Community Organizing: A Chicago Tradition

by * Gordon Mayer

Groups added April 2009

Chicago is the birthplace of community organizing — no doubt in part because Chicago is the birthplace (100 years ago in 2009) of Saul Alinsky, who is credited with developing the idea and method of community organizing. Two books he wrote on the subject, “Reveille for Radicals” and “Rules for Radicals” remain in print, and a recent documentary, “The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy,” profiles his life and continuing influence.

Alinsky founded the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in 1939, at the height of the CIO drive to organize packinghouse workers. Extending the efforts of labor organizing beyond the workplace, BYNC brought together 185 delegate organizations, including churches and ethnic societies.

In addition to supporting the CIO, BYNC won nutritional and recreational programs as well as housing code enforcement, and even opened a credit union. Governor Adlai Stevenson called the organization “the best example of living democracy I have ever seen.” Later Alinsky helped found several community organizations in Chicago, including The Woodlawn Organization, which took on slumlords and the city.

Alinsky taught that organized money and organized people are the only two bases of power in American society — and the work of community organizers is with people. The role of organizing in communities typically is twofold: to bring about social change that improves the lives of the less affluent and less powerful while developing these individuals’ leadership skills and abilities.

These goals support each other as leaders boost their ability to tackle ever-larger issues as they move from one campaign to another. Many leaders of community groups tell stories of how their experiences transform their lives in the process of improving their communities.

Alinsky went on to start a national network, the Industrial Areas Foundation, which is still in existence and headquartered in Chicago. Since then, community groups with diverse styles and structures have flowered. Some models of community organization include groups based in churches; coalitions or “organizations of organizations” with many institutional members; and groups made up of individuals who live in the same community or share an interest in a specific issue.

What follows is a list of Chicago-area groups involved in community organizing , divided into four categories:

Community-based organizations, or CBOs, whose primary focus is community organizing within a specific community or group of communities;

Community Development Corporations or CDCs, focused on developing the business base or building and managing affordable housing. The groups listed here also have organizing as a core component of their activity;

Issue And Advocacy Organizations, Regional Coalitions, Trainers;
Networks of grassroots organizations. Three national community organizing networks began and have headquarters in Chicago. They’re distinguished by differences of emphasis and style — and there is also some competition among them. Training in their own style of organizing, centralized research or issue development, and fundraising and development are among the roles these organizations play for their networks.

Several local foundations which provide crucial support for community organizing in Chicago are also listed; their staff is often aware of major issues and new trends in organizing.


Albany Park Neighborhood Council
Jenny Arwade, executive director,773-583-1387
Started in 1999, ABNC addresses safety, development, education, youth, and other community issues.

Blocks Together
Irene Juaniza, executive director, 773-276-2194;
From an initial focus in 1993 on safety and city services, the West Humboldt Park group now also addresses education and women’s rights issues and carries out youth organizing.

Brighton Park Neighborhood Council
Patrick Brosnan, executive director,773-523-7110
Founded in 1997, BPNC is located in a Southwest community that until recently was predominantly white ethnic and now is 80 percent Latino.

Centers for New Horizons
Sokoni Karanja, president, 773-373-5700
Started in 1971, CNH provides families across the South Side with a variety of services as well as performing an advocacy role on education and development.

Centro Communitario Juan Diego
Olivia Hernandez, executive director; Rosa Perea, media contact,773-731-0109
Health care, education and other issues are addressed by the South Chicago community center founded by immigrant women (and also known as the employer of the late Arnold Mireles, a neighborhood safety organizer whose 1997 killing by gang members aroused a citywide furor)

Chicago Freedom School
Mia Henry, director of youth-led social change; Alex Poeter, director of organizing
Run by a former Mikva Challenge staffer and director of a local community organization, the school “develops organizing and movement building capacity…in the tradition of the original Mississippi Freedom Schools Movement of 1964.”

Developing Communities Project
Debra Strickland, executive director, 773-928-2500;
A church-based organization covering the Greater Roseland area, DCP started in 1984 and addresses a variety of local issues including education, transportation, safety and ex-offender reintegration.

Interfaith Federation of Northwest Indiana
Trish Comer, executive director
Jack Lesar, media contact, 219-886-3647;
Formed in 1994, the Interfaith Federation works on improving public transportation, housing, land-use, and tax-base sharing.

Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs
Gail Schechter, executive director, 847-501-5760
Churches and other faith communities came together to found the Center in 1972, growing out of Civil Rights work on the North Shore. Fair housing, advocacy, and organizing are part of the Center’s work today.

Interfaith Leadership Project
Cris Pope, executive director, 708-652-7711
Started in 1989, ILP addresses issues in the neighborhood such as education, safety, immigration,health care and civic participation in the context of a neighborhood rapidly changing to predominantly Latino in Cicero, Berwyn, and Stickney.

Jane Addams Senior Caucus
Lori Clark, executive director, 773-404-6429
JASC, started in 1976, organizes for affordable housing for seniors, community care (which allows seniors to live in their homes instead of a nursing home) and better social services across much of the North Side.

Joliet Area Churches Organized Body
David Hatch, director, 815-740-1870
JACOB is a multi-issue organization in Joliet. The same contact information is valid for Aurora Area Religious Organized Network (AARON).

Lakeview Action Coalition
Jennifer Gonzalez, executive director, 773-549-1947,
Despite–or because of–rapid gentrification in the neighborhood, community organizing persists. The coalition of congregations has taken on a wide range of issues, including affordable housing and rental subsidies for the elderly, public safety and diversity, homeless youth, and affordable health care.

Little Village Environmental Justice Organization
Building block clubs and improving the local environment in a neighborhood once home to major industrial sites (and still home to a major polluting coal power plant) are among the issues LVEJO deals with.

Logan Square Neighborhood Association
Nancy Ardema, executive director; Lisette Moreno, media contact, 773-384-4370
LSNA, started in the 1970s, is one of the longest-lived community groups in the city and is known nationally for its work on parent involvement in local schools and other education issues. It is also seeking answers on how to deal with gentrification.

Lugenia Burns Hope Center
Cheryl Spivey-Perry, executive director, 312-949-9030
Education and housing issues are main priorites for the Bronzeville-based center, started in 1995, which also provides area residents with leadership development training.

Near Northwest Neighborhood Network
Eliud Medina, executive director, 773-489-0383;
Started in 1987, NNNN’s role is to pull together other agencies in parts of West Town, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square around employment, housing, and economic development.

Northwest Neighborhood Federation
Gloria Pinto, executive director, 773-889-9300
Founded in 1979 and made up of seven neighborhood organizations, nine schools, and one seniors group, NNF is known for its work to combat panic peddling and blockbusting and promote neighborhood safety, as the balance between white ethnics, Latinos, and others, has shifted dramatically in recent years.

Organization of the NorthEast
Jamiko Rose, executive director; 773-769-3232
Uptown-based coalition ONE’s organizing addresses housing (especially gentrification and development), work, welfare and immigration (its Project JOBS unites local agencies to help residents with job readiness and other services), and children, youth and families (including working with police to bridge barriers between law enforcement and young people).

Proyecto de Accion en los Suburbios del Oeste
(West Suburban Action Project)

Diego Bonesatti, Immigration Director, 708-345-3632×303
PASO, its Spanish initials, means “step.” New as of March 2009, staffed by several former Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights organizers.

People for Community Recovery
Hazel Johnson, executive director, 773-468-1645
PCR founder Hazel Johnson is recognized as a pioneer of the environmental justice movement, organizing in her home community of Altgeld Gardens, the southernmost CHA development, to remediating some of the landfills and other environmental hazards surrounding the low-rise development.

Pilsen Alliance
Alejandra Ibanez, executive director, 312-243-5440,
Coordinates a coalition of organizations around such issues as development, zoning, and transit (spearheading the Blue Line Transit Task Force).

Pilsen Neighbors
Juan Soto, executive director; Mato Gomez, media contact, 312-666-2663
Pilsen Neighbors works on a variety of local issues and is also known for its sponsorship of Pilsen’s annual summertime Fiesta del Sol.

South Austin Coalition Community Council
Bob Vondrasek, director, 773-287-4570
SAC, in existence since the 1960s, addresses such issues as crime and housing in Austin, most recently fighting for a community benefits agreement from the new west side Wal-Mart. It is also a citywide leader on the issue of utilities.

South Suburban Action Conference
Kathy Kish, media contact, 708-335-1712
In a part of the Chicago area known for its concentration of poverty, SSAC’s church-based organizing work has focused on affordable housing and related issues.

