Chicago 2: Oodles of inspiration

Weds 16th November 2011

After a misleadingly warm day yesterday, now it’s sunny but cold like Chicago’s meant to be.

Today’s dollops of inspiration come from

  • Jeff Pinzino at National People’s Action (NPA)
  • Joanna Brown, Logan Square Neighbourhood Association
  • Malcolm Bush, formerly of Woodstock Institute, a contact through the world of community finance.

Founded by legendary organizer Shel Trapp and neighbourhood activist Gail Cincotta, NPA is 40 years old. It emerged from the experience of ‘panic peddling’ (unscrupulous real estate agents frightening white people into selling their properties cheap in advance of black in-migration and then selling them to black families at inflated prices) and ‘red-lining’ (banks drawing lines on maps to exclude neighbourhoods from all lending). A network of community organizations nationally pressed for the Community Reinvestment Act which forced banks to disclose the geography of their lending and threatened fines or loss of certification if they failed to lend in poor neighborhoods. This has released trillions of dollars up to 2008, although since the crash the relationship with CRA compliance officers has deteriorated dramatically.

NPA currently has 29 affiliated organisations. Unlike some networks that require a single fixed model of organising, NPA encourages a variety of approaches. While all its members are independent organisations, they represent a range including door-to-door, church-based, immigrant worker centres, rural areas, and some that are primarily electoral though not partisan. All of them must be legitimately democratic, run by the people they serve. They share common ground in building power and taking action. Some members use multiple approaches such as advocacy, social service, policy development as well but organizing is always central to their work.

After many years as a training provider (5-day retreats), NPA is currently revamping its training curriculum, rethinking what it means to train organizers in the 21st century. This focuses on:

  • base-building (both face to face and online)
  • alliance-building (particularly long-term relationships that go beyond coalitions for specific campaigns)
  • narrative and communications (a strategic approach to consistent story-telling). Until two months ago the story was all about deficit-cutting. Then it shifted to the 99% and became about fairness, the fact that people are hurting and that the fault lies with Wall Street rather than the Government. Although the eviction of Occupy Wall Street is underway, ‘you can’t evict an idea whose time has come’. A lot of NPA folk are involved with Occupy – eg. they presented to Occupy Chicago their proposed action to disrupt the mortgage bankers event. The question is: how can the organization contribute to the movement? The ability to stay for the long haul and to get the stories of local communities into that narrative. Regardless of who is in the parks, what they are speaking to affects people in communities all over.
  • Electoral work – one place to build power. NPA is a charitable non-profit allowed to encourage civic engagement through voter registration and ‘get the vote out’ though not to endorse candidates.

Misc Insights

As with many of the organisations I met, NPA’s board does the minimum – focusing on organisational sustainability – while decisions about issues and actions are made by the wider membership.

Funding – nationally there are a handful of foundations that support this work (CS Mott, Ford, Open Society, Atlantic Philanthropies). The lion’s share of NPA members’ funds come through these routes. The dues base is usually around 10-15%, with a similar proportion coming from fundraising events and individual donors. Some organisations take some government money, usually for noncontroversial programmes connected to their organizing. NPA itself is 95% foundation funded, with the remainder from donations and conferences. Training tends to be break-even.

I asked whether students seek accreditation. The answer was no. “Credibility comes from community organizations that see it as useful.” (‘Accredibility’?)


Back on the Blue Line northeastwards to meet Joanna Brown who runs the ground-breaking education organizing for the Logan Square Neighbourhood Association. LSNA is 50 years old and currently has 44 member institutions, including 10 schools. Their focus on parent leadership has developed over several years into a holistic approach ranging from parent mentors to the ‘Grow Your Own Teacher’ programme. They recruit welfare mothers, including many immigrants, who undertake a week-long training that emphasises they are already leaders at home and can be leaders in the school and the wider community. These parent mentors work in the classroom for 2 hours a day. After 100 hours they receive $600, which was set as the threshold above which you have to report earnings to the IRS. This approach opens up involvement beyond traditional volunteering parents. Those in the programme are seen as bridges to other parents. LSNA also run an Americorps programme which hires experienced parent mentors as tutors for the 8-10 children who are furthest behind. They work 20 hours a week (700 hours a year) and get a stipend of $4,000 plus food stamps and medical cards. All the parent mentors (10-25 per school) are hired in September and train as a cohort. Each school team meets weekly and once a month all 150 of them meet together to address big issues like the lengthening of the school day. At the start of each year LSNA runs a neighbourhood-wide workshop which includes their other organisers and leaders (immigration, housing, etc). The programme respectfully uses culture and family in a system that devalues both and promotes mutual understanding. The parents learn that the teacher’s job is hard. Teachers realise that parents are an asset.

One of the first outcomes of the organizing was the development of the first after-school community centre in partnership with the school principal who was determined to get her building opened after 4pm in defiance of arcane union rules. Now there are four more of these in the programme and around 100 altogether in Chicago.

The progression routes for the programme are extremely impressive, stretching from true ‘entry-level’ roles to a full professional qualification as a teacher with all kinds of opportunities in between. Parent mentors often get work in the community centres, or as teacher aids, security or cafeteria workers. They have the opportunity to progress to the Americorps programme. 71 of them are studying or have graduated as bilingual teachers. Many of the LSNA staff that Joanna introduced me to started as parent mentors.

From the perspective of women’s empowerment there are amazing outcomes every time. “The school doors are opened up. They walk around like they own the place! Many go from very shy or depressed to being able to speak to elected officials in Washington.”

Schools are the new churches – the logical place to do organizing/social services/community-building work in local communities. They are also, of course, the subject of fierce and highly politicised debate that matters to large numbers of people from the Mayor and School Board to the most vulnerable families and children. Joanna told me her fears for the 400,000 kids in the Chicago Public School system, especially in the face of Charter schools that do not have to abide by the same rules (eg don’t publish scores).

I was still buzzing from talking with Joanna as I rushed back downtown to meet Malcolm Bush who gave me what the Americans would call ‘US Economics 101’ which was extremely useful and wide-ranging. We talked about banks and credit unions, business support, low-income housing and Community Development Corporations – the nearest equivalent to development trusts. He told me about the 24 CDCs in Cleveland, each getting $500k from their alderman, that for 20 years have put all their efforts into low-income housing for home ownership. That has collapsed so what now?

Almost as an aside we talked about how large employers in poor areas find it hard to recruit local people. The problems as presented by a hospital clinic and a bank in Cleveland are that they can’t find people who will a) turn up on time, b) look the customer in the eye, c) speak properly, d) show initiative. When they do find someone the fact that they’ve managed to get a job makes them by definition the most capable person in their household so whenever anything goes wrong they are called upon to deal with it. I described the detail of the parent mentor approach and we began to see an approach to ‘entry’ that is quite different from the usual ‘entry-level’ jobs on offer (which are usually full-time, low-paid, hard work, isolated). Instead develop an approach rooted in the mutual support of the cohort, starting with a couple of hours a day for larger numbers of individuals and including an organizing element that brings a wide range of other benefits. The more I think about this the more I like it…!


Next post: Hull-House, Navy Pier and Occupy Chicago

This entry was posted in Community Organisers, US trip. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s