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Author: Chris Brown

Solidarity Soup Supports SWOP’s Work with Immigrants

Solidarity Soup Supports SWOP’s Work with Immigrants

On Tuesday, March 7th, a group of well known chefs came together to support work with the immigrant community by selling soup.  Led by Bruce Sherman of North Pond, the chefs produced and sold soup at four locations across the city and in Evanston.  Each person who placed an order received two pints of soup along with the good feeling that comes with knowing they were helping out people with immigration issues.

The Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), along with Centro Romero and the Immigrant Workers’ Project, were the three organizations selected to receive the proceeds from the sale of the soup.  SWOP will use the funding to support citizenship workshops, Know Your Rights trainings, and other activities aimed at supporting the immigrant community.

SWOP greatly appreciates the support of Solidarity Soup and the leadership of Bruce Sherman in undertaking this effort.

SWOP Wins Power of Community Award at CNDA

SWOP Wins Power of Community Award at CNDA

More than 1,500 people gathered at McCormick Place to see the Southwest Organizing Project win the Woods Fund of Chicago’s Power of Community Award.  The occasion was LISC Chicago’s Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards (CNDA) 23rd annual ceremony.  SWOP won for its Reclaiming Southwest Chicago campaign; an effort to organize and rebuild a target area in the Chicago Lawn community.

For more than a decade, the area between 59th ST. and 63rd ST., Rockwell and California had been targeted by unscrupulous real estate agents and mortgage brokers; selling and financing homes to families who could not afford their payments.  At the same time, crime in the area increased and the schools struggled.  Four years ago, this combination lead to 93 vacant buildings in the area.

Leaders at SWOP were alarmed, but rather than just complain or move away, they took action.  Leaders came together to plan and then implement a strategy that would acquire and rehab houses, invest in the schools, intervene with anti-violence strategies, and build relationships in the community between people and between institutions.

The results are award winning.  Today, there are just 21 vacant buildings in the community and this number should be reduced to zero by this time next year.  Crime has been cut in half.  The schools have shown continual improvement, and the institutions in the community are stronger by any measure.

To achieve this, SWOP worked with its member institutions like Neighborhood Housing Services, Morrill School, Greater Southwest Development Corporation, IMAN, and St. Rita’s Church.

An important part of the work was building partnerships with organizations outside the community.  United Power for Action and Justice and SWOP worked together to bring in funding from the State and City.  Brinshore Development formed a joint venture with SWOP to acquire and rehab houses in the community.

At a site visit in October, SWOP leaders outlined for the CNDA judges how the community came together to fight back.  They talked about how they worked with a wide variety of people and organizations; people from different faith institutions, who spoke different languages, and from different backgrounds, who all shared a common goal to make the community stronger.  The presentation and the work was obviously enough to sway the judges.

See video here.


Bringing Furniture and More to Chicago Lawn

Bringing Furniture and More to Chicago Lawn

A little more than a year ago, Rafi Peterson and Mary Beth Herr sat down for a one on one meeting in the basement of St. Rita’s Church on 63rd ST.  Fr. Tony Pizzo hosted them as part of a United Power for Action and Justice meeting that brought them together as a way to build relationships and power between city and suburban dwellers.  At first, it might not seem like they had much in common, but through their conversation, it became clear that they shared a passion for social justice, community organizing, and collective action.

IMG_8261 In their meeting, Rafi talked about the trouble he had getting jobs for people recently released from prison.  Mary Beth was running a consignment furniture store on the north side with unsold inventory.  Over the course of several conversations, they hit on the idea of opening a furniture store in Chicago Lawn that might address community issues.

Today, the Storefront On 63rd ST. is up and running.  Using furniture provided by Coyle and Herr, the furniture store provides job opportunities for community residents, creates opportunities for African-American and Latino families to come together, fills a vacant store front on 63rd ST., and provide high-quality, low cost furniture and other household items to families in the community.

