The room was full of one of the oddest assortments of folks I've ever seen. Ages ranged from 2 years old to seventy-odd-years old, though the toddler did not participate as much as the senior citizen. The group was fully multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. There was also a very obvious wide range formal education and personal health. Folks represented churches, labor unions, community groups, businesses, senior citizens centers, and just their blocks.
And oh-my-God it was chaotic.
I went to a community meeting last Thursday to discuss and plan actions to bring back a city bus to run on 31st Street in Chicago, and that is what I saw. It was beautiful in the way that uncleaned home is when you unexpectedly visit it. It was a brutally honest view of my neighborhood, just letting it all hang out there. People rambled. People ranted. People got up and left entirely. People ran up and down the room squealing (okay, that was just the toddler).
Ah, community organizing in Bridgeport, Chicago.
See, I've recently committed to staying more in Bridgeport to get to know the neighborhood and hopefully draw the very diverse crowds together into some sort of working community group that can speak and act on its own accord. There are several campaigns going on in Bridgeport currently--to shut down the dirty coal power plants and to bring back the 31st Street bus, just to name two--but they're largely organized by outside organizations like the Sierra Club, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization. I am very glad that groups are organizing my neighbors, but it touches a bit of a nerve.
The philosophy can be summed up in a favorite quote from Mother Teresa: "Don't wait for strong leaders; do it alone, person to person." I try to reframe the quote a bit to focus on collective action, but the point remains that we shouldn't wait for others to do what we can do ourselves. Of course the counterargument is strong as well. One middle-aged woman at the bus meeting insisted that we before we put too much effort into doing it ourselves, we need to get the one Daley brother still in the neighborhood to fight for us. After all, the Daleys' got clout, y'know?
I'm all for good advocacy. As a Christian, it is my duty to speak and act for those who can't do it themselves. However, especially as good ol' American citizens, we depend too much on our elected leaders. We lull ourselves into passive outrage and eventual apathetic disillusionment as we continue to vote for congresspeople and presidents that won't get the job done. We believe that America is exceptional, that its representative democracy is unique in the world, that the grand experiment of the Founding Fathers was an unquestioned success.
And if you believe that, then I have bridge to sell you. For the exact amount of my college debt. Cash preferred.
In Bridgeport, this myth was manifested by the Mayors Daley, Richard J. and Richard M, and life was good. While the neighborhood's favorite sons ruled city hall (for a combined 43 years), life was good. Streets were well paved, crime was low, city were jobs abundant. Oh, and only white people lived there. But wait, Daley the Younger didn't stay in Bridgeport...and neither did all the nice things.
So the myth is shattered these days. While Bridgeporters thank God that they're not like the rest of the South Side, they spit venom when talking about North Side politics. I hope that we will stomp the shards of this myth even more.
The more I get involved in community and labor organizing, I become more and more convinced that the most effective methods of effecting social change lie in what the Midwest Academy calls self-help and direct action. Self-help is an action that a group does by itself to accomplish its goal without the help others. Cooperatives, whether worker- or resident-run, would be a particularly imaginative example. It could also be as simple as a community crime watch group.
Direct action means classic organizing to pressure others to do what you want. It challenges standard operating procedures and hierarchies. It can be as little as a letter with a lot signatures or as dramatic as civil disobedience. It is not getting someone elected--it is getting the folks whom you elected to do what you want.
In local politics, even politics as complicated and corrupt as Chicago city politics, I have seen how this "grassroots" organizing can really change things for the better. It might take a long time, and it might require a stroke of luck as much really smart strategy (like a certain sitting mayor deciding not to run for another term). National politics is a much different, more frustrating beast which I won't discuss in this post.
In Bridgeport I am seeing the beginnings of both of self-help and direct action. Our alley isn't plowed of snow yet? Fine. We will shovel our own alley, having a wonderful, community-building time while doing it. And then we will take that snow and block the 11th Ward office with it. Do you see how self-help and direct action can quite happily work together?
So--I amend Mother Teresa's quote. Don't wait for strong leaders; do it together, person to person.