormous effort, much time, and many hands. About seven years ago a small group of Roman Catholic priests, with roots in both the social movements of the 1960s and the urban ministry, began talking about the need for a new organization to deal with the troubling inequities so obvious in the city. They attended a national Industrial Areas Foundation training session for would-be organizers and community leaders, then met the following year with a gathering of priests assembled by Monsignor John Egan, onetime head of the archdiocese’s office of urban affairs. Egan had been a collaborator with Alinsky and continues to hold a seat on the board of the IAF. In 1992 they proposed to Joseph Cardinal Bernardin that the archdiocese support the creation of an ecumenical organization to address social problems in the metropolitan Chicago area. Bernardin–who had turned down a similar proposal by Egan in 1985–told them he could only act if there were a broader call for action, so the group expanded their ranks to 70 priests. After extensive internal discussions, Bernardin decided in late 1993 to begin contacting leaders of other major faiths.
One of the first to be contacted was Leon Finney, pastor of Christ Apostolic Church and president of the Woodlawn Organization, the south-side neighborhood group initially organized in the 1960s by IAF staff. Finney had recently convened the African-American Leadership Project to get black ministers more involved in revitalizing their communities. Though there were some concerns raised about the possible clashing interests of the churches involved, Finney says ultimately “there was not a lot of debate,” and the major black Protestant churches heeded the call. More surprising, several fairly conservative and largely white Protestant churches signed on as well. “We were invited,” says Reverend Ken Young, former director of social missions at the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s northern Illinois district office in Hillside. “It was as simple as that.”
On March 6, 1995, the church leaders–stationed beneath a banner emblazoned with the words “Power Action Justice”–announced the formation of Chicago Metropolitan Sponsors. Under the guidance of the IAF, Chicago Metropolitan Sponsors would hire organizers and provide funds to sustain the resulting association until the year 2000, when it would have to rely on dues from its members. Eventually the list of sponsors swelled to include other Protestant churches, Jewish congregations, mainstream Muslim groups, and three of the state’s largest labor unions–the Service Employees International Union, the Illinois Education Association, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees–bringing the total investment in building the organization to $2.6 million. Chicago Metropolitan Sponsors hired the IAF to do the organizing, but both the IAF and the new group would remain accountable to the sponsors until the association gained financial independence. An “organization of organizations,” this new group was following the traditional patterns of community organizing first established in the late 1930s, when Alinsky helped found the Back of the Yards Council near Chicago’s stockyards.
While Alinsky was a flamboyant showman and propagandist, who gained fame by using (or threatening to use) direct confrontations with powerful leaders in government and business, Chambers, his successor as head of the IAF, avoided the limelight and focused intently on forging community alliances and training future organizers. From his youth in a working-class Iowa family, Chambers, now 67, had planned to become a priest. But he got caught up in the reform fervor unleashed within the church during the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, and he subsequently clashed with his superiors in the seminary. Finally he was told to find another line of work.
With $10 in his pocket, Chambers headed to New York City and ended up in an interracial Catholic commune, where he became involved in charity work, handing out food and clothing to the indigent. After discovering that the shoes he gave to the poor were sometimes sold to buy wine, he decided that conventional forms of charity couldn’t change the world, and he apprenticed himself to a radical tenant organizer in Harlem. At about that time he read Alinsky’s first book, Reveille for Radicals. “Something resonated inside me,” he says. “This made sense.” Fortuitously an IAF lieutenant heard of Chambers and invited him to Chicago to meet Alinsky over a steak dinner at the Palmer House. With little preparation or oversight, Alinsky threw Chambers into organizing, first in Buffalo, then in Chicago. His first task here was organizing on the southwest side, where white ethnic neighborhoods were in an uproar over the prospect of blacks moving in. In opposition to the blatantly racist sentiments held by many whites, Chambers organized white Catholic churches and a few black Protestant churches into a force advocating “community stability” that would tolerate moderate integration. From there he moved to Woodlawn, where he helped form the Woodlawn Organization, one of the first successful efforts to organize black inner-city residents. Chambers made his mark on Chicago politics in 1961 by busing 2,500 Woodlawn residents to City Hall to register to vote. He moved on to other fights, such as a campaign in Rochester, New York, where resident groups demanded that Eastman Kodak and other corporations provide training and jobs for minorities. Shortly before Alinsky’s death in 1972, he became director of the IAF.
