#101 Sep/Oct 1998

Building a Force for the Common Good

The empty space at the center of American democracy is defined ultimately by its failed political institutions. At the highest level of politics, there is no one who now reliably […]

The empty space at the center of American democracy is defined ultimately by its failed political institutions. At the highest level of politics, there is no one who now reliably speaks for the people, no one who listens patiently to their concerns or teaches them the hard facts involved in governing decisions. There is no major institution committed to mobilizing the power of citizens concerning their own interests and aspirations.

Greider’s analysis aptly describes public life in the Chicago region. Electoral politics involves ever fewer people and is largely a matter of fundraising for focus groups and media buys. The large mediating structures that shaped the region for decades – the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, unions, and political organizations – are in decline. Most citizens have simply checked out of politics, devoting themselves to their private pursuits.

Well, not all citizens. On October 19th, 1997, over 10,000 people from 320 different institutions came together to announce the creation of a new metropolitan-wide citizens’ organization: United Power for Action and Justice. Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and Asians. Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Union members, neighborhood developers, and community health center leaders. City dwellers and suburbanites.

Inside the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion, the talk was about building a politics of the common good, standing for the whole. Without specifying an exact program (much to the annoyance of the Chicago Tribune), leaders spoke of the pressing issues in their communities – violence, downsizing, high housing costs – and emphasized their regional nature.

What brought people to the UIC Pavilion was over 12,000 individual, face-to-face meetings conducted during the previous three years, where individual citizens talked about their stories, struggles, and hopes. Meetings that, to paraphrase Greider, could serve as the glue for a new institution committed to mobilizing citizens’ power.

United Power’s Beginning

To understand how United Power got started, one must go back to the early years of this decade. Chicago was still in the grip of a decades-long economic decline that had ravaged large sections of the central city. A group of Roman Catholic priests, alarmed by these trends and the Archdiocese’s inability to influence them, approached the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

“Our message to the Cardinal was straightforward,” said Father Don Nevins, Pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church. “We pointed out that the city’s problems were increasingly becoming the suburbs’ problems, and that we needed a way to address both. The Cardinal was drawn to this vision of an interfaith organization with the size and scale to handle regional issues.” Early in 1994, Cardinal Bernardin agreed to play a leading role in creating the new organization.

In the wake of Mayor Harold Washington’s death, African-American religious leaders were unsettled by their community’s increasing political and economic isolation. When they were contacted by Cardinal Bernardin, Black religious leaders such as Bishop Arthur Brazier of the Apostolic Church of God and Reverend Clay Evans of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church agreed to be part of the sponsoring oversight committee.

Ultimately the “Chicago Metropolitan Sponsors” (CMS) committee grew to include large, predominantly white Protestant denominations, Jewish organizations, mainstream Islamic institutions, and three labor unions (AFSCME, SEIU, and the Illinois Education Association). The Sponsors collectively raised $2.5 million from their institutions and hired the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to organize the new citizens’ group.

Two things distinguished the CMS organizing drive from past efforts to use sponsoring committees to initiate citizens’ organizations. The first was the breadth and power of the CMS trustees. While Christian and Jewish congregations have a history of involvement in community organizing, the CMS effort broke new ground by immediately involving Muslim groups – who are still struggling to enter public life in America – and organized labor.

Second, the CMS leaders insisted that the new citizens’ organization be regional. A number of national organizing networks, including the IAF, have developed regional or even state-wide community organizations. But typically, they have been affiliations designed around neighborhood or city-based organizations. By contrast, from the start the new organization was designed to operate in both Chicago and its suburbs and to speak to the concerns of both the low- and middle-income people. To oversee the organizing effort, the Industrial Areas Foundation relocated its headquarters from New York back to Chicago, where it had been founded by Saul Alinsky in 1940.

In many ways, the IAF that came back to Chicago in 1995 seemed much different than the IAF people remembered from previous decades. For example, the IAF approach now emphasizes the creation of public relationships as the starting point for long-lasting citizen organizations. Hundreds of workshops were conducted across the region to train local residents in the art of public life, including the one-on-one, relational meeting. And while embracing many of Saul Alinsky’s lessons, or “universals,” the IAF’s approach to the Chicago project was both flexible and open-ended.

For instance, while the bulk of the organizing was aimed at gaining members from religious institutions and unions, the IAF organizers also met with the leadership of existing community organizations. Ultimately, a membership structure was created that enabled longstanding groups like The Woodlawn Organization and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association to join United Power as dues-paying members.

“I never thought real estate development alone would solve all the problems in the neighborhood I grew up in,” said Richard Townsell, Executive Director of Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, a church-based nonprofit on the city’s west side. “There are so many problems you have to confront. When I heard IAF was coming to Chicago, I checked it out and took a look at what East Brooklyn Churches (another IAF-affiliated organization) did in rebuilding their neighborhoods. It convinced me organizing was the way to go.”

A Broad and Deep Effort

One of the most unusual aspects of the organizing project was the decision of community-based health centers to affiliate. Mike Savage, CEO of Sinai Family Health Centers, first heard about the new organizing effort at his north side Catholic Church. “I was frustrated by the fact that despite the good work of the city’s community health centers, we were treating more and more uninsured people. And there are so many other problems affecting the people we serve that we can’t do anything about.”

