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Life Arts    H1'ed 7/21/19

What Successful Community Organizing Looks Like

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The challenge was that the parking lot was owned by an independent state-chartered government agency, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District -- think sewer treatment monolith. Even our then-alderman for 40 years, the "zoning czar" of Chicago, couldn't budge them from holding out for commercial development at a land cost of $1 million, which no one was willing to pay. That's why the movie theater and the carwash had gone out of business. They couldn't afford the parking lot! And that's why no other business was ever going to be able to locate there.

BS: We were going to hold a rally and push for TV coverage to demonstrate broad opposition to this awful blight and unsafe mess in our midst. But it was November, in Chicago, and getting too cold to expect many people to show up. So we changed the focus to a community meeting, in a big neighborhood synagogue. We promoted it to media and reached out to non-Jewish groups, and we drew an incredible coalition of about 150 Hasidic and other Jews, Latinos, and other ethnics. In the end, we got lots of media coverage for what came out of that meeting.

JB: So you really did your homework and got a great turnout and lots of media attention. How did you parlay that into concrete change?

HR: Just want to add a twist to the story. It is true that it was November, and that there was a horrible cold spell with temps dropping into the teens. On the other hand, we had a rally planned and we were committed to going ahead with it when I got a call from an elected official asking us to consider canceling the rally because it would really upset the mayor. Knowing that conditions were such that going ahead would likely have led to little-to-no turnout, I agreed, but did note that we would reschedule another rally one way or the other. That led us to go with the indoor approach a couple of months later.

As to how we parlayed the rescheduled event into concrete change, here is what happened.

When we announced the rally, we invited the executive director of the Water Reclamation District and our local alderman to address the group. The alderman didn't attend because of a scheduling conflict, but the Water Reclamation exec agreed to come, and actually showed up well in advance of the start time, as I was just checking out final room arrangements. Since we had never met, we sat and chatted for a few minutes, and he asked me what I wanted him to do, given that so many previous plans for the site had failed to come to fruition. I said that I thought it would be great if we could get the land for a park. He said that no one had ever asked for that before and yes, he could give rights to the land to the Chicago Park District for 66 years for $15 per year to develop a park. Two years later, we had the newest park in the city and had transformed the worst parcel of land in the neighborhood into a beautiful community asset.

Right time. Right place. Right ask!

Ta da! The beautiful new Bernard Stone Park at the SE corner of Devon and McCormick that replaced an eyesore
Ta da! The beautiful new Bernard Stone Park at the SE corner of Devon and McCormick that replaced an eyesore
(Image by Howard Rieger)
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JB: Wow! Lovely story. And I assume that resounding success gave you credibility to go on to do more. What was the next item on your list and what were the considerations that went into making it next up?

HR: Soon after the success with the new park, I was invited to attend a meeting convened by the Chicago Community Trust, the region's community foundation with assets in excess of $3 billion. Each year, the Trust holds such sessions in each of the city's neighborhoods, with the intention of encouraging each group to identify a project or program that might spark an initiative aimed at meeting an agreed-upon goal. I suggested that our objective should be to get a new branch of the Chicago Public Library to replace the current one that was nearly 65 years old, undersized, without the latest technology or parking. Not only was that idea immediately accepted, the chair of the session, a top executive at the Trust and a resident of the neighborhood, volunteered to chair an advocacy coalition. The LEARN Coalition become the motivating force for a campaign that garnered over 2,500 signatures on petitions that in the end proved to be the push that was needed for our elected officials to bring this dream to reality. Through a unique partnership between the Chicago Housing Authority and the Chicago Public Library, in early 2019, we marked yet another ribbon-cutting, this time at an outstanding state-of-the-art library on the ground floor of an architectural award-winning, 44-unit senior housing facility.

Old Northtown Branch, Chicago Public Library, built in 1962
Old Northtown Branch, Chicago Public Library, built in 1962
(Image by Howard Rieger)
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New Northtown Branch, Chicago Public Library, completed in 2018
New Northtown Branch, Chicago Public Library, completed in 2018
(Image by Howard Rieger)
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Sometimes, JNDCC can be the out-front force leading the way, as it was in our first success. Sometimes, it's better for leadership to emerge from elsewhere, as it did with the LEARN Coalition. In both instances, JNDCC played an indispensable role.

JB: I see how well that works, Howard, being nimble and able to either shoot or pass, as needed. How did you come up with the idea of the library branch in the first place? What I mean to say here is that, in retrospect, we see this as a brilliant move, a foregone conclusion. But hindsight is hindsight. How did you get there? What else did you consider? I'd like to understand the process better.

HR: Sitting in that meeting and listening to the ideas that were being floated such as an ethnic festival -- something that I saw as hard to promote and even if successful, having no long-term impact -- I tried to conjure up an idea that would have wide community acceptance. I had "inventoried" the assets of the community and knew that the library was a second-rate facility, compared to adjoining neighborhood branches. We had floated the idea with officials and were told that there was no money to get the job done. On the other hand, ours was the second-most utilized branch, and it seemed like a no-brainer to garner support from all elements of the community if we set out with a broad-based coalition to get a new one. Just getting in line with a request, even if it would take years to achieve a positive outcome, made sense to me.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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