As much as he admired Alinsky, Chambers thought that his mentor did not do enough to sustain organizations once they were established and that he failed to train and pay organizers as professionals who could make a career of their work, rather than burning out in poverty and exhaustion. Over the years Chambers developed a distinctive training program for organizers and citizen leaders, and the IAF began composing community groups–nearly all of them based on alliances of churches–that typically remained part of a loose network served by a rotating group of organizers who, in Chambers’s words, served as “coaches” for the remaining team of community leaders.
In Chicago the IAF spawned the influential Community Action Program, which battled air pollution and the first Mayor Daley’s proposed Crosstown Expressway, which threatened to destroy many city neighborhoods. By 1976, however, CAP collapsed, and the IAF moved out of Chicago. It left behind a community of organizers, some of whom rebelled against the IAF style (at that time, for example, women were not encouraged to be organizers). Community organizing flourished in Chicago, and experienced organizers established several training centers here that had national influence, including the Midwest Academy, the Gamaliel Foundation, and the National Training and Information Center. New approaches to organizing also emerged. The statewide Illinois Public Action Council, now Illinois Citizen Action, was an early example of organizing on a larger scale, and later many community groups moved from traditional protest actions to a variety of other strategies, including economic development initiatives, job retention efforts, and the construction of affordable housing. A variety of advocacy groups formed around specific issues like school reform or the environment. But these issue-oriented groups often ignored communities. While there continued to be some grassroots and church-based organizing, on the whole community organizing in Chicago declined during the last decade.
The city had changed as well. The old machine both organized people and served as a target for community organizers. As the machine declined, so did the independent political organizations in the neighborhoods. The movement spurred by Harold Washington’s election as mayor collapsed after his death, and the new machine of Richard M. Daley was largely based on an inversion of the Washington coalition (linking lakefront middle-class whites and Latinos to ethnic working-class whites on the northwest and southwest sides) and followed the money and goals of the city’s developers and business elite. Meanwhile, metropolitan Chicago sprawled outward, and the urban center lost jobs, especially in manufacturing. Growing joblessness and inequality isolated parts of the city, and the federal government no longer offered much help. “When Daley’s dad was in power, you could get a bunch of people, go to City Hall, beat on the walls, and money would fall out of the windows,” says Gale Cincotta, executive director of the National Training and Information Center. “Now the city isn’t so rich.”
Community groups have in recent years won some victories nonetheless–school reform, community policing, money for affordable housing, and bank lending to poor neighborhoods (extracted with the help of the Community Reinvestment Act). But a study conducted two years ago by the Woods Fund of Chicago concluded that “some very fundamental urban problems–including poverty policies, racism, the eroding job and wage base, drugs, and crime policy–have largely eluded the organizing agenda.” Moreover, the report claimed, existing community groups focused too much on short-term fights and too little on developing their grassroots constituency.
Chicago Metropolitan Sponsors hoped that the IAF and the new organization, United Power for Action & Justice, could overcome some of these shortcomings. Yet many existing community groups were fearful they would lose their church funding or be overwhelmed by the well-financed IAF effort. But other community organizers, like Madeline Talbott of ACORN, welcomed IAF, observing that despite existing efforts “there isn’t enough organizing going on.” Monsignor Egan, who for two decades had dreamed of bringing IAF back to Chicago, argued that even if existing groups are doing good work “I feel that the IAF will raise all boats.”
The Industrial Areas Foundation nationally links nearly 50 organizations involving more than 1.5 million families, with the strongest concentrations in the cities of the northeast and the southwest. Typically IAF organizations have fought for more and better housing, public investment, and education in poor and working-class communities. They helped win a higher minimum wage in California, school reform in Texas, and–working with the government employees’ union in Baltimore–a guarantee that all city contractors pay a “living wage,” eventually $7.70 an hour. That victory sparked a nationwide living wage movement that has succeeded in several cities, though not in Chicago. IAF affiliates won widespread praise for their Nehemiah Housing Plan in East Brooklyn, New York; the project melded free city land, no-interest loans from churches, and the ingenuity of a community-minded developer to build 2,200 moderately priced single-family homes, forming a stable community in a once blighted area. Over the past two decades, the San Antonio group Latino Citizens Organized for Public Service has won more than $750 million in new streets, parks, libraries, and other services in traditionally neglected neighborhoods.
