ESOP Rises Again

The success of a Cleveland-based community organizing group in the face of massive foreclosures suggests that the city (and the nation) should have held on to a more diverse set of community organizations.

The Organizing to Development Road

Cleveland has a rich history of community organizing. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement prompted a local organizing effort that resulted in the election of the first African-American mayor of a large American city, Carl Stokes (his brother was a long-time congressman). Students for a Democratic Society’s Economic and Research Action Project also set up in town to organize the unemployed.

In the 1970s, some organizers arrived from Chicago and began organizing using the model of Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. In Cleveland, a young priest, prompted by Vatican II, raised money to fund the Catholic Commission on Community Action which, in turn, was the institutional base for an explosion of neighborhood organizing. Eventually, these neighborhood “community congresses” and their collective voice, National People’s Action, would be instrumental in the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) — federal legislation that enabled the future expansion of community development.

Cleveland’s community congresses were collapsing by the mid-1980s because, in part, they overreached. An action on the CEO of SOHIO Corporation (a local oil company that was purchased by BP shortly thereafter) is widely cited as a key moment that discredited the organizers in the eyes of many. Moreover, in the Reagan era the funding that had been available for community organizing was rapidly disappearing.

But the congresses were also victims of their own success. They were taking on more and more programmatic functions as they won victories on various neighborhood issues. While it had become clear that politicians and funders were increasingly intolerant of protest, it was also clear that they were willing to facilitate the physical redevelopment of Cleveland neighborhoods. Those organizing groups that didn’t disappear morphed into CDCs.

The path forward was now mapped through collaborative partnerships, not confrontational protest. By the end of the 1990s, Cleveland enjoyed national praise for its community development “industry system,” even as the city remained mired in poverty and subject to long-term decline. This dynamic is reflected nationwide. While some community organizing networks like PICO and the Industrial Areas Foundation have grown since the 1970s, their growth has been dwarfed by the growth in the number of CDCs, which reached 1,500 in 1988 and then exploded to 4,600 by 2005, according to a census by the National Congress for Community Economic Development.

The story of the Union-Miles Community Congress (UMCC) mirrors this shift. UMCC, which counted Inez Killingsworth among its leaders, secured one of the first CRA agreements in the country. Partially as the product of its own victories, UMCC began moving into physical development, a process that accelerated as the Cleveland neighborhood movement collapsed. Nonetheless, with a staff led by Eric Hodderson (now the executive director of Neighborhood Progress, Inc., the most important development intermediary in Cleveland) and Frank Ford (also now at NPI), UMCC held to the principle that organizing and development went hand-in-hand.

As these early organizers-turned-CDC-directors moved on to other positions, though, they were replaced not by organizers, but by directors who had earned their stripes as developers. Community organizing, at least the kind that accepts confrontation, eventually disappeared from the toolkit of most CDCs.

By 1993, Ford and Hodderson had left and UMCC had become the Union-Miles Development Corporation (UMDC). Killingsworth found herself on a board that increasingly included bankers rather than residents. The organization still committed resources to a single organizer, Mark Seifert, but he was increasingly unwelcome. He formed ESOP, where he continued to earn a reputation as someone who was a bit too indulgent with his use of the now taboo “hit” as his primary tactic, until ESOP was banished from UMDC entirely.

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Michael McQuarrie is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the London School of Economics. He was formerly a community organizer, a labor organizer, and a housing developer.

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