Monday, June 4, 2012

A community organized in a neighborhood of high crime

Jim Field, on the left
Jim Field is the Director of Community Organizing at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. He has been organizing for 40 years in different neighborhoods of Chicago. This is the synopsis of an interview made in 2012 during my three-week internship with the organization.

In 1992 in Chicago's mostly Polish American, Avondale neighborhood, the most immediate issue was the elimination of crime. How did you start organizing there?
Jim: I kicked off with canvassing. I started in those blocks which were the closest to the headquarters of the gang dominating the neighborhood. I went on the blocks in concentric circles until the residents started to say that their everyday life is not so much affected by the gang's activities. I was tracing potential leaders, one or two people in each block who were affected by the issue. Then I organized a meeting with them. We discussed how the level of crime influences their lives. In the meantime, I tried to make them understand that the authorities will not solve the problem without them putting on pressure.

Were they afraid, were you afraid that the gang would take revenge?
Jim: The gang had already taken revenge. The gang kept them frightened, crimes already happened. The question was if the community is capable of a level of cooperation, as a result of which it could step up against the intimidation. "What if the gang retaliates?" they asked. "The gang has already retaliated, you have been living in fear," I answered. "I am afraid for my child," they said. "If you want your child not to be afraid, you have to do something," I replied. I agitated them. They had to understand that unless they do something, everything will stay as it was. Then I stepped back and let them make the decision. Finally they committed themselves. They also agreed that if a community member was intimidated, they will step up as one against the gang. It also helped them make the decision that I already carried out such a campaign and could tell them that it had been successful in other neighborhoods. As an organizer, you have to take away every excuse they have. They will say in the white neighborhood that it can be done in an African-American neighborhood because they act more collectively, but not here. They will say in an African-American neighborhood that it can be done in white neighborhoods because they can more easily be gathered, but not the African-Americans.

How did the campaign go?
Jim: We started to put pressure on the authorities: we nagged at the police and went to the mayor's house. We generated media attention around the crimes so that it became inconvenient to the authorities not to deal with the issue. Unfortunately, the authorities started to take meaningful action only after a 16-year old girl's throat had been slit. The neighborhood was deeply upset and they started to heavily push the police commander and the state attorney to take action and to take the perpetrator to court. The police finally arrested the gang member and we mobilized the neighborhood so that we could pack the courtroom. On one of the days preceding the trial, however, the gang threw a brick into the window of our office. We immediately convened a gathering and 130 people came. We then decided to show the gang that we are not afraid and we would deliver back the brick to the headquarters of the gang. We wanted this to be a public action, so we announced it to the media. It blew the fuse at the police station, they said we were not allowed to do such a thing. The media loved it. And we insisted on carrying out the action. So two days before the trial, on a Wednesday evening, accompanied by police cars and the media, we marched to the headquarters of the gang and hand delivered the brick. Two days later we packed the courtroom.

Did the gang ever intimidate somebody from the community organization?
Jim: It helped that we worked in close cooperation with the police and we generated media attention to our issues. It happened though that a gang member popped in to our meeting. The new leaders were freaked out. At that meeting a policeman also participated. He said that if somebody is ready to give a testimony, he could arrest the intimidator, but nobody decided to do so.

What is a good leader like?
Jim: A good leader really cares about the interest of the community, and about building the organization. They respect people but can be tough at the same time. I work with leaders' natural instincts. If I am going into a fight with legislators, and I need someone who vehemently expresses their views; I am bringing the pitbull type.

In the beginning of your career, you organized in a Lithuanian neighborhood in Chicago. Without any Lithuanian ancestors, how did you bridge the gap of cultural differences?
Jim: The Lithuanians are a very closed community, and at the beginning, they were reluctant to accept me. I did not give up, I wanted to understand who they are and where they are from. The community organizer is like water - water always finds its way. Most of the people living in that neighborhood are upper-class Lithuanians who migrated to the U.S. after World War II, after the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania. In the meantime, I was searching for those Lithuanians who would talk to me. The second generation was more friendly. I persuaded them to talk in the Lithuanian community media about the issue I identified (it was a badly directed bus service which embittered the life of many in the neighborhood). The older Lithuanians became very angry with me because the younger ones appeared in the media even though they did not speak perfect Lithuanian. But as a result of this incident, I got on friendly terms with a first generation Lithuanian. I was looking for leaders. Organizing is like sifting sand. You are looking for new leaders and new leaders continuously. First I started with the "anointed" leaders, with the president and the vice-president of a Lithuanian organization dating back decades. First I thought I cannot avoid them although they did not do anything else in the name of organizing but drinking beer and talking about the good old years. Then I realized that I don't need to build on them; instead I tried to find those people who do not just pretend to be leaders but are real leaders. And of course I involved the president and the vice-president when it was possible, and they turned out to be good fundraisers because of their connections.

What is a good organizer like?
Jim: A good organizer believes in people, handles them very well and shows patience. They will take the time to grow a leader. They understand power, strategy and tactics. They can bring people together in a collaborative manner and use the media well. They are good at confrontation but also good at building allies: every target is a potential ally, and in one case, they can be worthy of cooperation, but in another case, you have to humiliate them. One of the challenges for an organizer is to understand that they don't have to be liked all the time. If you want somebody to like you, go and get a dog. The role of the organizer may be somewhat schizophrenic: you want to win, but eventually you are not just there to win, but to build a powerful organization.

Read it in Hungarian.

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