Yet IAF groups see themselves engaged in a larger, longer-term mission. As citizen organizations they operate, according to San Antonio organizer Ernesto Cortes, as “mini-universities to teach about public life. We are creating the infrastructure and intermediate institutions that are required for civil society, the prerequisites for pro-family, pro-worker politics.”
Indeed, the attention that IAF devotes to training its leaders is remarkable. Perhaps most remarkable, however, is how this training focuses not just on the nuts and bolts of building organizations, running a meeting, or mobilizing for a demonstration, but also on theoretical discussions about power in society. Most of the leaders and many of the activists in the constituent groups that make up United Power for Action & Justice have gone through some training, whether it was one evening a week for a month or an intensive ten days and nights at national retreats.
These sessions are always meaty, as challenging as some college courses, though more plugged into reality. For example, on a wintry January evening at Our Lady of Sorrows, two dozen people of various faiths and races gathered to listen to the blunt and crusty Ed Chambers, who preached a tough-minded sermon, on the kingdom not of heaven but of humankind. Chambers, dressed conservatively with thin-rimmed bifocals, looked like a respectable Midwestern businessman or church deacon. He drew three circles on a blackboard. The first circle represented government, which, he explained, has the unique power to collect taxes and use force to maintain social order. The second circle represented the market, where businesses provide goods and pursue profits. The third circle, Chambers emphasized with bold chalk marks, stood for civil society–that is, churches, fraternal groups, nonprofits, labor unions, block groups, and other institutions concerned with the common good. “We’re talking about building organizations in here,” he said, pointing to the last circle, “that can hold accountable these other two powers.”
In the past, the IAF relied most heavily on churches–they’re anchors in even troubled communities, they already have organized both people and money, and they have an ethical sensibility that at least makes them disposed to seek out the common good. But increasingly IAF groups have brought in other parts of civil society, especially labor unions. The present organizing drive in Chicago is probably the IAF’s most ambitious effort, tackling not only the divisions between races, religions, the city and suburbs but also enlisting a wide array of other institutions.
The aim of this expanded approach is simple: more power. But stated in this manner, the effort has proved to be uncomfortable for many, especially for people who come out of the social justice movements or a religious tradition, in which power can seem, well, grubby, if not downright evil. Tom Lenz, a longtime proponent of affordable housing who now works for UIC’s Great Cities Institute, had to deal with such sentiments. Now a volunteer leader of United Power for Action & Justice in Evanston, where he lives, he initially went to an IAF training session at the suggestion of an old friend, veteran Chicago organizer Josh Hoyt. (Chambers, Hoyt, Stephen Roberson, and Cheri Andes make up the lean, disciplined staff that has pulled together United Power for Action & Justice.) “I was intrigued,” Lenz says. “I didn’t agree with a lot at first. It was unsettling. The intriguing thing was the big vision….What was unsettling was the talk about power, to talk about power in blunt terms, that it was OK to say that we wanted to be powerful.” Another organizer had once told him of speaking to a group of Americans supporting social justice movements in Central America. They were presented with a choice of two quotes, one from Mother Teresa (“We are called to be faithful, not effective”), the other from Vince Lombardi (“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”). Everyone in the group chose the quote by Mother Teresa as his or her preferred motto. Then the organizer asked, “If you were a peasant refugee in Central America, what motto would you want this group to adopt?” Lombardi suddenly became a little more appealing, if not as saintly. Power may corrupt, but in the IAF perspective lack of power corrupts people in other, perhaps more terrible, ways.
At the start of a ten-day training session in June 1995, Ed Chambers began the class discussion with an account of the war between the Athenians and the Melians by the Greek historian Thucydides. It set up his epigrammatic discussion of power and organizing.