The Storefront was made possible because several people pitched in to make it work.  Mary Beth and her son Sam Brandstrader volunteer lots of hours identifying sources of furniture,IMG_8259 setting up a pricing strategy, and training staff.  The law firm Kirkland and Ellis provided pro bono legal services through The Law Project to help incorporate the Storefront.  Greater Southwest Development Corporation provided the storefront space; at no cost.
Rafi Peterson did most of the heavy lifting, literally and figuratively, in getting the store up and running.  He moved the furniture in, identified the people to work in the store, and oversaw the rehab of the storefront.

The store will be open every other weekend.  The next weekend the store will be open is February 24-26.


SWOP Partners to Provide ESL Classes

SWOP Partners to Provide ESL Classes

SWOP is again partnering with Gage Park High School and Instituto del Progreso Latino to provide English as a Second Language classes for community residents.  The free classes begin on Monday, March 6th.

To participate, you need to register and take a placement test.  Registration will take place on Tuesday, February 28th from 10:00 – 11:30 a.m. at Gage Park High School, 5630 S. Rockwell, room 218.  Be sure to bring an id and proof of address.  Participants will also need to take a placement test that day.

If you have questions, please contact Maggie Perales at 773-471-8208 ext. 118 or

Coming Out of the Shadows

Coming Out of the Shadows

When Sue (all the names have been changed) joined the SWOP Parent Mentor program she had no idea it would end up having her stand next to the Governor of the State of Illinois as he signed a law giving her, and many others in her situation, the right to have a driver’s license. Like many mothers in her situation, she had been devoted to her kids and family, but always stayed in the shadows. Not because she was shy, but because she was undocumented.

Though the Parent Mentor Program, Sue connected to the community organizing work of the Southwest Organizing Project. Besides learning how to help out in a classroom at (Talman Elementary School), she learned how to find her voice as a leader; meeting with other parents and running meetings in the community. She built courage and confidence in herself through the successes she attained. This work helped her make the transition from a private to a public life.

For Karen, the Parent Mentor Program and community organizing helped her better connect with her children’s education. She begin to think more about what they were learning and what they could do in the future. She helped her children get in to selective enrollment high schools and plan for college; something she didn’t think about before her involvement with SWOP.

The leadership development work of SWOP taps into people’s talents and helps them become the backbone of the community. It brings them into relationship not only with people in similar situations, but also with other community leaders from different religions, ethnicities, races, and languages to form the backbone of the organization working to improve the community. They figure out what they have in common and connect around their mutual self-interests. In doing this, they bring their institutions – churches, schools, social service agencies – along with themselves into public life.

What seems to be missing from the latest conversations about immigration is the fact that these leaders play an important role in revitalizing Chicago Southwest and similar communities around the country. Their spirit and energy is needed to help communities identify, plan for, and implement strategies that will bring change to places that need it. As SWOP organizer Imelda Salazar says “they really give me the energy to do my job every day.”

How Do You Reach Young People? With Teen REACH.

How Do You Reach Young People? With Teen REACH.

By Jasmine Serrano

Several years ago, SWOP was looking to expand its work with young people in schools. SWOP wanted to go beyond providing after-school programming to begin to build youth leaders for the community. That’s when SWOP discovered the Teen REACH program.

In Chicago Lawn, SWOP’s Teen REACH effort began at Fairfield Elementary in the 2008 – 2009 school year, and was moved to Morrill Elementary in the 2009 – 2010 school year; where it has remained ever since.  SWOP’s Teen REACH program has always been high performing, typically serving more young people than the grant budget calls for. This year, SWOP receives funding to serve 40 students, but has more than 50 in the program. Last year, without State funding, SWOP served 40 students using United Way funding. SWOP’s effort delivers quality mentorship that leads to improved grades, test scores, school attendance, involvement in the program, and mentor/mentee relationships that last into adulthood.

Teen REACH is a State funded after-school program that works with different non-profit providers across Illinois. Teen REACH provides after-school programs and mentorship opportunities to young people between the ages of 11 and 17 years old, with a focus on “at risk” youth. Young people who come from low-income families, single-parent households, have behavioral issues, and/or are academically underachieving have the indicators that make a young person a good candidate for Teen REACH. The goal is to improve the students’ “at risk” status.

