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Life Arts    H1'ed 7/21/19

What Successful Community Organizing Looks Like

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I don't want to imply that either the first success with the new park, or the new library were easily achieved. Both required perseverance and ongoing recalibration. The difference between success and failure is frequently determined by who has staying power. The "powers that be" pretty much can count on initiatives running out of gas. Our strategy was: never give up; never give in. And one more thing, let others take credit for a positive outcome. For me, success is only measured on achieving the objective, not receiving accolades for doing so. Bottom line? I was really surprised how soon both objectives were achieved.

JB: Grassroots initiatives, however well-intentioned, so often just peter out. Yours hasn't. Thanks for spelling out the reasons why. What are you up to these days?

BS: We're moving forward with ideas for new enhancements to the neighborhood. But it's also important that we seek out ways to remind people of the successes of our past, for a few reasons. We're always fighting against an ingrained attitude that "it can't be done." So we need to inspire people to realize that yes, it can be done. And we need to push back against the tendency to take success, once it's been achieved, for granted. It's so easy to drive past the southeast corner of Devon and McCormick, for instance, float the eyes over the lovely sculpted park that replaced a festering disaster and forget that change happened -- forget that we had to come together, set a goal, stave off discouragement, stick with it, and see it through.

That all feeds into my reasons for making the documentary. I wanted to be able to draw hundreds of people into synagogues and other public spaces to kick back and savor the neighborhood's history, appreciate its uniqueness relative to other Jewish neighborhoods in the history of Chicago, and appreciate the importance of community activism -- and coalition building -- for preserving the neighborhood.

Having made other documentaries about Chicago history for public television, I had access to experts and archival material and historical information. I was able to put together a treatment, raise funds and craft a story, and put Howard's activism and impact on the neighborhood into the historical context of Jewish settlement in West Rogers Park. Interestingly, our recent period of activism hasn't been the only time over the nearly 90 years that Jews have lived in the neighborhood that "leaders" -- people who sought to impact the future of the community -- took bold steps and succeeded. Whether it was to allay fears that could cause people to abandon the neighborhood, or to make major investments in schools and synagogues to encourage people to stay, or, like Howard, to improve the physical appearance and civic amenities of the area to make it a more desirable place to live, the documentary tells that story.

We've had about 20 community screenings, each followed by discussion and Q & A. Along the way, we've generated a good amount of publicity, which has helped to spread the impact of the work even further. We're still getting requests for showings.

flyer for screening of 'Driving West Rogers Park:Chicago's Once and Future Jewish Neighborhood'
flyer for screening of 'Driving West Rogers Park:Chicago's Once and Future Jewish Neighborhood'
(Image by Beverly Siegel)
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JB: I saw that film, which is great, and that's what led me to you and inspired this interview. You live part of the time in Pittsburgh. Do you do anything similar there?

BS: We showed the film at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill to launch an advocacy campaign utilizing similar strategies to those depicted in the video but geared toward local goals.

HR: Just a point of order. Bev made the documentary on a pro-bono basis. She invested countless hours of her time doing the research, writing the script, hunting down the interviewees and working with the camera people and the editor. It's incredible to see her productions up close. For an outsider, it is hard to imagine how much effort goes into one of these projects.

JB: Thanks for setting the record straight, Howard.

HR: As to Pittsburgh, I have become involved in the battle to fight air pollution. Pittsburgh's image is that of the smoky city, an accurate characterization until the effort that enacted the first anti-pollution laws in the post-WWII years. That leads most people to believe that all is now well, but that isn't true. Just because small particle and ozone pollution isn't as visible doesn't mean that it isn't even more deadly, which it is. As a morning runner, I didn't like that there were too many days when the air was bad enough that I couldn't or wouldn't run.

So I decided to take my years of community organization experience into that fight as a volunteer leader. In fact, we used Bev's documentary as a launching pad for that effort. When so many friends and acquaintances kept asking to see what we were doing in Chicago, we screened the video in Pittsburgh, and at the end, I did a jump-shift, noting that since Pittsburgh and Squirrel Hill didn't have the same challenges as West Rogers Park Chicago, one could assume that there was no relevance to the film other than interest about our "other" life. The point I made was that it wasn't what we did in Chicago but how we did advocacy and activism...that could be applied in Pittsburgh to push officials to actually do something to limit the problem of air pollution by doing something about the largest contributor to pollution and the health problems that it leads to: United States Steel and its Mon Valley Works. For a variety of reasons, the "powers that be" have chosen to ignore the facts, in favor of touting the city as one of the most livable in the country. Pittsburgh is a wonderful place to live, but being silent about what is literally killing some is not a good formula for building the region. We have coalesced a group of individuals who are joining in the fight and together with so many others, we are beginning to see some progress.

JB: I'm so glad you've taken this on. My daughter and her family have lived in Pittsburgh for the last several years and love it. But it has the potential to be a much better place to live and raise children once the issue of air quality is addressed. Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

BS: I may get more involved in Howard's Pittsburgh project -- it's very exciting to see the progress he's helped to make -- but right now, I'm primarily focused on re-developing our website in Chicago, refreshing our image, and working with our new leadership to move forward on neighborhood goals, including bringing in a pop-up art gallery, a business incubator and hopefully a new fire station. From there, who knows?

HR: Just that real change can happen at the local level. It takes time and commitment to make change, but time after time, I have seen that it can be achieved. I believe that retirement is a great time to do things like this that can improve the quality of life of everyone, while giving me and others like me something truly productive to do. Giving back. By the way, my son in Pittsburgh is leading a start-up non-profit that he launched that is doing the same thing with Pittsburgh public high school students. I have been involved with that effort and it is a perfect complement to what people in my age category can do.

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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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