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Telling Hard Truths

Race. Class. Gender. There's no doubt these issues have a profound influence on Chicago's neighborhoods and their residents. It's also true, though, that their role in the community organizing work taking place in these neighborhoods is rarely talked about candidly.

“In my 12 years at LISC, we’ve never had a public discussion on the issues of race, class and gender,” said Susana Vasquez, LISC Chicago’s executive director, with Darnell Shields of Austin Coming Together.

Gordon Walek

“In my 12 years at LISC, we’ve never had a public discussion on the issues of race, class and gender,” said Susana Vasquez, LISC Chicago’s executive director. “But the issues are there, and they need to be grappled with. If we have a dialogue about it, it can become an integrated part of the work.”

At the end of July at the Garfield Park Conservatory, staff and supporters from community groups across Chicago gathered to start that dialogue at “Race, Class and Gender in Community Organizing,” the final workshop in this set of the LISC organizing and engagement series. 

“Here [in the U.S.], you’re led to believe that access to opportunity is equal and there for anyone who seeks it, but that’s not the case,” said panelist Darnell Shields, the director of operations at Austin Coming Together

Shields recounted an experience he had in Johannesburg this summer as a member of the inaugural class of the Civic Leadership Academy at the University of Chicago. As he was standing at the counter at a McDonald’s, a white woman, utterly comfortable in her casual racism, went up to him and told him he was holding up the line and to take his food and go – even though he was still waiting for his order to be served. 

“She was in my face, and she meant it,” Shields said. “In South Africa, the illusion of equality is not there. The discussion of race was something you couldn’t avoid.” 

Like much of the discussions in the workshop series, the conversation between panelists and the audience was primarily focused on solutions. “It was a great opportunity for me as an organizer to hear from other experts what they’re doing in their communities and what works,” said Vanessa Valentin, the director of community organizing at the Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC) in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood. 

“Our community is diverse, but we never really talk about it,” she added. “This gave me ideas about how we can have conversations about that during our planning process.” 

Anger into action

America is having a moment of recognition and reckoning about race right now, from President Obama’s visit to a federal prison to the tragic timeline of African-American deaths, including Michael Brown in Ferguson last summer. How that translates into change and movement at the community level isn’t necessarily obvious. 

The trick to being productive, said panelist Jeff Bartow, executive director of the Southwest Organizing Project, is turning the hot anger generated by racial injustice into cold anger and then into action.

Gordon Walek

Panelist Jeff Bartow, the executive director of the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), drew a distinction between abstract conversations about racial justice and discussions about the consequences, like detentions and deportations for undocumented immigrants. 

“The most critical moments are when people who have no status are stopped for no other reason than they are brown, and the same kind of thing happens to African Americans, too, obviously,” Bartow said. “They’re triggers for anger. The trick is turning that hot anger into cold anger and then into action.” 

Community organizing and development also can and should be addressing policy issues connected to gender, such as child care, reproductive health in health care, maternity leave and equal pay, said panelist Grace Hou, the president of Woods Fund Chicago

Vasquez, who moderated the panel, pointed out in her days as a community organizer she worked with many women who were neighborhood leaders, but now as head of LISC Chicago she is sometimes the only person of color – or woman – at meetings with corporate and philanthropic leaders. 

“If you go all the way up to who is running the country from the corporate level and Congress, it is mostly men,” Hou agreed. “I think it says something about what needs to happen.”

Even at the local level, gender can play a hidden role. Shields noted that although the staff of Austin Coming Together is currently split about equally between men and women, nearly all the community leaders who participate in their issue group around childcare are women. In the workforce group, all the members save one are men. 

Create space for discussion

Facing these kinds of entrenched, systemic issues, what can be done? Hou said the Woods Fund Chicago, with its focus on community organizing and public policy advocacy, includes racial equity as a framework in its funding. In the last few years, Woods Fund Chicago is going beyond just looking for diversity among the staff and board of its grantees. 

Community organizing and development should be addressing policy issues connected to gender, such as child care, reproductive health in health care, maternity leave and equal pay, said panelist Grace Hou, president of Woods Fund Chicago.