Southwest Organizing Project
Jeff Bartow, executive director, 773-471-8208,
Religious groups, schools, and other institutions are the base of SWOP, which has addressed predatory lending, education, and safety, among other issues.

TARGET Area Development Corporation
Rev. Patricia Watkins, executive director, 773-651-6470,
Focuses on community development, public safety, and issues facing returning ex-offenders.

The Calumet Project
Bessie Dent, program organizer, 219-845-5008;
Based in Hammond, the project works with Northwest Indiana residents on economic development, jobs, and brownfields redevelopment.

The Westside Federation
Rev. Randall Harris, president/CEO; Tommy Sardin, executive director, 773-378-2450
Recently revived after a long hiatus, the WSF was a key organization in civil rights and other campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s. Currently it works on public health, housing and econoic development and other local issues.

Westside Health Authority
Jacqueline Reed, executive director; Janet Hamada, research/development director, 773-378-5034;
Providing health services and education is just part of the group’s holistic approach to community health, which involves community organizing and addresses neighborhood safety, family, educational and employment issues.

West Town Leadership Project
Idida Perez, executive director, 773-394-7484,
A multi-issue local organization, focusing on school reform and advocating for county property tax relief to lower- and moderate-income homeowners as a way to combat gentrification.


Bethel New Life
Steven McCullough, president/CEO
Mildred Wiley, director community and governmental affairs, 773-473-7870,
The organizing arm of the well-known church-based development nonprofit focuses on crime, schools, and other local issues in the Garfield Park area.

Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp.
Joy Aruguete, executive director, 773-278-5669
A long-time developer and manager of multi-unit affordable housing in West Humboldt Park, Bickerdike’s staff also includes tenant organizers.

Lawndale Christian Development Corp.
Richard Townsell, director; Ms. Stanley Merriwether, chief of staff, 773-762-8889,
Safety, schools (including a college prep program), and infrastructure issues are the focus of the organizing arm of LCDC, which has primarily focused on housing and economic development since its inception in 1987.

Little Village Community Development Corp.
Jesus Garcia, Executive Director, 773-542-9233,
After organizing a two-week hunger strike in 2000, LVCDC won approval for a new high school in Little Village, which it has shepherded through to completion as an innovative small school project. LVCDC developed campaigns on violence prevention, housing, and economic development and has received honors for its community
organizing initiatives, including work for a community park in its neighborhood.

The Resurrection Project
Raul Raymundo, director, 312-666-1323
A housing and economic development organization with a strong organizing component addressing issues in Pilsen. Little Village, and Back of the Yards neighborhoods.


Access Living
Marca Bristo, director; Gary Arnold, media contact, 312-253-7000,
Disability rights organizing is one component of work by the agency, the Chicago Center for Independent Living (or CIL), which provides services and plays an advocacy role in the disability community.

Action Now
Madeline Talbot, executive director, 312-676-4280
Housing, health care, jobs and education issues top the agenda of an organization long a force in Chicago communities, albeit prior to 2008 as the local chapter of ACORN.

Larry Biondi, 708-209-1500,
Local chapter of a national direct-action disability-rights organization credited with a key role in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act. Initially took their name stood for Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit (with a national campaign for lifts on buses); since 1990 they have focused on attendant services as Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today.

Rey Lopez-Calderon, executive director, 773-318-8389
Providing a Latino style of community organizing and leadership training from a base on the Southeast Side of Chicago, Alianza grew out of Gamaliel Foundation faith-based organizing.

Arab American Action Network
Maha Jarad, president; Hatem Abudadayyeh, exeuctive director, 773-436-6060
Based on the Southwest Side, a center of recently-arrived as well as more established Arab Americans, AAAN provides services as well as performing an advocacy role for its constituents.

Campaign for Better Health Care
Jim Duffett, director, 217-352-5600
CBHC, established 1989, is a coalition that claims more than 300 institutional members statewide whose vision is to make “health care a right, not a privilege.” It is based in Chicago and Champaign.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
Ed Shurna, Executive Director, 312-435-4548,
Founded 1980, advocacy organization dealing with the root causes of homelessness, with initiatives in areas like homeless youth, public housing, day labor, and prostitution.

Chicago Rehab Network
Kevin Jackson, Director, 312-663-3936,
Founded in 1978, CRN counts 77 non-profit community and economic development corporations from across the city as members. It offers them training as well as access to professional and policy resources and serves as a voice on affordable housing policy.

