Chicago 3: All kinds of walking

I’m back in the UK now but determined to finish this blog account of my trip to the US to explore community organising. I ran 3.5k on a treadmill today and all the way I was thinking about my much more exciting (and exhausting) Thursday in Chicago

A/D/J – Congress Plaza Hotel where I was staying. Hotel workers have been on strike since June 2003

B – Ogilvie Transporation Centre – where I met Ken Rolling from Community Learning Partnership at 9am

C – Hull-House museum on South Halsted, a museum in the original building of one of the first (and probably the most famous) settlement houses in the US

E – Navy Pier – the world’s most visited pier

F – La Salle/Randolph where I met up with Regina to join the Occupy Chicago day of action

H – the end point of the Occupy march (much more meandering than shown here)

I – Berghoff’s where Regina took me for some much-needed dinner

Total walked according to Google: 11.4 miles

No wonder my poor old boots needed re-heeling when I got home! But every step of it worthwhile.

The Community Learning Partnership is actively ‘field-building’ for community organizing. It aims to create both a pathway in Community Change studies and a workforce for change and social justice. CLP has been sponsored by Community Catalyst, a large non-profit organisation based in Boston that helped achieve the universal healthcare in the state of Massachusetts (more like proper public healthcare than anything else in America).

With particular focus on attracting people of color, CLP aims to equip people with the knowledge and skills for whole range of community jobs (as well as transferable to many different fields). CLP is working in four US sites at present: Minneapolis, Los Angeles South Central, de Anza College in San Jose, and the New York City Center for Neighborhood Leadership (see my NYC blogs). CLP works with community colleges to create certificates and/or degrees at AA or BA level and is developing open-source curriculum content, using a collaborative approach between academics and grassroots organizers. Ken is clear that the content must focus on individual identity – who am I, who am I in this community, who am I in the world – and the political/social economy of each specific place. The learning goals and tools may be the same – critical thinking, analysis, research, questioning how change comes about – but the rooting of learning in specific context and culture is all important. That’s why they are keen to create open-source approach where anyone (a professor, a school-teacher, a community organizer) can pull down ‘chunks of code’ (ie learning plans, resource materials, pedagogy) to create their own course.

Next I wended my way to Hull-House museum, housed in the 1854 building that Jane Addams and Ellen Gates-Starr turned in 1886 into the most famous settlement house in the US and now part of the University of Illinois.

Rattling round my mind was Lord Glasman’s contention that community organizing arose in hostility to the settlement movement. He says that Saul Alinsky organised the Back-of-the-Yards in direct opposition to the local settlement house (ie University of Chicago Settlement House). Having heard some of the University’s local story earlier in the week from the Caroline Ouwerkerk of the Uni of Chicago Urban Network, I can imagine (though I have not researched it) that at the point Alinsky arrived the settlement may have been ‘part of the problem’. But it was wilfully unfair of Glasman to trash the whole movement in naked bitterness.

In his 1969 foreword to Reveille for Radicals Alinsky castigates the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council that he had created 30 years earlier for “casting their lot with the Have’s… they are part of the city’s establishment and are desperately trying to keep their community unchanged… so with all victorious revolutionary movements that trade in their birthrights for a mess of property, power and the grand illusion of security.” The BYNC website gives a different view of their own change from the confrontational Alinsky style to focus on community and economic development. Who is to say what is right in a given place at a given time? One of the best lessons from this trip has been the way organizing groups and social service organisations have spoken of each other with respect. They draw clear and reasonably objective distinctions between these two approaches to social justice and accept that both are necessary. Indeed sometimes the same organisation will do both – using their social services to meet immediate need while organizing remains at the heart of their approach to making change.

Anyway, times change, I told myself, no doubt the Victorian foremothers and forefathers of the settlements were patronising philanthropists and as with all collections there is quality and there are the rest. Chicago in the 1930s is not the same as 21st century England.

But a couple of hours of intensive study in the Hull-House museum would puncture even Glasman’s scornful prejudice. The enormous dedication and imagination of Jane Addams – her pacifism, feminism, radical inclusiveness and the sheer achievements of Hull-House in terms of improving human lives – were all put in perspective when I picked up Elizabeth Dilling’s The Red Network: a “who’s who” and handbook of radicalism for patriots from 1934. This sly, vitriolic 350 pages of bile slates Addams and others involved with Hull-House. Would Alinsky have put himself alongside Mrs Albert W Dilling, who has Gandhi top of her list of ‘red propagandists’? I don’t think so!

Thomas Paine’s “Call me rebel” quote (that Alinsky appropriates) could have been invented for Jane Addams.

“Let them call me a rebel and welcome,

I feel no concern from it; but I should

suffer the misery of devils, were I to

make a whore of my soul…”

She was a purist, refusing to help directly with some union activity because it broke her pacifist principles, but in the best tradition of flexible, pragmatic womankind, she let the union organizers meet at Hull-House nonetheless.

Having sucked the place dry, I made my way to the other surviving building, the old Dining Hall now Gift Shop, but was turned away at the door for the unforeseen reason that Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was ‘making an announcement’ in there at the time. Instead I bought a copy of Jane Addams ‘Twenty Years at Hull-House’ and slunk away.

I walked ‘home’ via a sandwich and then set out again for Navy Pier. I’ll do a proper blog about this under the Seaside theme of my schizoid life. For now let’s say a) it’s a long walk, b) it’s 9 times the size of #hastingspier and c) I was surprised and delighted at the relevance of the conversation with Steven Haemmerle, Exec Vice President of Navy Pier Inc. For now, here’s the beautiful view of the city from the pier.

Regina had called to invite me to the Occupy Chicago event. As I walked back from Navy Pier along Grand Avenue, she was with a load of people sitting on LaSalle Bridge. 46 people, wearing blue shirts so they could be easily identified, were led away and ‘ticketed’ by the police in a choreographed performance. The others moved south and I joined them at the Board of Trade on LaSalle. For a while it felt like not much would happen; then people broke (fairly gently) through the (rather laid-back) police lines and ‘occupied’ the street, jumping for joy in the way young men do best. Then we chanted some more and were encouraged to join up around the building. But then we were on the move. And a good thing too given how b****y cold Chicago gets. So we moved, and every few yards Regina would comment that she was surprised and impressed that we were able to close these downtown streets. As we passed the Congress Plaza Hotel to chants of ‘Congress Hotel, Shame on you’, I hung my head and battled with my contradictions. When I spoke to the strikers next day I simply listened and apologised.

We finally got to Grant Park, where Occupy Chicago has been trying to pitch tents for the past 2 months but kept off by 100s of arrests each time. Here was a classic moment of the movement. A group of mainly female organizers leapt up onto the steps at the foot of the Native American Spearman statue, the usual gathering point, and called for a General Assembly or at least a People’s Mic to decide what to do next. A group of mainly male rebels walked away backwards shouting “Let’s take Michigan”, meaning the Avenue rather than the State of course. We all went with them, and fairly quickly it became clear that this was the police expectation. Regina spoke to a moustached police head honcho, who looked (to me) like something out of a western, congratulating him for good policing, which was certainly true. She said he has been at previous events and they have all been calm. This was my 11th walking mile (not to mention the slow museum trail round Hull-House) so we quit and Regina took me for some much-needed sustenance at Berghoff’s, Chicago’s 100-year old German restaurant. It closed as a family restaurant in 2006 but was re-opened by the Berghoff Catering & Restaurant Group.

Here’s some coverage of the Chicago event:,0,1695576.story

Next post: Grounded Theory (Phil Nyden, Jim Field, Albany Park Neighborhood Councl)

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