What makes the Chicago Lawn program unique is its intent to give young people a voice and leadership in the program; allowing the participants to have a say in what they learn and do during the three hours after school when they are in the program. SWOP’s Teen REACH effort engages young people in a way that many of them would not have been able to experience otherwise. Teen REACHers have taken trips to Springfield, Illinois to contribute to policy changes. They have taken trips to the Mississippi Palisades on what was for many, their first camping trip. Engaging students’ curiosity and involvement in the program has always been a source of pride for the mentors that make Teen REACH happen every day.

For this school year, SWOP’s Teen REACH program has hired a new Program Coordinator, Jasmine Serrano. Jasmine lived in the community for more than ten years and worked with SWOP since she was a sophomore at Gage Park High School; the neighborhood high school. Now, at 23, she manages Teen REACH with the objective of getting young people ready for high school and beyond, and with the help of the rest of the Teen REACH staff and interns, she creates a safe space for young people to be themselves, learn, speak, and play.

What Do Hundreds of People Do When It’s Cold Outside: They Come to the SWOP Holiday Party

What Do Hundreds of People Do When It’s Cold Outside: They Come to the SWOP Holiday Party

Opening the party with a blessing...
Opening the party with a blessing…

While the temperatures outside were well below freezing, the mood was warm and happy inside Maria Catalyst High School on Thursday evening, December 15th.  Hundreds of SWOP leaders from community institutions across Chicago Southwest came together to celebrate the holidays.  There were lots of holidays and traditions to celebrate as the crowd represented the diversity of the community: Catholics and Protestants, Muslims, and Jews; African-Americans, Latinos, and whites; and, young people and more mature folks.

...from many faiths traditions.
…from many faith traditions.

Like most holiday parties, there was good food, holiday music, and a little bit of dancing.  People chatted with old friends and made new ones.  There were even a few people in ugly holiday sweaters.

What made this party different from others this season, and special for Chicago Southwest, is that the party was as much about the holidays as it was about community organizing.  The party gave people time to reflect on the hard work of the past year, the recent Presidential election, and all the SWOP victories of the past many months.  Executive Director Jeff Bartow used his remarks at the start of the party to point out the diversity and the strength of the group.  He highlighted some recent wins, but also spoke of the need to keep working and supporting each other in all our endeavors.  He encouraged people to seek out others they did not know and to begin the community organizing process of imagining how we all can work together to advance collective goals.

SWOP ED Jeff Bartow reflects on the work ahead.
SWOP ED Jeff Bartow reflects on the work ahead.

As people left the party, it was still cold outside, but people were filled with the warmth and energy that comes from making new connections and renewing old relationships.

Happy Holidays

Lining up for delicious food.
Lining up for delicious food.
SWOP Parent Mentors Are Making a Difference in Chicago Southwest Schools

SWOP Parent Mentors Are Making a Difference in Chicago Southwest Schools

Everyone in the field of education always talks about the need for more parent involvement in schools. SWOP is doing something about this with the Parent Mentor Program. Through this effort, SWOP recruits parents, mostly mothers, but there are some fathers, to work in classrooms in their children’s schools. The Parent Mentors work in a classroom (but not their own child’s room) for two hours a day, four days a week. On Friday, the fifth day, they spend time in training; learning skills from helping students improve their academic performance to tools for community organizing.

The Parent Mentors spend their time in the classroom working with individual children or small groups of students who are at risk of falling behind in their studies. Parent Mentor participation in the classroom allows teachers to provide guidance to the whole class, while ensuring that these students with more needs, don’t fall behind.

For the first half of this school year, SWOP has 138 parents working in 12 schools. Starting in January that number will go up by three more schools and approximately 20 more parents. While the program requires that parents put in 10 hours per week at the school, many go way beyond that volunteering more time in the classroom and participating in other school activities. For their work, parents receive a $500 stipend each semester after they work 100 hours in the classroom. In addition to their work in schools, participants in SWOP’s Parent Mentor Program are very active in immigration reform, community safety, and affordable housing campaigns in Chicago Southwest.