Citizen Action/Illinois
Lynda DeLaforgue, co-director; William McNary, president & co-director; 312-427-2114;
The local branch of a US Action (which McNary also heads) working for reform on a variety of issues, from payday loans and health care to utilities and environmental safety, as well as education funding and campaign finance reform.

Coalition of African, Asian, European and Latino Immigrants of Illinois
Isabel Anadon, interim director, 773 784-2900,
CAAELII started in 1996. It provides technology and education related services in the immigrant and refugee community and advocates on immigration issues.

Coalition to Protect Public Housing
Carol Steele, president, Deidre Brewster, media contact, 312-280-2298;
CPPH started in 1996 to organize public housing residents and in recent years has focused its efforts on questioning the demolitions of large numbers of Chicago Housing Authority buildings as part of the agency’s plan for Transformation.

Community Organizing Co-op
Carol Thompson, coordinator, 773-880-0905
Serves as a mutual insurance pool, publishes a newsletter with event and job information, and provides other services to community-based organizations in the region.

Community Organizing and Family Issues
Ellen Schumer, director, 312-226-5141
More than 1,000 community leaders have been through COFI’s training on family focused organizing, leadership development and community building.

Community Renewal Society
Dr. Calvin Morris, executive director; Jim Fields, program director; Tonita Cheatham, media contact, 312-427-4830
Parent organization of the well-known publication on racial issues, “The Chicago Reporter,” CRS also maintains an organizing department whose goal is to build the capacity of ministers across the city to do community organizing, on such issues as public housing and the justice system.

Developing Justice Coalition
Rev. Patrician Watkins, chair, 773-651-6470,
Founded in 2002 by two South Side CBOs (Target and the Developing Communities Project) and now numbering almost two dozen groups across the city, DJC stresses community-based solutions to reduce recidivism and has spearheaded support for expungement legislation.

Grassroots Collaborative
Amisha Patel, coordinator, 312-427-3533
The Collaborative pools organizing resources of 11 community and labor groups to work on joint justice campaigns including living wage, immigrants rights and expanded enrollment in KidCare. The Collaborative coordinated efforts to stop Wal-Mart from locating stores inside Chicago city limits in 2005-2006.

Housing Action Illinois
Housing groups from across the state participate in SHAC, which provides its members with technical training in community development and advocates for more affordable housing at the city and state levels.

Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
Josh Hoyt, Executive Director (ext. 11); Catherine Salgado, media contact 312-332-7360 (ext. 35)
With 100 institutional members, ICIRR’s activities include outreach and training for providers of services to immigrant populations as well as organizing and advocacy.

Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
Jane Ramsey, director; 312-663-0960
JCUA has worked with grassroots groups and advocated on policy issues from civil rights to ending the death penalty, and supported the Justice Coalition and Coalition to Protect Public Housing.

Justice Coalition of Greater Chicago
Contacts: Dr. Calvin Morris (CRS), 312-427-4830, or Jane Ramsey (JCUA), 312-663-0960
Jointly convened by the Community Renewal Society and Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, the JCGC is made up of some 80 local groups advocating on issues of police accountability and law enforcement abuses.

Latinos United
Maricela Garcia, executive director, 312-376-1766,
Policy advocates for the Latino community on issues of access to public housing, fair housing and related issues.

Metro Seniors in Action
Beryl Clemens, interim executive director, 312-435-3822
An organization of groups and individual members which advocates on issues of concern to seniors including health care, transportation and housing.

Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations
David Hatch, 773-330-5684; 773-538-8781
Urban sprawl, concentrated poverty, and the relation between the two are major issues for MAC, whose members include faith-based groups from Chicago and the South Suburbs as well as Joliet and Aurora; other issues for the group include immigration.

Metropolitan Tenants Organization
John Bartlett, executive director, 773-292-4980,
With a membership of individuals as well as tenant associations and other organizations, MTO serves as an umbrella organization advocating for affordable housing and promoting tenant organizing; it also runs a tenants rights hotline. Started in 1981, it led the fight to pass the city’s Tenant Rights Ordinance in 1986.

Mujeres Latinas en Accion
Maria Pesqueira, director, 321-226-1544;
Founded 1973, Mujeres is a bilingual/bicultural agency that provides culturally sensitive services in such areas as domestic violence and sexual assault. It also focuses on leadership development and plays an advocacy role for Latinas.

