Before starting anything I had to read the interview with Saul Alinsky (published in Playboy in 1972) first. It is “must-read” paper (from “to-do” list of every single community organizer). This man was an American community organizer and writer. He is often called the founder of modern community organizing and noted for his book Rules for Radicals. One of his basic rules was: “Never do for others what they can do for themselves. Never!” And it is also the crucial principle of community organizing (and my rule for these days). So how was the second week of our fellowship in U.S.? So far, so good. Full of meetings, listenings and action!
At the beginning of October eighteen European fellows started their own journey towards new experience and exploration of different ways of community organizing across the United States of America. I took an opportunity to spend 21 days in Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) – organization focused on ending of homelessness through advocacy and community organizing (not through providing services – traditional way of social work).
At the first day of my internship in CCH I was invited to attend the meeting of Latino policy forum (with organizer Rachel Ramirez) in men’s shelter in Pilsen quarter of Chicago. The Latino Policy Forum is the only organization in the Chicago area that facilitates the involvement of Latinos at all levels of public decision-making. Housing activities’ goal is that: All Latinos, including low- and mid-income families, have access to safe, quality, affordable housing. But the immigrants and Latinos are often the most vulnerable groups – discriminated and excluded. So the goal of that meeting was to address the issues and set up an action plan towards making a change.
Try to imagine one simple thing: If you live on a sofa in the house of your immigrant-relatives it doesn’t mean – that you are not homeless and you do not deserve the support and the attention of the state. We should be aware of the affect of the new definition of “homeless / homelessness” (done by the Department of Housing and Urban Development: HUD) on Latino community and other homeless people. Latino policy forum is trying hard to push the government on all levels towards better access to housing and living conditions for all immigrants (not only Latinos).
At the same day I also attended PADS coordinator’s meeting in Hesed house in Aurora city (with Jim Picchetti from CCH). Public Action To Deliver Shelter (PADS) is Overnight Shelter Program – providing the emergency shelter, food, clothing, and crisis management. It is also Transitional Living Community Program – providing transitional 24-hour shelter for up to hundred individuals and families for up to two years. Many churches with their volunteers are involved into that great activity.
The Most Important Idea that I’ve learnt that day was: If the state is planning to cut the budget for homeless shelter – it is not necessary to ask for more money from believers in church, but it is right time to think about advocacy and community organizing as a tool to use people power and fight with a state.
Second day of my internship in CCH we started very magically (with date: 10.10. and time: 11:11) at Alcott high school – as a part of Speakers bureau activity in Roscoe village in Chicago (with organizer Hannah Willage). Try to imagine: American high school – full of immigrants’ children who are listening to the real stories or tough experiences of former homeless people…
That day we had regular meeting without sharing particular story. Hannah was dividing (with students) our world into two parts – the world as it is; and as it should look like. Discussion in 5 small groups about youngsters’ issues, the grass- roots and potential solutions for these issues were very interesting (mostly family rooted problems). Immigrants’ children have very ordinary issues that can be solved inside a family – with a bit of attention, love and support of parents (if they are around). We have to be aware that good organizer doesn’t mean automatically good teacher (you have to work hard on yourself – verbal and non-verbal communication in front of young target group).
Another meeting at Access living organization was also very interesting. Access living is a cross-disability organization governed and staffed by a majority of people with disabilities. This organization offers peer-oriented independent living services; public education, awareness and development; individualized and systemic advocacy; and enforcement of civil rights on behalf of people with disabilities. There is small working group of 4 community organizers – working on a campaign of implementation of federal law on housing in Illinois state. There are many big donors (single donations – more than million USD!) that are supporting this great organization. Sometimes this group is fighting with a state, sometimes it is in cooperation with it (it depends on project). There are also people with disabilities among the staff/employees of this NGO. I realized one very important thing: Big donors and also small donors are very important for the organization – dealing with the issues of housing for people with disabilities. People is power, but also money is power! Never forget!
Third day of my internship in CCH started with brief introduction of SAGE (Survivor Advocacy Group Empowered) & PART (Prostitution Alternatives Round Table) groups – both successful CCH-projects – by director and great organizer Jim Field. Presented was the research and current work targeting Chicago Police Department officers to be more kind, understanding, sympathetic and helpful to prostitutes and homeless people on the streets. They are beaten, abused and raped on daily basis…
SAGE led organizing support for the End Demand bill, advocating with legislators in Springfield, including Glenda Sykes’ testimony before Senate and House committees. SAGE and PART identified three areas of focus for their work: The future of Cook County’s WINGS felony prostitution court; Chicago Police Department response to prostitution, including minors and adults feeling safe going to police officers for help; Safe shelter/housing and services for survivors, including pre-arrest diversion programs. A lot of hard work! It was inspiring for me to see how powerful can be just one woman (leader of SAGE group: Glenda Sykes – former homeless & prostitute) with visible self-interest and raised voice – taking an action, fighting for her rights and freedom.
Then we attended very interesting activity, called: “One-on-one” with Jim Field (director of CCH) in Millenium park in Chicago. It is very difficult to find the particular questions – to come closer to a stranger in order to build trust, relationship and to find the self-interest of that person. It is not simple dialogue or journalistic interview – it is all about active listening.
At the end of very busy week in Chicago I did also a bit of volunteering. On Saturday I helped my co-fellows Zsofi and Victoria (from the same fellowship program in U.S., coordinated by Great Lakes Consortium for international training and development & thanks to U.S. department financial support) during very interesting march on immigration reform, organized by their hosting organization ICIRR. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights is a statewide coalition of more than 130 organizations dedicated to promoting the rights of immigrants and refugees to full and equal participation in the civic, cultural, social, and political life of our diverse society.
Thousands of immigrant leaders and families and allies from immigrant rights, labor, faith communities marched on October 12th to demand that Congress should pass immigration reform with dignity, justice and respect for all immigrants. They were also demanding that the federal government should halt deportations, stop the further criminalization of immigrants, and pass legalization that includes a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The Most Important Idea that I’ve learnt that day was: How powerful and strong one crowd of thousands of courageous people can be – when it’s well organized (people stand together to achieve their goal – basic human rights). It can have very strong influence on politicians & decision makers! I wish I would have seen this in my home country… The experience of this kind of action was one of the reasons why I decided to attend this fellowship program – to become a good community organizer. Because a good organizer is analyzing power and organizing people towards the creation of visible change – towards changing the world that is full of inequality and injustice.
Written by: Boba Baluchova (founder of Slovak NGO: DocUnion & professional fellow in American NGO: CCH – as a part of GLC program); Photos: Boba Baluchova, GLC program