The Parent Mentor Program is funded by a grant from the State of Illinois. SWOP administers this grant for the state supporting Parent Mentor programs with 14 other organizations at 72 schools working with over 15,000 students daily.

The prograpic-of-estela-pm-in-classroomm is evaluated state-wide every year by professors from DePaul and Loyola Universities. So far the evaluators have seen consistent increases in the impact the program is having on the parents’ lives and the classrooms they work in.

A great example of a successful Parent Mentor is Estela Avalos. She works at Talman Elementary School in a 4th grade classroom helping students with math. Estela has been active in SWOP’s Get out the Vote and Police Accountability campaign in addition to her work as a Parent Mentor.

SWOP is hoping the program will be expanded next year so that more parents like Estela can participate in their child’s school.

SWOP Leads Police Accountability Discussion

SWOP Leads Police Accountability Discussion

img_7971More than 160 community residents packed the auditorium at Catholic Charities’ Sisters of St. Casimir Motherhouse on Tuesday, November 15th to talk about an important issue to the Chicago Southwest community; police accountability. Led by Imelda Salazar and Rafi Peterson, the group heard testimony, reviewed facts, and met with neighbors one on one to learn about each other. Most important, the large gathering broke into small groups to develop ideas for improving both police accountability and community/police relations.

The collection of people who spent an hour and a half working through suggestions for improved policing of the community, really represented the broad diversity of the Chicago Southwest community. The attendees were African-American, Latino, and white. They were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish. They were young and old. They spoke English and Spanish. While these differences could have pulled them apart, especially around a topic as contentious as police accountability, they were united in their belief that the City can do more to ensure police accountability and community responsibility.

img_7987Though each small group worked independently, starting only with the same questions, they each came up with very similar answers on how to improve police accountability and relationships with the community. These included: the need for more police officers to represent the community; less police in the community, especially in schools; better training for officers on interacting with community members; more mental health services for officers and residents; and, more opportunities for police to have positive interactions with community members.

This meeting was part of a larger, city-wide effort to give community members a real voice in the police accountability discussion. SWOP is part of the Grassroots Alliance for Police Accountability (GAPA). Supported by the Woods Fund of Chicago, with funding from major foundations across Chicago, GAPA is a collection of 11 community-based organizations working in 38 of the City’s 50 wards. Each group is convening a meeting similar to the one SWOP has held. The recommendations from these meetings will be collected into one large document and will be used by the groups to organize for better police accountability.

For more information on the police accountability work, please contact Jeff Bartow at


Now, More Than Ever, Organize

Now, More Than Ever, Organize

It is safe to say that almost everyone was surprised by the results of the Presidential Election on November 8th. To many in Chicago Southwest, that surprise was not a happy outcome. President-Elect Trump’s comments on immigration, crime, banking legislation, and many other issues are in direct conflict with the work of SWOP and its partners.

What to do about that? The answer is easy, don’t mourn, organize. In a time of increasing partisan rancor, name calling, and disdain for the “other,” the focus of SWOP’s organizing in building relationships and understanding between people and institutions is more important than ever. This isn’t a feel-good answer about how we all just have to know each other and get along. No, this is an answer about understanding self-interest and building power.

Political leaders of all stripes need to understand and support the important role that immigrants, young people, women, the working class, unions, and so many others play in making Chicago Southwest the vibrant place it is. It is the children of immigrants that fill the public schools. It is young people who are taking on social issues. It is women who are leading at many local institutions.

SWOP calls on the President-Elect to really learn about the issues he has spoken on over the course of the campaign. SWOP leaders want a leader who respects them and their contributions to the community, the city, and the country. SWOP leaders expect and demand to be treated with the respect they have earned with their hard work of improving the world around them.

SWOP hopes that after learning about these important issues, that important programs like DACA, ACA, and others will be kept in place. Not because these programs represent the work of one partisan side or the other, but because these programs have been good for people and good for this community. SWOP looks forward to the work ahead.