Savage talked to his colleagues at other health centers about their potential interest in the new organization. Ultimately, 10 health centers that annually serve 200,000 people, including the Howard Brown and Erie Family Health Centers, decided to join.

“The breadth and depth of the organizing effort are what have struck me most,” said Ana Morua Bedard, an organizer with the fair housing group Latinos United. “I expected this to be like existing community organizing around self-interest, but just bigger. As we began to bring in different people from all across the region and to commit ourselves to ‘standing for the whole,’ I realized that something new, something significant was at work here.”

Not everyone in the Windy City was enamored of Chicago Metropolitan Sponsors and the IAF. Some critics felt the new organization would be too broad and too middle-class for its own good and that the needs of the poor would be overlooked. Others feared that the new organization would be dominated by conservative clerical leaders – both black and white. And many were baffled by the focus on building relationships instead of working on issues. “Get back to me when you have issues,” was a common quip from issue-based activists.

But even skeptics of the IAF’s approach were impressed by the founding assembly of United Power on October 19, 1997. Buses poured in from literally every part of the region, causing a major traffic jam. Jewish prayer was followed by Catholic prayer, which was followed by Muslim prayer. Leaders from the sponsoring committee gathered on the stage to explain their reasons for creating the new organization and their hopes for it. “We have a new opportunity to move beyond mistrust and ignorance,” said Cardinal Francis George, Bernardin’s successor. And then the sponsors left the stage, physically and symbolically, to be replaced by the citizen leaders of the new organization.

Press coverage of the event, while positive, expressed wonderment that 10,000 people could come together without a specific agenda. “Activists powered by faith, not plans” was the headline in the Chicago Tribune’s front-page story, which concluded with a quote from Julia Beldsoe, a member of St. Agatha Catholic Church on the West Side:  “We’re never going to get anything accomplished if we continue to stand apart. Now that we are standing together, there is no stopping us.”

The months since the inaugural assembly of United Power have largely been taken up with creating a leadership infrastructure for the new organization. United Power will function in a loosely federated way, with roughly a dozen geographic “assemblies” organized in the city and suburbs.

“No one has tried to build something this big, so we need to experiment to find the best structure for the organization,” said Reverend Melody Eastman of the Edison Park Lutheran Church on Chicago’s far northwest side. “I like to think of this as the grace period, where we can make some mistakes, learn from them, and create a permanent framework for action at the local and regional levels.”

Working Locally

Some local assemblies have already begun to work on issues. The North Lakefront Assembly overcame opposition to a planned residence for battered women in the Lakeview neighborhood. Other assemblies have held candidates’ forums, organized consumer research actions to compare food and drug prices in the city and suburbs, and conducted hundreds of suburban “house meetings” to identify local concerns.

The metropolitan “Steering and Strategy Team,” which has representation from all the local assemblies, has set two priorities for regional action: health insurance for working families and affordable homeownership. Nearly 800,000 people in the city and suburbs lack basic health insurance, according to a 1997 survey by the Metro Chicago Information Center. Even the affluent suburbs of northern Cook County have 88,000 uninsured residents.

A working group of leaders from across the region is mapping out plans for a large-scale public-private health initiative. Since Cook County operates the largest health care system for the uninsured, organizing efforts are focusing on the fall election for President of the Cook County Board. Accountability sessions in October will seek pledges of cooperation from both Democratic and Republican candidates.

Even as issues surface, the basic work of identifying new leaders and institutions continues. United Power has a very small organizing staff led by Stephen Roberson, who previously organized with IAF in New York. With three organizers for the whole region, United Power’s volunteer leaders must ultimately take responsibility for much of the organizing. That is in fact happening, as individual leaders teach workshops, organize assemblies, and conduct research in their home communities.

What will happen when the CMS seed money runs out in 2000? To date, United Power has 212 members and an annual dues base of nearly $500,000, a rate of growth that has surprised both allies and critics. “While I can’t predict the future,” said Reverend Melody Eastman, “I hope that within the next couple of years, when the powers-that-be contemplate big decisions for the region they’ll say, ‘Now, what will United Power think about this?'”

Who is Saul Alinsky?

Saul Alinsky, a trained criminologist, came to prominence in the 1930s when he organized workers, local merchants, unions, and church groups in the neighborhood behind the stockyards made famous in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. This coalition, known as the Back of the Yards Coalition, used sit-downs, boycotts, and other tactics that would become hallmarks of Alinsky’s organizing-for-power strategies. Alinsky went on to form the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1940. While the IAF has changed in many ways over the years, the organization’s belief in democracy and the ability of ordinary people to control their destinies is unchanged. To learn more about Alinsky, have a look at:

  • Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy, by Sanford D. Horwitt, Vintage Books, April 1992.
  • Review of Let Them Call Me Rebel, by Robert Slayton, Comm-Org
  • Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals, by Saul D. Alinsky, Vintage Books, October 1991.


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