Monday, May 21, 2012

Building an organization in the Back of the Yards

The Back of the Yards today.
Commissioned by the University of Chicago as a criminologist, Saul Alinsky started to implement a delinquency prevention program in one of the urban slums of Chicago, the Back of the Yards in 1938. The Chicago Area Project (CAP) initiated neighborhood programs (e.g., youth sports club) to decrease juvenile delinquency with a huge emphasis on community involvement (juveniles, families, former felons). However, Alinsky showed yet more interest in models which focused on changing unjust power relations as much as on ensuring the participation of the community. This is how the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC) evolved as an offshoot of the Chicago Area Project, as a partnership of the local union and the Catholic church groups.

The gate of the
Union Stock Yards today.
By the turn of the 20th century, Chicago became the center of the American meat industry. This city produced a significant part of the meat consumed in the U.S. and millions of animals were slaughtered and processed annually. Production took place in the city's gigantic industrial complex, the Union Stock Yards. Animals waited to be slaughtered in tens of thousands of corrals and their smell penetrated the neighborhood. Despite the miserable conditions tens of thousands of European immigrant workers flooded the city (Irish, Germans, Poles, Slovaks, Czechs, etc.) and settled down in the Back of the Yards, the neighborhood behind the meatpacking district. The workers sweated for 10-12 hours each day for low wages under unhealthy conditions, many of them hardly spoke English. The mostly Catholic enclaves showed a high degree of segregation along ethnic lines, which divided people and made joint action impossible. In the neighborhood, ethnic tension was rampant.

Criminologist Clifford Shaw, the leader of CAP, did research on how socio-economic conditions support acts of delinquency. Thus he disproved the widespread racist idea that the ethnic or racial origin of a person (i.e., the immigrant group one belongs to) could account for whether a person will commit a crime. With the hope of decreasing juvenile delinquency, Shaw initiated setting up grassroots community councils, where the community actively participates in elaborating and implementing the projects.

Alinsky, the co-worker of Shaw, however, nurtured different plans. He wanted to set up multi-issue neighborhood organizations, which have a wide community support, and also raises a coordinated voice against the exploitation of workers. Alinsky was for a short time an activist of one of the biggest American unions, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). This experience strengthened his enthusiasm and passion to the principles and methods of the CIO, which gained a foothold in the Back of the Yards in the 1930s. So Alinsky adopted and implemented models he learned as a criminologist researcher and a union activist to organize neighborhoods.

The idea behind the Alinsky method is that the community organizer forms an alliance with the leaders from the neighborhood, i.e., with those community members who have significant support. Together they set up a democratic, community-based organization. The strength of the organization comes from the collaboration of the ally leaders, who are strategically identified by the organizer and are agitated to run the organization. In the Back of the Yards, Alinsky had three main allies: the manager of a recreation center, Joe Meegan; a Communist union organizer of the local meat packing plants, Herb March; and a progressive Catholic bishop, Bernard J. Sheil. So the strength of BYNC reflected the fact that Alinsky managed to unite in one platform the seemingly most antagonistic figures of the community: the Catholic Church and the unions.

The recreation center,
the Davis Square Park today.
Setting up a neighborhood council entails many stages. In the first meeting the organizations identified the most immediate issues and defined the main principles of the organization. (Read about the preliminary canvassing here.) On the basis of this agenda, they started the month-long recruitment process. Alinsky and Meegan agitated to sign up as many organizations as possible (churches, schools, social clubs, etc.) to become members. This organizational model significantly differed from Shaw's neighborhood committees. In the latter, individuals who were interested took part, whereas the Alinsky-Meegan structure was more similar to the union model, where delegates from local chapters sit on a central council. Alinsky and Meegan emphasized stress on using the local press, too.

At the founding neighborhood assembly, close to 350 people gathered and the organization was represented by Bernard J. Sheil. The first board was set up with the membership of four Catholic priests (from church communities of different antagonistic ethnic groups), church-based club representatives, three businessmen, the leader of an athletic club, a union youth committee member, the local police captain and Herb March. Their aim was to set up a board which represents broad community interests.

So the BYNC, simply due to its composition, was itself a power factor in the eye of the Chicago city management and the factory owners. The composition of the organization undoubtedly rearranged the power relations in the neighborhood and it threatened the businessmen with the possibility of broad-based community support in favor of a potential strike against the meat packing plants.

The board held public planning meetings about the projects of the BYNC and it set up several committees (e.g. on delinquency). The organization lobbied for lunch programs for schools, created new recreational activities, founded a credit union to provide low-interest loans for neighborhood development projects, carried out job creation programs (local businesses to hire more local young people), and it supported campaigns to boost local businesses ("Buy in the Back of the Yards"). In 1946 church leaders demonstrated in the strike organized by the workers of the meat packing plants.

The Alinsky-style of organizing has been criticized because it does not exceed the limits of a neighborhood. Although Alinsky envisioned the proliferation of these democratic citizen organizations in the whole country, and how this whole process would eventually revitalize democracy in the U.S., these local neighborhood organizations never agreed on common goals and did not turn into a state-wide or a national movement. Furthermore, Alinsky was very much against the idea of organizing a neighborhood on an ideological basis instead of along concrete and winnable issues. As a result of this, however, community members were not urged to confront their own racist, gender, or sexual prejudice. The Back of the Yards, for example, did not react progressively to the social change between the 1940s and 1970s when millions of African-Americans migrated from the Southern states to the Northern and Western states in the hope of getting a job and escaping racial violence. The Back of the Yards neighborhood was then mostly inhabited by Caucasians (whites), and it did everything to prevent African-Americans from moving into the neighborhood who were about to start a new life in Chicago.

The Back of the Yards today is mainly a Mexican-American neighborhood. The BYNC still operates: the present leadership focuses more on development community programs. Thus the community organizing profile, which enabled the organization to question existing power relations if it was needed, is not active now.

(Source: Sanford D. Horwitt: Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky - His Life and Legacy. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989; Robert Fisher: Let The People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. Twayne Publishers, 1984; Encyclopedia of Chicago, access:

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