Chambers wants to build organizations that are devoted both to the interests of those who belong and by extension, because they are designed to be broad based, to the common good. He is disturbingly dismissive of movements, or idealistic crusades, because he thinks they eventually fade and fail to provide power–the ability to act or to influence the world–for those who don’t have much of it. “Power is good,” he declaims passionately. “It can be used for good or evil, but in itself it’s neutral. Power is to human experience like energy is to physics: no power, no humanness….I’m talking about something you should pursue and get a lot of for yourself, your family, your city, your nation. With no power, you can’t do anything to change the world. If you don’t have power, you feel worthless….The only thing wrong with power is that we don’t have enough of it.”
Power comes in two forms, Chambers tells the class–organized money and organized people. With a little money, he argues, organized people can win over organized money. The whole purpose of organization is power. Power permits people to act on behalf of their primary motivation–self-interest. Self-interest, he pointedly insists, is not selfishness, but rather self-preservation, self-esteem, recognition of self. Organization creates public relationships with other individuals, relationships that are built on reciprocal recognition of each other’s self-interest. Organization can then demand change to advance the self-interest of its members. “There is no nice way to get change,” he admonishes his students. While action is the lifeblood of organization, change ultimately comes through creating a reaction from others (such as a mayor bowing to community pressure to insist that city contractors pay a fair wage).
Organizations like United Power for Action & Justice are built on a foundation of “one-on-one” encounters among potential supporters. In these encounters, organizers or community leaders meet with other potential leaders. It is, in a sense, a top-down approach, organizing leaders who can bring along followers. But Chambers argues that ultimately all social change comes from the organized activity of minority leaders rooted in their communities–whether they’re American revolutionaries against the English king, CIO sit-down strikers, or 60s civil rights advocates. In their first one-on-one meetings, organizers and leaders focus less on recruiting new people than on understanding their motivations and on building public relationships–not private friendships but associations of understanding, trust, and open communication. Once the organization forms public relationships between whites and blacks, city dwellers and suburbanites, and the poor and the middle class, they can then explore the interests they share in common. They will also realize that they have far more power with allies at their side than they do working by themselves.
This weekend’s rally is a formal display of the relationships that bind this large group together, a way to make the organization seem real both to its members and to the rest of the community, including those with most of the power. It can’t be done with 800 numbers, direct mail, a contribution check, or the Internet, Chambers insists, but only through a demonstration of mutual commitment by putting bodies on the line. Last June the group had a trial run, bringing 750 delegates together at the plumbers union hall on the near west side. Even this smaller gathering gave hope to those present that perhaps their dream would be realized.
One of these dreamers was Mike Ivers, an ebullient and ruddy-faced priest at Saint Agatha’s Church in Lawndale. His parish claims a grim section of the city: nearly half of the residents have incomes below the poverty level and nearly half of the workforce is unemployed. But as Ivers drove his old Nova through the neighborhood, he found “signs of hope” at every turn: the local hospital’s community outreach program, a strong local school council, new housing and stores, even an organized baseball league. Ivers has done his part, supporting tenants’ unions, resident management of public housing, a food pantry, parenting classes, and a center for women involved in prostitution. In his work, Ivers could count on moral support from other priests in the city and material support from suburban congregations that had agreed to share some of Saint Agatha’s burdens. But “it still wasn’t enough,” he thought. “What could happen if we really had a concerted effort at bringing everyone together?”
Peter Bowman had the same idea. In the early 90s he was a priest at Saint James, a large and prosperous Catholic church in Arlington Heights. With less than 3 percent of its residents in poverty (even fewer are unemployed) and an average household income of $60,000 a year, Arlington Heights is socially as well as geographically separated from Lawndale. Saint James participated in a suburban program to shelter the homeless, but it seemed there were few problems to confront in its own backyard. Of course, that depends on your idea of where the backyard stops. Bowman was convinced that his congregation had “a lot to learn” from central city neighbors. “Faith calls us to solidarity,” he says. “We are responsible for each other. It’s a difficult lesson to teach, and not everyone accepts it.”