Interfaith Worker Justice
Kim Bobo, 773-728-8400
A national network with chapters in 29 states mobilizing people of faith to “improve wages, benefits, and working conditions for workers, especially low-wage workers.” The local chapter — the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues — is based in the same office.

Parents United for Responsible Education
Julie Woestehoff, executive director, 312-491-9101;
Organized by parents and teachers during the 19-day strike in the fall of 1987, PURE has become a major advocate of Local School Councils and a national model for organizing parents, offering trainings, advocacy and other assistance to LSCs.

Protestants for the Common Good
Al Sharp, executive director; Robert Whitener, media contact, 312-223-9544,
A statewide organization founded in 1995 to rally Protestants on issues of social justice such as housing, criminal justice, welfare, and others.

Southwest Women Working Together
Shelley Hughley, executive director; Pamela Dominguez, director of community organizing, 773-737-2500
The group’s organizing initiative, known as Southwest Women Action Team, addresses domestic violence, parenting concerns, and other issues; one initiative has been to train Chicago police in the 8th district in responding to domestic violence calls. SWWT also provides counseling, housing and employment services, and runs a shelter.

Southwest Youth Collaborative
Camille Odeh, executive director; Jonathan Peck, 773-476-3534,
SWYC organizes around youth and racial justice issues citywide and works on education, welfare reform and immigrant rights on the Southwest Side.

United Power for Action and Justice
Matt McDermott, senior organizer; Richard Fung, media contact, 312-596-0650,
A drive spearheaded by the late Cardinal Bernardin in 1995 to create a new regional “organization of organizations” gave birth to United Power for Action and Justice. Bolstering the statewide health insurance plan for working families, Family Care, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting interfaith unity are among the coalition’s issues.


Gamaliel Foundation
Gregory Galluzzo, executive director; 312-357-2639
Rev. Don Burton, media contact, 262-639-5914,
With some 45 affiliated groups in 17 states as well as three provinces of South Africa, Gamaliel is well-known both for its rigorous organizer training and faith-based approach to organizing. It was founded in 1968 as part of an effort to deal with panic peddling and blockbusting. Its local affiliate, Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, was one of the first groups to take a regional approach to community issues.

Industrial Areas Foundation
Ed Chambers, executive director, 312-245-9211
The IAF, which has chapters across the country, was organized in 1940 by Saul Alinsky. In the mid-1990s its headquarters returned to Chicago from New York City.

Midwest Academy
Jackie Kendall, executive director, 312-427-2304 X 103;
The Academy’s five-day training is perhaps the best-known school for community organizing in the U.S. The group’s manual “Organizing for Social Change” has sold some 90,000 copies since first printing in the early 1990s.

National Training and Information Center/National People’s Action
George Goehl, executive director; Andrea Frye, media contact; 312-243-3035 and;
NTIC, started in 1972, provides community groups with training and consulting both on how to organize and on policy issues such as reinvestment and housing, jobs, education and neighborhood safety. Its affiliate, NPA, is a national network of grassroots neighborhood groups which leads a national action weekend in Washington each spring. Among other victories, NPA is credited with getting the federal anti-redlining law, the Community Reinvestment Act, through Congress in 1977.


Chicago Community Trust
Terry Mazany, president and CEO; Elizabeth Richter, communications director, 312-616-8000
As a community foundation, the Trust (with over $1 billion in assets) focuses on supporting Chicago organizations of many types. The Community Development section funds community organizing, among other types of work.

Local Initiatives Support Corporation-Chicago
Andy Mooney, Executive Director
The Chicago office of the national community-development organization has for more than five years spearheaded the New Communities Program, which mixes community-organizing and development tactics to improve “quality of life” according to plans developed by local residents in partnership with urban planners in 14 Chicago neighborhoods.

Mayer Morris Kaplan Foundation
Jason Heeney, executive director, 847-926-8350,
Community organizing, education, family, Jewish organizations and the arts are program areas for the foundation, which reported $35.4 million in assets for 2001.

Wieboldt Foundation
Regina McGraw, executive director, 312-786-9377,
With over $30 million in assets, Wieboldt has “community organizing and community action as the foundation’s prime concern” and focuses on Chicago groups.

Woods Fund of Chicago
Deborah Harrington, president 312-782-2698
Community organizing and enabling work/reducing poverty are funding priorities for Woods, which had $58 million in assets in 2006.

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