Why I came to work at SWOP
By Chris Brown
Recently, I have had more than one reason to reflect on why I came to work at SWOP. After being around, but not directly doing community organizing for the past 20 years, I decided I needed to go back to working for an organization deeply rooted in a place.
I left a really great job at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago after having been there for almost a decade. I feel like I did good work there, running a program that invested about $50 million in five schools to help young people and their families prepare for a different and better life. But I was always an intermediary there; always one step removed from the real work in schools and communities.
I’ve been a believer in the power of community organizing since my days with ACORN back in the 1980’s and 90’s. I knocked on a lot of doors back then and really saw first hand what can happen when you work with folks to build their capacity to lead, tackle issues of concern, and implement real plans for change. I further saw the importance of community organizing work in other jobs; as a funder, a supporter, a researcher, and an advocate.
But many of us see the importance of things without having to make it our job. I see the importance of saving the whales, but I don’t go out on boats to stop whale hunting.
Working at LISC was great. I’d like to think that I learned a lot and maybe contributed something to the organization and its partners. But after a while, I felt something was missing. That something was the ability to work directly with people impacted by the issues affecting our communities, city, state, and nation. I wanted to be at a place that was building leadership and power; and was talking explicitly about these issues. I knew SWOP well from many different vantage points and knew that they were doing some of the best organizing work in Chicago and in the country.
In thinking about next steps for myself, I did a bunch of one on one meetings to help me think about what to do. During one of these meetings, Jeff Bartow asked me what I wanted to do with myself. I took a chance and said that I’d love to be his operations person. I said this because I loved the work SWOP was doing, but knew that the organizers were bogged down dealing with organizational issues rather than organizing issues. I also knew that I had some talents to bring to this work and that I could learn a lot from working at SWOP (both about organizing and operations). Turns out Jeff was interested and willing to take a chance on me.
I’m thankful for that. It’s good to be back doing organizing. I like the people I work with, but more important, I respect the work they do and I’m learning a lot from it.
These days I think organizing is more important than ever. We need to build power for communities. We need community leaders who can educate political and policy leaders from first hand experience. We need real plans and implementation strategies that makes places better, not just talk about making them better. I consider myself very lucky to be a part of this work.