One person who did accept this lesson was George Ostendorf. He recalled his boyhood years after World War II, when “bums,” as he says they were called then, stopped at the house and asked his immigrant mother for handouts, which she always provided. “As a child of four or five, I always wondered, ‘Where did those people go at night?'” Later he realized they had nowhere to go, and that experience motivated him to help the homeless. At Father Bowman’s request, he became involved in the Chicago Metropolitan Sponsors project. “I’m a very busy guy,” Ostendorf says. “I travel all over the country. I don’t need a hobby. But this organization is my best chance to achieve social justice on issues the community cares about. It’s not something I want to pass up.” About 400 families from Saint James (out of 4,400 in the parish) will be represented at this Sunday’s inaugural meeting. But few of Ostendorf’s business peers are willing to get involved in something like this. Most simply don’t talk about social issues, and Ostendorf says that even he is reluctant to raise the subject for fear he’ll be tagged a leftist, lose business, or face legal difficulties. He’s definitely not a leftist, though by his account he’s not nearly as conservative as he once was. He now sees himself as a political independent. But even the businessmen who share his outlook are “reluctant to speak out,” he said. Though his parish has voted to provide interim financing and will likely become a member if United Power for Action & Justice proves viable, Ostendorf has had to contend with both mild-mannered doubters and some ill-mannered opponents. Earlier this year a group of conservative Catholics, most of whom were not part of the parish, disrupted two meetings at Saint James, claiming, among other things, that the new organization will promote abortion and the distribution of condoms (an unlikely circumstance, given the impossibility of agreement on these issues). One woman argued that the church shouldn’t be spending money on anyone who isn’t Catholic. “Wow,” Ostendorf thought, “that’s not a Catholic belief.”
Despite the turmoil, Ostendorf says, he’s found his experiences with United Power for Action & Justice to be both “energizing” and enlightening. “I’ve been very surprised, I’m ashamed to tell you, that I can meet people from the west side of Chicago, the south side of Chicago, people of all races and backgrounds who share the same values I have.” Even more important, he says, when this diverse group does agree on an issue, “we will be extremely powerful. When you’ve got white suburban people and inner-city white and black and Latino people and unions, and you get them all to agree, then it will be hard for any other party to say this idea doesn’t have support. We will change the power paradigm for issues that we care about.”
Ostendorf cares about Lawndale not simply because of his Christian ideas of justice and responsibility but also because he grew up there, attending a church about a mile north of where John Reynolds now worships. It was a rough, polyglot neighborhood then, but unlike today, when “the punks have guns,” Ostendorf recalls it being relatively safe. His family moved out of Lawndale in the early 60s, soon after Reynolds was born there. Even though Lawndale collapsed as jobs disappeared, some community organizations survived and continued to fight on behalf of the neighborhood. That seems less true today.
While Ostendorf’s pastor picked him as a natural leader in his church, Father Ivers at first chose a half dozen other people instead of Reynolds as the core leaders at Saint Agatha’s. But Reynolds says he was inspired by the IAF’s four-session training program and “became more persistent, active, and visible, until I found a crack and slid in.” Like an understudy with his big break, Reynolds substituted one evening for a leader who had to miss a meeting, and he quickly emerged as a star and also as a man transformed. “I’m definitely not the same person I was before,” he says. “I know now it’s important for me to give back to my community.” He quit his second job, became a member of the school board and parish council, and ran the church youth committee. He was picked to serve on the steering committee of United Power for Action & Justice, as Ostendorf was. He also began speaking all over the city and suburbs on behalf of the organization. At a regional assembly in Humboldt Park, he told the largely Latino crowd, “Yes, I’m saying racism exists, and I am also saying it is time for us to stop trying to figure out who gets the most opportunities between the two minorities, who is the most oppressed of the two or the most discriminated against of the two. We should be spending this time trying to figure out how we can come together.”
Reynolds had little prior political experience, but, he says, as one of a dozen blacks at Saint Patrick High School he learned how to be “at ease dealing with people of different colors and races. I know there are things we have in common, that we can sit down and talk.” But is there much in common between Arlington Heights and Lawndale, or between George Ostendorf and John Reynolds? “I don’t think anyone really understands [another person’s life] unless they’re living it,” Reynolds says. “But I think [Ostendorf] is trying to understand. We talk a lot, and he listens.” As Ostendorf talked about the impact of corporate downsizing on members of his congregation, Reynolds understood how economic insecurity extends to the suburbs as well. Reynolds expects some differences will surface. “We’re ready for that,” he says. “We expect that. But we understand that we stand for the whole. Until we reach agreement, nothing will happen. But we can find common ground and move from there.”
