Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What's Community Organizing? Humboldt Knows

Those who jeered at the mention of community organizing at last summer’s Republican National Convention – and the many more watching on television who weren’t quite sure what Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin were talking about – would have received quite an eye-opener the evening of Oct. 22 at LISC/Chicago New Communities Program lead agency Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp.

About 65 key stakeholders from the NCP planning process in Humboldt Park –- ranging from the West Humboldt Park Family and Community Development Council, to the East Humboldt Park Block Club, to the Chicago Police Department -- gathered to celebrate the release of a so-called “mini-update” of their quality-of-life plan, a year in the making.

But there was nothing “mini” about it. NCP director Mayra Hernandez of Bickerdike recounted what Humboldt Park, a veritable poster child of an organized community, has to show for its efforts: more than $1.4 million in funding during the first five years and another $800,000 in the past 15 or so months, leveraging $46 million overall for projects like a community land trust and a prisoner re-entry initiative.

Joy Aruguete, executive director of Bickerdike, said the document, subtitled “The Next Five Years: Raising the Stakes,” contains both new projects and those carried over. “We have more lead agencies and partners,” she said, with 60 organizations and more than 90 participants. “We are blessed to have a wealth of resources in the community. So many of you have come to the table, and it shows.”

The cover of the new plan features before-and-after depictions of two projects that have gone from rendering to reality. The plan contains community context and history, the task force vision and structure, and a breakdown of the seven strategies and 57 projects.

“People have been really impressed with our [subcommittee] structure. It’s helped our ability to cross-germinate projects and ideas,” Aruguete said. “We have all these projects in here [broken out individually], but so many of our projects are interconnected. … There’s a lot of cross-pollination and cross-utilization.”

A representative of the MacArthur Foundation recently told her that the Humboldt Park effort “is doing exactly what NCP set out to do,” she recalled. “In these very difficult economic times … resources are very precious. Funders are making decisions every day about who to lob off and who to keep on. NCP has kept Humboldt Park organizations on the radar screen in a very positive way.”

The original plan, developed in 2003-04 and titled “Staking Our Claim,” brought together more than 40 organizations and featured more than 50 projects to complete over a five-year period. Three years into its implementation, with the MacArthur Foundation pledging another $26 million for five years for NCP, Humboldt Park reconvened beginning in October 2007.

The task force spent the next several months deciding which projects to keep, which to discard (because they had either been completed or were no longer priorities), and which new priorities should be added. Having assisted staff at Bickerdike and other task force agencies in writing both the original plan and this update, I know that many more ideas were left on the cutting-room floor -- but some of those will still move forward, even if not officially part of the plan.

“What happens if you’ve already done 70 percent of the projects in your plan?” Aruguete said during the kickoff meeting a year ago. “We’re getting together -- not to recreate -- but we have to update this plan and expand it.”

The new plan retains the same vision and seven strategies as the first version of “Staking Our Claim,” although the task force adjusted the priority of strategies based on the results of a “bucket exercise,” during which task force participants placed “Humboldt Park” dollars into containers for each strategy. Youth programming reached the top of the list, where improving local schools had been considered the highest priority.

Among the projects completed or in progress from the first plan were several affordable and special needs housing projects, the “Bickerbikes” youth employment and fitness program, the Center for Working Families, the First Community Land Trust of Chicago, the Community of Wellness healthcare coordination efforts, and the Building Community Through the Arts task force and resulting series of projects.

During the rollout celebration, Aruguete noted that many of the original plan’s projects continued moving forward. “We didn’t stop and say, ‘Excuse us while we plan,’ ” she said.

Among projects yet to be completed were a five-year vocational high school, HIV/AIDS reduction programs, new child-care services, employer-assisted housing, and a Minority/Latino Contractors Association. New ideas included an artist live-work space, training opportunities for “green collar” environmentally oriented jobs, a free trolley system, and “Fun in the Park” activities on Sundays.

Hernandez invited those in attendance at the rollout to continue participating in the subcommittees as they turn to project implementation, as well as suggesting potential partners or funding streams to flesh out various projects. “This is important because going forward will be about how we collaborate,” she said. “Don’t think of yourself as a silo. We have enough resources to go around.”

The promise of those resources is what brought together sometimes contentious forces in the community in the first place -- but while they may have come for the grant money, they're staying -- at least in part -- because they like being part of a larger, organized whole that's much more than the sum of its parts.

As Sarah Palin might say, "Oh, you betcha!"

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