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Community Organizing: Step One for Neighborhood Change

Dust the surface of any significant neighborhood improvement, from the clean-up of a park, to a new affordable apartment building, to the initiation of a public safety project, and you’ll likely find the fingerprints of a community organizer.

When Carlos Nelson took charge of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. he didn't know anything about community organizing. He learned fast.

Photos by Gordon Walek

Those projects rarely happen without public approval – or they get stopped before they begin because of disapproval. And community organizers are often the catalysts for resident participation and reaction. But who are these organizers? And what skills are required to do the job? 

The neighborhood groups LISC works with play central roles in organizing efforts, but the discipline of community organizing isn’t formal. There’s no real academic track leading to such a job and few formal training programs within those organizations to groom new organizers. 

LISC Chicago over the last three months has held a series of workshops to discuss the process and purpose of community organizing. The three workshops (the final one was on November 19) were intended to serve as a learning forum for members of LISC’s New Communities Network. 

"Organizing isn't about beating up on people," says Raul Raymundo, executive director of The Resurrection Project in Pilsen. "It's about generating win/win situations."

“The entire Quality-Of-Life planning process that LISC supported was a community organizing process,” said Chris Brown, LISC Chicago’s director for education and engagement. “The work of LISC and its partners only had legitimacy to the extent that local residents are engaged in planning and implementing the work.” 

Contrary to popular stereotypes, organizers are hardly the fire-breathing, torch-and-pitchfork-carrying rabble-rousers one might expect. 

“I’d never heard of community development or organizing,” said Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation, about his understanding of the role before taking the reins of GAGDC more than a decade ago. “I was a mechanical engineer.” 

Spark curiosity

More than 100 community representatives attended the three workshops. Nelson told the crowd that his guiding organizing principle is simple: Get people to ask questions. “Why is something the way it is?” he said. “Why is it, for example, that on the South Side of Chicago recycling isn’t something we take to heart? The challenge is getting people to ask questions.” 

Andrea Ortez, of the Southwest Organizing Project in Chicago Lawn, describes organizing as 'the practice of taking power seriously."

Once they do that, he said, they’ll stick around to get the answers. In other words, they’ll be engaged, which is half the battle for enlisting community support for a specific project or action. Nelson exercised that technique early and often in his long, and ultimately successful, struggle to get Metra to open a new station near 79th Street in Auburn Gresham. 

Raul Raymundo, the long-time executive director of The Resurrection Project in Pilsen, agrees. “Organizing isn’t about beating up on people,” he said. “It’s about generating win/win situations. Is there a solution we can come up with that, as we do so, people we’re negotiating with will see it as being in their best interest? You want to create a collective environment where everyone can take credit.” 

Raymundo alluded to the recent demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of a young black man by a white police officer. “That’s not organizing,” he said. “That’s a reaction to a tragedy. Not until the waters have calmed is there an opportunity to organize. Then you can build something long-term, so the tragedy doesn’t repeat itself.” 

Act professionally

People in positions of power, Raymundo noted, often think of community organizers as actors and antagonists. “But we have to act very professionally,” he said. “We’re not screaming and yelling. We get to the point where we’ve answered all their questions and what’s left? You just do it.” 

Teamwork Englewood's Demond Drummer, center, emphasized the value of one-on-one relationships.

Andrea Ortez, a young organizer at the Southwest Organizing Project in Chicago Lawn, described organizing as the practice of taking power seriously. “As a community organizer,” she said, “you sign up to agitate the way people see the world. How do we move toward the world that we want while acknowledging the world we live in?” 

How, indeed? 

Demond Drummer, a tech organizer who’s been highly effective in engaging neighborhood youth in digital projects, was a student of religion and a South Carolina organizer for the 2008 Obama campaign before joining Teamwork Englewood on Chicago’s South Side. 

“I thought I was signing up to be in ‘The West Wing’ and found myself in ‘House of Cards,’ ” he said, referring to the wildly different portrayals of what it means to be in politics – the world as it should be vs. the world as it is – by the two television series. 

As a community organizer, Drummond says he’s built on that experience. “Our only source of power,” he said, “is legitimacy. If we’re not seen as adding value, we have nothing. One-on-one relationships are crucial.” 

Relationships are key

No one could accuse Drummond of lacking digital awareness. One of his greatest Englewood accomplishments has been the creation of a program that trains local youth to write computer code. And he does emphasize the importance of telling your story on social media. 

Imelda Salazar (standing), a SWOP organizer, said there's no specific formula for organizing, but that without trust among participants all is lost.

But he’s a firm believer in old-fashioned organizing. “Instead of putting stuff on a website,” he said, “you’ll be better off delivering flyers door-to-door.” He says among the most important organizing techniques he’s learned is to secure support from within the community first – they must have skin in game – and that the most powerful relationships are developed in person. Even the techies on Twitter like to talk, too, he says. 

Imelda Salazar, an organizer at SWOP who immigrated to the U.S. 11 years ago, when she was 31, also emphasized the value of one-on-one relationships.

“I had no clue about organizing,” she said, “and there’s no formula for doing it. You have to be authentic and curious about the other person. You have to build trust.” 

But building trust, and knowing who to build trust with, isn’t always obvious. Jackie Samuel, who once aspired to be a Broadway performer but later shifted her theatrical skills to organizing South Chicago blocks for Claretian Associates, says she tries to identify the neighborhood “foot soldiers” – people who display interest in civic life but are not in traditional positions of influence or power. 

Jeff Bartow, left, led the final workshop, which addressed the importance of figuring out who weilds power, and why.

For example, in an effort to stem gun violence in South Chicago, Samuel invited high-risk youth to attend a performance event she had organized with local rap artists. “I knew it was risky,” she said, but by engaging young people who she knew had the respect and trust of their peers, she was able to establish a forum where antagonistic neighborhood factions could talk rather than shoot.

“Organizing," said SWOP’s Jeff Bartow in the Nov. 19 session about power analysis, “is an experiment, in collective voice, in action and evaluation. It’s about putting ourselves in places where we can succeed or fail. Most of us avoid that. If we’re serious about acting, we have to risk. And we’re more likely to succeed if we’re serious about power and pay attention to it.” 

For more information, contact Chris Brown at

Photos from the September 24 workshop....


Photos from the October 22 workshop.....

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