In the past it’s been hard enough to find common ground among different church denominations, let alone among racial and ethnic groups. But most churches, aside from the conservative fundamentalist traditions, have some fairly compatible notions about social justice that provide a common basis for talk and perhaps eventually action by their congregations. In its current organizing effort, the IAF is expanding its collaboration with unions, especially those with a history of community involvement and a broad social vision.
On a recent Saturday morning about 50 shop stewards and officials from various locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees gathered in a west-suburban Holiday Inn to talk about participating in United Power for Action & Justice. Even without her morning coffee and pastry, Roberta Lynch, associate director of AFSCME’s state council and an experienced political organizer, would have been fired up. This was a “brave and historic” effort to bring together so many potential allies who have never associated before, she argued. Because of the forces in business and politics that are unified against working people, she said, “We need to build power, but we need to ask the question: power for what? Richard Daley has power; Pate Philip has power. That’s not the power we want. Some people just like power. We want power for action and justice, justice for communities and citizens.” And on that count the churches and labor unions have much in common. This whole organizing effort, she said, “is against people who stand alone and don’t care about their community. The church says, ‘Love your neighbor,’ and we say, ‘An injury to one is an injury to all.’ No one of us can make it if we don’t all move forward. We are building an organization that recognizes we must build community and solidarity in order to build justice for everyone.”
Lynch has worked with a lot of political groups over the years and has seen better days. “We’re living in such a wasteland when it comes to opposition movements,” she says. “Outside of the labor movement, there’s almost nothing that’s a real movement. There are advocacy groups with no base and community groups with a narrow focus. There’s almost nothing with the possibility of a broader opposition movement.” So it was out of desperation, out of hope mixed with deep skepticism, that she began working with Chicago Metropolitan Sponsors. Now a sense of hope dominates. “Ed Chambers and the IAF have deepened the understanding of what the churches and the labor movement have in common,” she says. “Both of these entities have an interest in preserving communities and building community. The general undermining of stable communities in our society is one of the reasons churches have found it difficult to maintain their congregations. It’s also a problem for the labor movement, which traditionally had a link between the workplace and community. There’s also the profound insight about the way our society atomizes people, and so much of the culture indirectly preaches individualism and immediate self-absorption. I think a lot in the religious tradition and a lot in the labor tradition stands against that.”
One of the things many people find frustrating about the new organization is that other than providing a familiar litany of broad issues that concern many people–such as jobs, income, education, crime, and housing–it has little to say about what it will actually do. Judging from the positions of some of the sponsors, there are already big divisions: the Catholic church is a strong advocate of tuition vouchers for private schools, for example, something opposed by many of the Protestant churches and the unions.
“Everyone wants to know, ‘What are you going to do?'” Mike Ivers says. “We tell everyone, ‘We don’t know what we’re going to do. You’ll decide.’ Too many decisions are from the top down. This organization will be from the bottom up. That takes a lot of time.”
But the slowness and uncertainty deter many potential supporters. “One of my greatest pleasures has been in organizing people around a vision,” explains Ana Bedard, an organizer for Latinos United, a citywide housing advocacy group. Bedard says she finally decided that if Latinos were going to become part of the group she had to personally commit time and effort to help pull it together. “It’s difficult, because people want to know what are we going to work on. And it’s such an unknown. It requires that much more of a leap of faith to get involved. Some people self-select out and probably will come back in when we decide what to do. But the people we’re attracting are visionary people, who are comfortable with ambiguity or at least can deal with it.”
The group’s largeness of vision drew in Tom Lenz. While working for a housing agency, he says, “I became convinced that left to its own devices the city couldn’t lift itself out of its problems. I thought, man, if you could focus key institutions like the churches and unions on a regional basis, you could really get your arms around some of these problems. Even beyond that, I was concerned about Evanston. We don’t live in a bubble. I live a block from Chicago. I am concerned about what the fate of the region means for my family.”
