By Ben Joravsky

They didn’t hold a City Hall press conference when Matt McDermott won the Brick Award for Community Leadership, an annual prize given to ten of the country’s top young organizers and activists.

And for that McDermott, an organizer for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, should be proud. The talents that pushed McDermott to the top of his trade aren’t fully appreciated by mainstream politicians. McDermott was honored for his role in the fight to preserve affordable housing in the face of Mayor Daley’s ambitious South Loop gentrification push. In other words, he was recognized for having the guts to confront the powerful on behalf of the weak, a fearlessness few with power regard as a virtue.

His selection reaffirms Chicago’s reputation as a breeding ground for young cage rattlers. “I’m not alone–there are dozens of great young organizers in this town,” says McDermott, who’s 27. “It’s part of the Alinsky legacy. It’s part of the reality of this city. It just breeds organizers.”

By conservative count, at least 500 organizers work in various community, labor, and policy groups here, with more pouring in by the day. They are not unlike their ambitious young counterparts in banking, business, and law, with one huge exception: they’re willing to work long hours for next to no pay.

If they seem to swagger it’s partly because they’re trained to–Saul Alinsky, who started the first community organization in the Back of the Yards, treated his young staffers like a drill instructor preparing recruits for battle. The warrior mentality lives on.

“The city’s so resistant to change–that’s what makes it so exciting and challenging,” says Jason Lehrer, a 24-year-old organizer for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “It’s hard and it’s tough and most of us wouldn’t want to do anything else, at least not at this time of our lives. I remember getting called into the office to meet my boss for my first job–it was like meeting Kurtz from ‘Heart of Darkness.’ He said, ‘We’re gonna give you a job and pay you $21,000 and if you walk out on us I’ll hunt you down and make your life a living hell.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready–let’s go.’ I really believe we’re involved in a larger phenomenon. People are becoming more and more dissatisfied with what’s going on. Everyone feels frustration. An organizer is the person who can help people stand up and take control of their lives.”

Every rookie activist has a story of revelation, when he or she first realized how reluctantly the powerful concede to change. It’s not just the fact that a powerful alderman might use thugs to tear down posters, or that an influential bureaucrat might hire publicists to demonize and distort. It’s that politicians will often act against their own interests just to show who’s boss.

“We had a hall filled with 150 people who wanted to meet with the alderman about issues,” recalls Jordan Esevao, a young organizer for the Northwest Neighborhood Federation. “He showed up a half hour late and walked out after 15 minutes. That sort of surprised me. You’d figure an elected official would listen to 150 people. But, no, he didn’t want to hear it. I guess he figured he didn’t need their votes because he had so many other parts of the ward locked up. Of course, we boarded buses and picketed his home.”

McDermott started learning these lessons at a young age. He was born and raised in Chicago; his father, John McDermott, was a civil rights activist who founded the Chicago Reporter, an investigative newsletter on racial issues. His older brother, John McDermott Jr., is executive director of the Lakeview Action Coalition, a north-side community organization.

In 1993 McDermott got his first job in local organizing: the Chicago Rehab Network hired him as an intern and sent him to Pilsen to drum up support for its affordable housing campaign. “We were trying to force the city to commit more money for low-income housing,” says McDermott. “At first I didn’t know what I was doing and I was getting intimidated. But I just kept working at it. And I’m proud to say that my group in Pilsen brought out 100 people to our big downtown rally. It was an exhilarating experience to see so many people gather. By the end of the summer I wanted to make organizing my career.”

In 1995 he joined the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and was immediately assigned a role in their South Loop campaign, a classic battle of haves and have-nots. It was McDermott’s job to stand up to some of the city’s wealthiest developers and see to it that Daley didn’t completely overlook the interests of the poor in the rapidly developing South Loop.

“We had press conferences and we issued reports and we had protests,” says McDermott. “We had vigils in front of Mayor Daley’s [new South Loop] house. Once we even dumped manure on the site of a development because we thought the deal stunk. The big issue we were trying to raise with the campaign was that a mixed-income community means more than just moving out poor people to make way for upscale housing. The mayor was vocal about the need for creating mixed-income communities when it came to developing in poor neighborhoods. But when he moved into the South Loop it seemed all the policy was directed towards creating an upper-income neighborhood either with town houses or lofts. So we wanted the mayor to show some leadership in his own neighborhood by maintaining some affordable housing.”

The results have been mixed. The big-time developers pretty much got what they wanted, as big-time developers usually do around here. Much of the land has been covered with upscale town houses and condos, and the area remains blanketed by a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) designation, meaning the city reserves the right to seize even more property for upscale development.

But McDermott and other activists have forced Daley to preserve several low-income complexes, and their ceaseless pressure has exposed weaknesses in TIF law and may lead to reform. “From that campaign we went on to propose legislative reforms to ensure that developers subsidized by TIFs account for and provide for people they displace,” says McDermott. “There’s more accountability, even if we didn’t get everything we wanted.”

It was his work in that campaign that prompted colleagues to suggest he apply for the Brick Award, an annual designation for activists under the age of 30. It’s awarded by Do Something, a national not-for-profit that encourages young people to pursue careers in community service. More than 500 activists applied for the award this year. After reviewing their applications and essays and conducting several follow-up phone interviews, Do Something’s judges narrowed the field to 25 finalists, who were flown to New York in July.

“They put us through all sorts of interviews and exercises,” says McDermott. “They called us up and we were given 30 seconds to tell people who we were and what we did. Then we grabbed questions out of a bowl, just random questions, and we had to answer them on the spot. My question was, ‘What unique quality do you bring to your work?’ I talked about how in the context of working with homeless people on urgent projects where people have immediate needs and everything had to be now, now, now, I tried to bring a level of patience and deliberateness to work. I try to get the leadership to slow down enough to build a response that’s strategic and long-term, so we’re not just reacting to problems.”

During the two-day event there were other interviews and exercises, culminating in, of all things, a poetry slam. “They divided us into five groups of five and gave us five words and we had 45 minutes to prepare a poem which included those words. Then we had to perform the poem,” says McDermott. “Everyone was dreading this exercise, but it was actually hilarious. Some of the poems were very funny–some were bold and brash. It was an exercise in teamwork.”

In August Do Something announced that McDermott was one of ten winners, and that in recognition of his achievements the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless would receive $10,000. McDermott’s now eligible for the top organizing award of $100,000 (the money would go to the coalition). The winner will be announced next month.

“After a while it gets a little embarrassing, I suppose, with the poetry slams and everything, though there’s nothing wrong with recognizing good organizing and having some fun,” says McDermott. “It’s important for people to realize you can make organizing a career. The money’s not great but it’s enough to live on. If you want to, you can burn out fast with those 80-hour weeks. But if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll pace yourself, and set aside time for your private life. And you can keep at it for the rest of your life.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Matt McDermott photo by Dan Machnik.