The End of Community Organizing in Chicago?

CHICAGOMAG.COM EXCLUSIVE: Barack Obama, the man dubbed the organizer in chief, left Chicago for the White House, and the business of community organizing in the city now faces an uncertain future. What’s more, the movement—once rooted in liberalism—is being adopted by groups on the right, including the Tea Party.

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Barack Obama in 1993
From January 1993: How a then-31-year-old Barack Obama led the city’s most succcessful voter-registration drive

Greg Galluzzo never met Alinsky, who died of a heart attack soon after Galluzzo arrived in Chicago. Stationing himself in Pilsen, Galluzzo took over the neighborhood’s then-bankrupt community council, established an annual Fiesta del Sol festival, rallied for the creation of a new high school, and formed a development corporation. He recalls those as the halcyon days of community organizing in Chicago, as citywide groups successfully banded together to oppose plans for the Crosstown Expressway and campaign against pollution. In time, Galluzzo and his wife, Mary, founded the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), which instantly became a key turbine of the school reform movement. This past November, UNO celebrated its 25th anniversary at a high-dollar soiree attended by Mayor Daley and Rahm Emanuel.

To this day, Pilsen serves as one of the biggest national success stories for community organizing: a neighborhood that has not only been able to mobilize for various local causes but also has withstood the torrent of white gentrification that has dislodged countless populations of minorities across the country. “When we moved into that neighborhood, you could buy a home for $5,000,” says Galluzzo, who still lives there. “You can’t touch a home now for less than $300,000, and the people in those homes own them, and they are all Mexicans.”

In 1981, Galluzzo—then working for UNO—hired Gerald Kellman, who, four years later, hired a Columbia University graduate named Barack Obama and put him in charge of the Developing Communities Project on Chicago’s South Side. Obama spent a total of three years in Chicago, principally focusing his efforts on the needs of poor residents in the Altgeld Gardens projects in Riverdale. Ultimately the young organizer produced modest results—for example, raising awareness about asbestos problems. In his autobiography, Dreams from My Father, Obama writes at length about the struggles and small successes of those efforts.

Galluzzo says that people idolized Obama, that some “just fell in love with him,” even though his success as an organizer was relatively slight. “If you would say at the heart of organizing is agitation, he wasn’t very good at it,” says Galluzzo. “He had no problem organizing a group of people to go downtown and protest. But agitation is what you apply to your own people, and you challenge them to accept responsibility. Alinsky was a cigar-smoking asshole who wanted to keep people at a distance from him so they would find their own feet.”

Obama left Chicago for Harvard Law School in 1988, and since then, the Developing Communities Project has had its ups and downs. The fact that it is still in existence—a rare feat of longevity in the community-organizing business—is perhaps its greatest accomplishment. The Reverend Alvin Love of Lilydale First Baptist Church, who worked with Obama and now serves on the Developing Communities Project board, says the organization seems to have found its way recently in the fight to extend the Red Line on the city’s Far South Side.

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In the years after Obama left, the organizing scene in Chicago grew increasingly territorial. Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which decamped to New York in 1979, returned its headquarters to Chicago in 1994 at the inducement of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin—and somewhat to the consternation of those at Gamaliel Foundation.

“I think we came back at the right time,” says Michael Gecan, an IAF leader. “I think we are back stronger, with a clearer sense of what our role and mission should be.”

Gamaliel had become the main organizing force in the city during Harold Washington’s reign, and Galluzzo still wrinkles his nose at what IAF accomplished upon its return. “They were supposed to retake Chicago, and it didn’t work,” he says. “It’s been clear to me for about five years.”

What is true of both groups is that their focus has largely drifted from their home base. IAF now has about 60 affiliates around the country. In recent years, community organizing has sprouted up in Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In the UK, activists have launched a campaign, in connection with the 2012 London Olympics, to reform living-wage standards and worker benefits. In the Chicago area, organizing has seen a shift out of the urban center to DuPage and Lake Counties, where organizers have focused on the concerns of an expanding Latino population and a depressed industrial base.

Madeline Talbott, who until 2008 ran the Chicago office of ACORN—the now-defunct collection of community organizations that advocated for affordable housing and other social issues—says that despite the presence of IAF and Gamaliel, Chicago organizers have become less concerned with what umbrella group they are affiliated with and have dialed down the territorialism that ran rampant in previous decades. “I think it is healthier,” says Gecan. Local organizing “is not worried about [Chicago’s] identity as the birthplace of organizing, whatever that means. It is just dealing with the realities in front of people.”

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