Undoubtedly, United Power for Action & Justice will first try to tackle some modest issues, simply to test its organizational capability and to provide learning experiences for its community leaders. But the real decisions about what will be done will almost certainly not occur by formal votes of big assemblies like the one this weekend. IAF groups seem to function more through a complex method whereby various constituents are held accountable to the others. Mainly people will be expected to sit down and talk things out, to try to reach something close to consensus. It may not always be a Roberts Rules of Order kind of democracy, and the most active leaders–often the undemocratically selected church officials–will certainly have more influence than those members who simply show up at union or church meetings. But compared to many political organizations that are little more than fund-raising mailing lists, IAF groups like United Power for Action & Justice can legitimately lay claim to being both “grassroots” and “democratic.”
Some Chicago organizers at first resented the decision of area churches to provide so much money to start a new group rather than provide for those who were already working here. One training center, the Gamaliel Foundation, even went ahead and organized its own, smaller Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations. Though there’s always competition for both money and ideological turf, there’s also the possibility that organizing successes will nurture other efforts. United Power for Action & Justice members assert that their group shouldn’t replace other community organizations. If the organization does thrive, it will have an obligation not just to tolerate but to encourage the growth of other groups rather than try to become a monopoly.
So far most of the critics are on the Catholic right. Conservative Joseph Morris, for example, alleged in a column in Crain’s Chicago Business that the IAF simply “trains people to demand more from government.” Yet, IAF organizers claim, the process elevates the role of civil society and emphasizes self-help and self-reliance, as well as organizing people to figure out solutions to their problems rather than simply rely on politicians and government officials. IAF advocates will also argue that constructively using government to solve problems is what democracy is all about. Catholic conservative Tom Roeser attacked Bernardin for a “total misuse of Catholic funds” that ought to have been spent on church institutions. But Bernardin, without whose support United Power for Action & Justice would never have been launched, believed that the archdiocese could afford to continue subsidizing poor parishes while supporting community organizing. In a 1995 interview, shortly after the project was launched, Bernardin told me the church in principle supports not only charity to the needy or powerless but also advocacy on their behalf, “to help people help themselves.” Community groups like United Power for Action & Justice are much like labor unions in that regard, “and the Catholic church has traditionally supported labor unions, which have given a voice to labor,” Bernardin pointed out. Moreover, the churches have a more parochial stake in such organizing: experience suggests that community organizing through churches strengthens those churches and their communities and recruits new souls for their congregations.
Virtually nobody openly criticizes the new organization for bringing blacks and whites together, but the organizers see the need to make it clear that their mission is not necessarily the fading ideal of racial integration. The problems that arise from the legacy of racism, as well as continuing racism, will be unavoidable. Yet the group hopes it can find a common agenda supported by blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. Addressing the AFSCME gathering, United Power for Action & Justice organizer Stephen Roberson invoked the sense of strength that would be conveyed by thousands of blacks, whites, and Latinos mixing together at the inaugural rally. “We’re not talking about marrying each other’s daughters but about public power.” Sitting in his Woodlawn office, Leon Finney argued that “race is the card that gets played all the time” to undermine broader organizations, but the problems of the metropolitan area stem from investment decisions of banks and corporations. “It ain’t ‘the blacks are coming,'” he said. “The white male is not really threatened by affirmative action, but what does threaten him is companies downsizing or deciding to relocate for cheap labor.”
Other community organizers have their own criticisms of the IAF approach. John Cameron, director of Illinois Citizen Action, argues that groups like United Power for Action & Justice ultimately have to be more immersed in electoral politics and more self-consciously progressive. Partly because IAF tries to mobilize a mixture of conservatives, liberals, and nonideological types, and because electoral politics often become divisive, the IAF studiously avoids endorsement of candidates and only on rare occasions–and indirectly–has mobilized members against the reelection of particularly loathsome elected officials. Chambers thinks that the disillusionment many people now feel with politicians further vindicates his decision to steer clear of electoral politics and focus instead on building civil society as a political force. But it does leave the IAF groups out of one of the major ways in which power is expressed and allocated in our society.