Courtesy of Woods Fund Chicago

“There’s a huge continuum that begins with ‘We serve people of color’ or ‘We are leaders who are people of color’ and goes to organizations that are trying to change policies on a statewide level that impact people of color disproportionately,” she said. 

Woods Fund Chicago’s commitment to racial equity is deeper than its grant making. Thirty-percent of their investment portfolio is run by people of color or is socially responsible. They are also leading discussions about these approaches to other foundations, which Hou said have a “huge thirst” for the conversation. 

Vasquez asked Bartow what it takes to accomplish the change he noted earlier, to move residents from anger to action. You start, he said, by gathering a group in the context of a genuine relationship, acknowledging and respecting the others’ point of view. 

“Then you think together about what are the roots of the situation and what do you have the ability to take on,” he said. “You want to understand how systemic that issue is and imagine what are possible ways of addressing it at the highest levels so we can make a difference.” 

As an example, Bartow talked about the SWOP campaign in Chicago Lawn to fight foreclosures in the wake of the housing crisis, which disproportionately affected African-American and Latino families. In addition to being a tangible program tied to racial issues, the campaign brought together residents with different income levels but a shared interest in preserving the neighborhood’s housing. 

“It’s always about looking for common ground because of the added power that can bring,” he said. 

For these kind of issues, the panel agreed that the dominant culture and power structures will battle to protect the status quo. Bartow advised anyone starting an organizing campaign to be begin with a power analysis of both sides. 

“It’s never an accident when change happens at the highest levels,” Hou added. 

Bartow also noted, “humanity does matter” – people can begin to open their minds when presented with strong stories of people’s experiences. And Hou cited the work of University of California, Berkley professor John Powell, who has written about the racialized outcomes of policies. 

“At the foundation, we’re not necessarily interested in how decision makers feel personally. We’re not saying they are racist. We’re saying the policies have an uneven negative impact on people of color,” she said. “[Powell’s idea] can kind of take away some of the sting of ‘You’re to blame’ in what can be at times a delicate landscape.” 

What’s the use of social media?

In the time of #blacklivesmatter, no conversation about organizing’s relationship to race, gender and class would be complete without discussion of social media. “I think it’s impacting our work in ways we aren’t even fully aware of yet,” Vasquez said. 

Shields pointed out that tweets and Facebook posts are “all perceived in that moment” and complex ideas can be misunderstood in 140 characters. And, the panel agreed, after an initial rush of hits and reposts, real change requires the power and focus of an organized constituency. 

Bartow argued that’s always been the case – organizing over time is what allows neighborhoods to respond quickly and effectively to a big moment, whether it be a new proposal by an alderman or a firestorm of online outrage. 

“What you’re able to do happens in the context of years of relationship building,” he said. “Be relentless.” 

Read about LISC’s organizing and engagement workshop on leadership here, organizing for – and with – a community plan here, and moving from planning to implementation/action here. To read about last year’s programs, click here. And, stay tuned for details regarding our upcoming Fall workshop series.


During the “Race, Class and Gender in Community Organizing” workshop, the panelists mentioned a number of groups that provide training, education and/or resources to community organizations working around these issues. This list includes those groups and several other subsequent suggestions.

Action Now is a grassroots organization of working families in the Chicago metro area, working currently on living wage jobs, education, foreclosure prevention and violence prevention. 

The Association of Black Foundation Executives (ABFE) promotes effective and responsive philanthropy in black communities, including a framework for grantworking: Responsive Philanthropy in Black Communities. 

Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) is an activist, member-based organization of black 18-35 year olds, dedicated to justice and freedom through leadership development, direct action organizing, advocacy and education. 

The Chicago Westside branch NAACP advances the national organization’s mission to “ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination.” 

Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) trains parents – primarily mothers – to be leaders in their community, build parent-run organizations, and change public policies. 

Community Renewal Society is a Chicago faith-based organization that works to eliminate race and class barriers by informing, organizing and training communities and individuals. 

Fathers, Families, and Healthy Communitiesis a Chicago-based consortium that provides African-American, non-custodial fathers with the tools they need to meaningfully engage with their families. 

Race Forward, formerly the Applied Research Center, builds awareness, solutions and leadership around racial justice, including trainings and publishing the news site Colorlines

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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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