Last days at Chicago coalition for the homeless were full of field experiences, listening and also awareness-raising activities in different areas of diverse Chicago city. As a natural part of it few important life-truths (connected to Community organizer’s job) were said. Thanks to them we can work on ourselves and grow as the most beautiful flowers in the world…
On Monday we could heard interesting Presentation of Alex Han – community organizer and coordinator from “Stand up! Chicago” and Service employees international union (SEIU) He was talking about current campaigns (not only in Illinois state) “Fight for 15” (call for increasing minimum wage for contingent workers from 8,5 up to 15 USD per hour). All his experiences with community work in Detroit, New York or Chicago were inspiring. He also empathized how important is new media as a tool for event organizing and gathering the feedback from people.
On Wednesday we joined three Community organizers from “Chicago coalition for the Homeless” (CCH) and leaders from organization “Casa Central – La Posada” in order to help them during school outreach in the area of Humboldt Park. It is one of the neighborhoods in Chicago – widely known for its large Puerto Rican presence. We were divided into groups of two – to be sure that at least one person in group is able to speak Spanish fluently. The goal of this outreach was: contacting adults/parents in front of the Lowell elementary school (while waiting for their children coming out from school) and sharing particular information. We told them about special educational rights and school support for children from families – struggling with housing issues (homeless families, doubled-up families, moving families without regular place to stay etc.). These children should receive free transit cards, fee waivers for uniforms, field trips etc. in order: not to be discriminated or excluded.
CCH people, few leaders from Casa Central (mothers and women from this Latino community) and us (volunteers – European fellows) tried to raise awareness about educational rights and encourage people to ask for them. Many adults in front of the Lowell elementary school have known somebody else in neighborhood – experiencing homelessness or “doubled-up” life (sharing the house with another family), but they haven’t known about this possibility – to ask Homeless liaison (particular person in every single school – dealing with housing issues of students) for support for their children. It was very good practical activity in the field.
I also visited (with other CCH interns) Lower Wacker drive in order to meet homeless people living in that area (underground network of roads – city under the Chicago city). At the end of 20th century there was a settlement between the city and homeless people – to treat homeless people as human beings and not to take their personal belongings by policemen. Especially if city service’s workers are going to clean the places of Lower Wacker they should put an announcement with certain time period deadline before taking all few things what they have. The stories of all homeless guys are always very strong and sad. Some of these men used to be US army soldiers in the war in Vietnam or Iraq – but because of their trauma they are not able to function properly anymore, so they ended up on the streets…
”One-on-one” with CCH staff or volunteers is always interesting activity – because everybody has his/her own story and the reason – why he/she is involved into the movement towards ending homelessness. This activity of listening and exploring the self-interest of every single personality is essential towards building relationships. And relationship is the key to success (on of the principles of Community organizing). Wayne Richards has been working for CCH as senior organizer for 13 years. In past he experienced homelessness, so he knows well how to agitate people in homeless shelters – using his own history, his faith. Currently he is responsible for creative writing workshops for homeless youth. During that interview Wayne mentioned many interesting ideas. He also told us one sentence what he learnt from John Donahue (former Executive Director of CCH): “Never allow yourself to let the issue be more important than the people – involved in the issue.”
On Saturday we attended Leadership training on History and Principles of Community organizing (led by CCH director: Jim Field) for 10 Afro-American activists from Center for new horizons. I was positively surprised how educated and aware of “Civil rights’ movement in US” were all these Chicagoans. They knew almost every single detail about Buses’ boycott of 40 000 workers in Montgomery and Rosa Parks’s action, as well as Martin Luther King jr. activities towards historic success. They just weren’t sure: whether this direct action was perfectly planned or spontaneous. They didn’t know the name of the man behind the scene – community organizer: E.D. Nixon.
Great organizer and the director of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless: Jim Field told us that he has never been in front of the cameras in his whole 37-years long carrier (but he helped CCH workers and leaders with hundreds of media statements and press releases). And there are few important messages for future community organizers: “Never allow yourself to place yourself in front of lenses and microphone. Let your leaders speak about their issues, campaigns, plans. Community organizer should stand behind the scene.” The same Jim told us that community organizing is like swimming – you have to be in the water and try to be better step by step (by making many mistakes, challenging yourself, experiencing negative reactions of people or reflecting also not-successful activities). During past few days I have also learnt that “sometimes you have to put a bit of shit on your head (and on your life) in order to grow”. This example with ‘organic fertilizing’ the flower is very simple, but true and powerful. We shall never forget!
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