Others criticize the IAF style as slow and ponderous. Despite its origins with the abrasive Alinsky, its organizations tend to rely on big churchlike meetings or leadership delegations to press its point, rather than on more forceful or disruptive actions–picket lines, sit-ins, or simply demonstrative lobbying. Shel Trapp, staff director of the National Training and Information Center, dismisses most church-based organizing for this lack of “desire to engage in confrontation. They think by being nice you win….I think confrontation is a very creative thing. If you don’t confront, you’re not going to change the situation.” If you have enough power, some strategists might argue, you don’t need to be as confrontational; when was the last time Donald Trump, Ted Turner, or Bill Gates had to lock arms and block a street to make a point? Yet for some of the people who will participate in United Power for Action & Justice, even coming to a big meeting at the UIC Pavilion will be a novel, scary step into public life that they have never tried before. Social change often does require a willingness to take dramatic steps to confront the powerful; unions, for example, would rather negotiate contracts peacefully but often have to strike. Yet at the root of lasting change are average citizens assuming responsibility for the society in which they live, and the IAF groups exemplify that remarkably well.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the organization will be creating a metropolitan consciousness that goes beyond relatively affluent suburbs helping their poorer inner-city brethren, which in itself would be a step forward. As Ken Young of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod observes, “Chicago pastors are more aware of community organization. The suburban ones tend to think of a social service agency rather than an organization trying to change conditions and deal with causes.” Alan Ragland, pastor of the big south-side Third Baptist Church of Chicago, insists that the city should be seen as a source of solutions and strength, not simply problems. “There’s this illusion of the division of city and suburbs, but they’re intricately connected in politics and economics,” says the soft-spoken Ragland, who has previously worked with an IAF group in Memphis, Tennessee. “To talk of one side of the town as needy and the other having capacity may be wrong. In dollars and real estate that could be true, but Chicago is a rich place. Riches are not just in the suburbs.”
Indeed, recent urban and economic research emphasizes that metropolitan areas function as a whole unit. The greater the degree of inequality within a metropolitan area, the less robust the overall economy. Dealing with the problems caused by inequality costs money and is a drain on public resources. A city with a troubled core is less appealing as a place for new investment. Economist Richard Voith of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank argues that people in the richer suburbs may sense their advantage by comparison with the inner city, but they don’t realize how much better off they would be if the disparities in income and education within the region were not so great. For these and other reasons, there is a growing interest in promoting the idea of a new politics of metropolitan regionalism. United Power for Action & Justice is the first grassroots expression of that possibility.
Crass financial calculations about the region’s prospects for economic growth, while providing a rationale for rich suburbanites and businesses to share their wealth with the central city for the sake of a stronger metropolis, are not the prime motivations of the 10,000 or so people who will gather this weekend. Moved by faith or hope, they are interested in working with people who may share common values as well as a geographic area but are separated from them by irrational walls, built over the years out of fear, hate, greed, and ignorance by an unholy combination of political and economic forces. It’s not simply the white, middle-class suburbanites who face the burden of reaching out. Ivers tells of how he once had to bribe one of his church members with an offer of a pizza dinner for her to join him at a meeting in Edgebrook. Initially this black woman was uneasy about a trip to a distant white neighborhood, but by the end of the evening she asked when they could go again.
“Fear of the unknown creates walls, walls of gender, age, culture, race, and economics,” Ivers says as he surveys the mingled signs of hope and despair in Lawndale. “This organization may not break down all those walls. I’ve spent years working on this, and I’ve seen a lot of people come together you wouldn’t have ever seen come together before. As a society this is really needed. Those walls are getting built higher and higher.” Now people like George Ostendorf and John Reynolds are removing a few bricks. The future of both Lawndale and Arlington Heights may depend on when the rest of those walls come tumbling down.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos by Nathan Mandell. George Ostendorf, John Reynolds; Ed Chambers, director of the Industrial Areas Foundation: “If it works, it’s a new politics for the 21st century”; Leon Finney, president of the Woodlawn Organization: “The white male is not really threatened by affirmative action, but what does threaten him is companies downsizing or deciding to relocate for cheap labor”; Tom Lenz, affordable housing advocate: “I became convinced that left to its own devices the city couldn’t lift itself out of its problems”; IAF organizers John Heiss, Josh Hoyt, Stephen Roberson, Cheri Andes; Roberta Lynch, associate director of the American Federation and State, County and Municipal Employees: “The church says, ‘Love your neighbor,’ and we say, “An injury to one is an injury to all.’ No one can make it if we don’t all move forward”; Ana Bedard, an organizer for Latinos United: “It requires a leap of faith to get invovled. The people we’re attracting are visionary people, who are comfortable with ambiguity or at last can deal with it”.