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Long-Term Engagement

It’s not hard to envision what can be accomplished over the long haul with dedication, purpose and hard work when you’re sitting in the midst of it. 

Speaking of long term, Raul Raymundo, The Resurrection Project's CEO, said it took more than 10 years from the first idea for LaCasa, the student dormitory,  to when the red ribbon was cut. It’s not easy for an organization, its allies and local residents to keep a vision like La Casa alive – and the momentum to get there – for over a decade. 

Gordon Walek

For those gathered for LISC’s June 17 organizing and engagement workshop, the venue itself illustrated the power of community organizing and development. La Casa, an affordable housing alternative for students attending local universities, was built and is managed by The Resurrection Project (TRP) as a way to help boost the number of young people of color who attend and graduate from college. 

But as Raul Raymundo, chief executive officer of TRP, explained, it took more than 10 years from the first idea to when the red ribbon was cut. It’s not easy for an organization, its allies and local residents to keep a vision like La Casa alive – and the momentum to get there – for over a decade. 

“What happens when you go from talking with a whole lot of people in the planning stage to the day-to-day work, which includes a much smaller number of people? How can you keep that larger group engaged?” asked Chris Brown, LISC’s director of education and engagement and the panel moderator. 

More than two dozen community organizers and allies – including a delegation from Belarus in town to learn about civic engagement – were in La Casa’s multipurpose room to hear the answers at the workshop, “Moving from Planning to Implementation/Action.”

Raymundo said that TRP always has multiple projects and campaigns going at once, so the community can be engaged in multiple ways. He also suggested groups continue to make progress towards an elusive long-term goal by other means.

“Along the way,” Raymundo said, “while we were waiting to get the financing to build this facility, we still kept trying to help young men and women get ready for college with programs like financial literacy workshops.” 

 Carlos Nelson, GAGDC’s executive director, said that his group used a mix of strategies to keep pushing for a new Metra station to help residents easily commute downtown – from consistently pointing out the site on neighborhood tours to building support by framing the discussion as an issue of social justice. 

Gordon Walek

The Auburn Gresham neighborhood has had its own big project that’s taking more than a decade to become a reality. Starting with a 2005 community quality-of-life plan, the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation has led a campaign to build a Metra station at 79th Street, a replacement for a stop on the commuter rail line that existed back before the community changed from majority white to majority black. Last year, the state announced the funding has been secured for the station. 

Panelist Carlos Nelson, GAGDC’s executive director, said that his group used a mix of strategies to keep pushing for a station to help residents easily commute downtown – from consistently pointing out the site on neighborhood tours to building support by framing the discussion as an issue of social justice. 

“Just three miles away in a more exclusive area, the train stops eight times,” Nelson said. “Our job was to show it was unfair that we didn’t have that station, to rally the community by showing that if we were not an African-American community, there would still be a station there.” 

The voice of hundreds of residents

In Logan Square, the ability and capacity to rally the community was instrumental in making sure another long-term project came to fruition – although this one was not supposed to be long term at all. 

The Zapata Apartments were planned as part of the Logan Square quality-of-life plan to improve a downtrodden section of Armitage Avenue and provide some affordable housing for working families. But when a few neighbors starting complaining about living next to the buildings, the 61 units of subsidized housing went from a five-month project to taking five years. 

The Zapata Apartments were planned as part of the Logan Square quality-of-life plan to improve a downtrodden section of Armitage Avenue and provide affordable housing for working families. But when a few neighbors starting complaining about living next to the buildings, the 61 units of subsidized housing went from a five-month project to taking five years. 

Gordon Walek

“I was at a meeting where one person said, ‘I’d rather have a vacant lot next to my home than affordable housing,’” recalled panelist Susan Adler Yanun, the New Communities program director for Logan Square Neighborhood Association. “The alderman said we should still see if this is something the community wants. At the next meeting, we had 350 – 400 people turn out, and the vast majority were there with us in favor of the project.” With such clear support and a lot of other hard work, the four buildings opened for tenants last year. 

So what does it take to have the organizing and engagement to bring out hundreds of supporters for a project? Yanun said she sees the work to create the critical relationships in two broad categories: Very intentional one-on-one meetings to learn about the resident’s motivations and interests. And what she characterized as “almost the opposite”—just being there at local events and where programs are in operation, like schools, with no agenda but to talk and be part of the community. 

“And one of the first things is to just bring people together,” Yanun said. “For a lot of issues, people feel like it’s a personal problem, and they have to deal with it on their own: ‘Oh, the neighborhood is changing. That happens all the time.’ It feels very isolating. But when people are together and they share their thoughts and concerns, they see those private problems are actually shared problems. And then it becomes, ‘How can we change this? Who can we talk with to get something done?” 

In the audience, after the panel was over, Mike Tomas, the executive director of the Garfield Park Community Council, said that that the panelists’ advice will be useful for his group, particularly around keeping an eye on the prize. 

To create energy and interest for commercial corridor revitalization near stops at the CTA’s Green Line, for instance, GPCC has a neighborhood market twice a month. “We could do better to use those markets to show our vision of where we’d like the commercial development. Try to connect the dots for people,” said Tomas, who’s been to three of the organizing and engagement workshops. “There’s been a lot of good stuff discussed today.” 

Structure to engage

Once you engage with residents, you’re also going to hear their own ideas, plans and opinions. Much of the discussion near the end of the workshop revolved around how the three organizations effectively gather and incorporate outside input—and when and how to deal with naysayers, or even good ideas that aren’t a good match for their capacity or mission. 

With 50 some churches, schools, block clubs, social service agencies and other local institutions as its members, LSNA has quarterly meetings and regular votes by its action council on issues, as well as issue committees to decide on other specific topics. Yanun pointed out, though, that LSNA staff and local leaders work closely together, discussing ideas and the best plan of action. 

Better late than never. LaCasa today provides affordable housing in Pilsen for college  students studying throughout the Chicago ara.

Gordon Walek

The Resurrection Project, on the other hand, started as a member-based organization, but has evolved away from that structure, in part because of its role as a developer and manager of local affordable housing. Over the last year, TRP has identified four pillars for its work – community ownership, asset building, community wealth building, and stakeholder strength – and is using what Raul characterized as a “hybrid model” of committees for each pillar to elicit community recommendations. 

“The entire staff, the entire board and our stakeholders are all committed to the vision of this model,” Raymundo said. “With this strategy, we think we can do more in the next five years than we’ve done in the last 25.” 

Nelson said that GAGDC, as a relatively young organization, is still evolving within its model. “But it’s certainly not top-down,” he emphasized. “In the last 12 or 13 years, we’ve learned we can’t attempt to be the leader on every big issue in our area. We’re a convener and at times a conduit for resources that flow to our community... but the crux is relationship building. It’s everything and envelopes all that we do.” 

Read about LISC’s organizing and engagement workshop on leadership, the first in the current series here, Organizing for – and with – a community plan here, and about last year’s programs here. The next workshop in this series is: Race, Class, and Gender in Community Organizing on Wednesday, July 22, 2015 at Garfield Park Conservatory (Jensen Room) – 300 N. Central Park, Chicago, IL from 9:30 -11:30 a.m.

Posted in Auburn Gresham, East Garfield Park, Logan Square, Pilsen

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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