Monday, April 16, 2012

What is agitation? – interview with Edward Shurna

Ed Shurna, on the right.
Edward Shurna is the Executive Director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He has been organizing for 40 years in different neighborhoods of Chicago. This the synopsis of the interview made in April 2012 during my 3-week internship with the organization.

How did you become an organizer?
Ed: Social injustice has always upset me. I attended a Jesuit college, I wanted to become a priest. I believed that this world could be a better place. There I met Tom Gaudette and I understood through his work that people living in poverty primarily need social change, not charity. Tom was a Catholic Christian activist himself. He organized in Austin, in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. In Austin in the 1960s, numerous houses were demolished during the Urban Renewal, which disrupted the life of many. Racism was pervasive, and conflict erupted into occasional violent clashes. Gaudette perceived that the people living in the neighborhoods had not looked at each other as enemies. Through his organizing, the neighborhood identified the important community issues, and achieved that the elected officials started to take responsibility. As a result, the school system, for instance, improved a lot in the neighborhood.

Becoming an organizer must have been a challenging shift from the religious way of thinking.
Ed: A whole new world opened up for me. Earlier I thought that the poor needed consolation and help. Since then I have realized that for a social change, we need to alter the array of power relations. The oppressed groups need to be able to articulate their demands in the public arena, i.e. in the media or to the legislators.

Tom Gaudette worked with Saul Alinsky. Have you met Alinsky in person?
Ed: Yes. He gave us a lecture on community organizing. When he entered the room, he looked around and said, “I am just wasting my fucking time with you”. Alinsky was infamous about his arrogance. I knew that he had just been provoking us. In spite of this, this style did not inspire me. But I admired him for the way he organized. Alinsky had some very influential allies in the Catholic Church who stood ready to support the oppressed groups in the public arena, even in risk of their own position.

What meant the biggest challenge for you at the beginning of your career?
Ed: To understand that even the most reasonable arguments can rarely convince legislators. Coming from a Lithuanian immigrant family, I had been listening throughout my childhood that we had to respect the laws of the United States. I needed time to understand that laws are something that man made up and we have the right to change it. So I started to argue for social change. I was nice and patient. I thought sensible arguments would sooner or later make their way to decision-makers who would eventually come round to our point of view. But I had to realize that accountability and self-interest accelerate their determination. What can a decision-maker be made accountable for? What is their self-interest to change the status quo? Obviously, this tactic sooner or later necessitates confrontation with people in power. At first glance, this may sound odd to a believer, but Christianity and confrontation are in close connection without question.

How was it when you first did your outreach and tried to build relations with a community?
Ed: Tough. In the beginning most of the people do not understand why you are there. They may find you suspicious. Anyways, how come an outsider thinks he can add to the struggle? Building trust is a process which in most cases starts from zero. You must understand this, otherwise you will feel hurt because you will most probably experience rejection for some time. You should not take criticism or hostile attitude personal. And as time passing by, we are learning those communication techniques which can help break down the walls – and accelerate trust-building a little bit. There are opinion leaders, informal and formal leaders in each and every neighborhood, we need to have them as well accept us.

What is agitation?
Ed: As a young organizer, I started in a majority African-American neighborhood in Chicago. An investor, the owner of a football team, was planning to build up a stadium there right in the middle of the neighborhood – without asking the community. This would have disrupted the people’s life there. So a neighborhood council had been set up and it started to get ahold of the investor. Letters followed letters, but no answers came back. The community had no experience in confrontation with the power, organizing a demonstration was a new idea, for instance. I needed to provoke them to start using new tactics. I agitated them. “How many letters do you want to write until you come round and see that you need to try something else?”, I asked. But they needed to reach the point when they come to say: “If again there is no answer to our letter, then we’ll go to the investor in person.” The thought eventually matured. They figured out to send a delegation of five members to the investor. I knew it was crucial at this point to show that a lot of people stood behind the issue. But I chose not to tell them to organize a mass demonstration. Instead I asked, “Why only five members? Much more people are affected by the issue. Why can’t any one of them go who wants to?” Eventually, 25 people gathered in front of the investor's office. They prayed. The community was strongly religious, this action fit their attitude, they felt comfortable and the media liked it. But the investor still did not want to talk to us. The action made the group more confident as they experienced the power of cooperation. They started seeking more and more opportunities to make their demands and express their dissatisfaction in a democratic way. They generated power. A few months later, 700 people showed up in front of the investor's house to push him to enter into negotiations. Decisions were made by the group, and my task was to make sure that the group comes across several different opinion and new ideas so that they can make an informed decision. I also ensured that the group becomes familiar with such ideas I do not necessarily agree with.

Did you win?
Ed: Yes. The stadium was not built in our neighborhood. And the community understood that if they wanted to change something, they have to do more things than they did before and have to do it differently. This is the result of agitation. And the community organizer comes to learn to enjoy risky games and to see a problem as an opportunity for a change and a conflict as a new challenge.

Read it in Hungarian.

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