“We try to provide safe spaces for the individuals that we serve by spending time with them and talking about topics that they might have never thought [about] in life, such as how to get a college degree or how to get into a field that has the potential for a career. We’ve done a few events that have taken guys out of the neighborhood to other parts of the city to experience a different way of life and get a break from the street life,” said Brandstrader.
SWOP’s Communities Partnering 4 Peace team is currently a group of ten people. Outreach workers respond to violent incidents, canvass the neighborhood, and build relationships. Case managers help participants find jobs or enroll in school. The whole team is led by a supervisor.
Sam Brandstrader is the data manager for the CP4P database. Formerly, Brandstrader volunteered with SWOP for several years. Brandstrader shared about the team’s recent work.
Brandstrader described their work, “A typical week for the team is that on a daily basis we canvas the neighborhood and try to get in touch with our participants in the program to spend time with them… it’s about the same each day, just new routes and a new round of participants come to the office.
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant changes to their work. Brandstrader explained, “certain employment agencies have closed down and we can’t bring as many guys into the office because of social distancing. We still have a set routine of who can come through and we have good relationships with some of the employment agencies that are still operating so we can still offer employment to our participants.”
Briana Washington and Karinna Astorga led the Chicago Connected Campaign. They partnered with others to call families and offer resources to get them connected to free internet.
A team of sixteen people, including several parent mentors, were hired to reach out to families. The team made 8,605 calls and successfully connected 1,832 families to free internet.
Now Astorga and Washington are working to promote digital literacy. Washington said, “Currently we are developing curriculum that will help students and parents with online learning. We have lessons going over how to use a computer, how to make an email, Google Drive, Zoom, Google Classroom, how to use Parent Portal/Aspine, and transitioning (elementary school into middle school, high school into college).”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the work was done remotely. The ongoing digital literacy work will also continue online. Washington said, “We’re organizing different sessions to be available through Zoom and Facebook Live, as well as making some videos to be posted and shared on SWOP’s social media pages.”
SWOP hired eighteen Southwest residents to work as contact tracers through the Southwest Employment Collaborative. Chicago needs contact tracers because COVID-19 continues to spread at high levels throughout the city, particularly on the southwest side.
Joel Rodriguez, SWOP organizer, said that “having contact tracers working through SWOP allows us to utilize our collective power and network of 44 member institutions to provide families with valuable information and resources that we hope will in turn lower cases of COVID-19 on the southwest side and better inform the community of local and city resources.”
Contact tracers help alert people if they have been exposed to COVID-19, share information about symptoms, and connect people to testing and supportive services. Rodriguez explained, “The grant is from the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership for the City of Chicago COVID Contact Tracing Corps. SWOP has hired thirteen full-time and four part-time contact tracers along with one full-time Supervising Contact Tracer.”
The Southwest Employment Collaborative (SWEC) is a newly formed SWOP led collaborative that is comprised of partner organizations PODER, Greater Southwest Development Corporation, Metropolitan Family Services, Daley College, Youth Job Center and SWOP. SWEC’s mission is to connect job seekers to employment opportunities. It uses a workforce development model that decreases barriers to sustained employment and produces a skilled Southwest Chicago workforce through targeted training programs. These training programs are informed by the community and employer/industry partners who are committed to the programs and participants.
Representatives from these partner organizations interviewed all of the applicants and selected this cohort. SWEC partners will also support contact tracers with professional development including career advising, resume development, interview preparation, and “specified workforce development training in the areas of manufacturing, finance, insurance, community health work and community organizing,” explained Rodriguez.
The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership will also be offering an Earn and Learn Program to contact tracers. While contact tracers work, they can elect to undertake education and training to prepare for future career opportunities including: Medical Office Administrator, Community Health Worker, Health Information Technician, Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), and Registered Nurse.
Today, once again, a verdict has been rendered which fails to hold police accountable for their deadly actions. SWOP stands in solidarity with all of those acting to build power in black and brown neighborhoods, who are organizing to create genuine and transformative racial and economic equity in their communities, in housing, in schools, in health care, and other sectors affecting black and brown households. It is in this spirit, as we remember Breonna Taylor, that we stand with those calling for a swift and decisive end to an overreliance on violent force to resolve conflict, and a failure to hold those accountable, particularly as it relates to police violence, to the communities they are entrusted to serve.
“Many folks volunteered themselves as stewards,” said SWOP organizer Jasmine Serrano. SWOP is partnering with NeighborSpace to purchase a vacant lot and transform the space into a community park at S. Campbell Ave. and W. 60th St.
The idea of creating another community park came from collaboration between youth from SWOP and Oak Park’s Ascension Parish. The intention is to create another safe place for people to hang out. Neighbors’ hopes for the park include vegetable gardens and a play space for kids.
“The design of the park hasn’t really been finalized at all,” said Jasmine. It is critical to collaborate with youth and neighbors because, “without input from more community folks, the park will be like one of many things that happen to community and not with community. I have relationships with young folks who live in the neighborhood who have helped with the cleanup, but we haven’t taken time to actually design it. So that’s the next step really.”
The vacant lot needs a lot of work before it’ll be ready. SWOP hosted one clean up day already. Jasmine said, “We spent about 4 hours raking, picking up garbage, cutting back weeds and removing any sticks and branches.”
Despite all of the work ahead, Jasmine described hopes for the space: “There are other Neighborspace gardens throughout Chicago that I think are beautiful and elements I would certainly love to steal. One of the bigger issues I see is the need to maintain the garden regularly. If we can create a low maintenance space that doesn’t require all that much expertise that’s also accessible and welcoming, then I’m good.”
Jasmine knows that vegetable gardens need attention and regular labor. The feasibility of a vegetable garden will depend on the interest and time of neighbors.
“It’s important that the space isn’t obnoxiously gated or locked, there’s spaces to sit, and we really want chess tables too. I can see it being wood chips and everything being made of reclaimed/recycled/repurposed wood. It can be low stakes enough, but act as a hub for events like yoga or some shows,” described Jasmine.
Jasmine also described the vacant lot as evidence of need for broader community care and investment. Jasmine said, “I want to share that my community needs love and support and encouragement and to be made to feel human and worthy and valuable and capable.” Creating a park together can be part of this work.
Acquiring the lot is still in progress too, but SWOP organizer Harry Meyer and others are working to complete the purchase. “Moving forward we will be addressing the land acquisition issues and continuing to plan work days,” said SWOP organizer Amanda Reilly.
SWOP is planning additional work days soon. The lot needs much more energy and support to become a comfortable space. Reach out to Jasmine, Harry, and Amanda if you want to join this process.
Learn more by reading the job descriptions:
The Southwest Organizing Project, a broad-based organization representing 45 member institutions on the southwest side of Chicago, writes this letter in response to the recent murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, but also past murders of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Laquan McDonald in Chicago and too many others. We recognize that the lack of trust between communities of color and the justice system were earned by long histories of police brutality and the oppression of our communities.
Many poor communities and communities of color face obstacles within American society, including housing insecurity, underfunded schooling, and repressive immigration policies. Yet, while our struggles have shared elements, they are not the same. Victims of police violence are more often members of our African American community. For allies who are non-black people of color, and white, who consider themselves purveyors of peace, justice, and equity, there remains a responsibility to stand with the African American community against police violence. Our support for the African American community should not stop at police violence. We must also address the anti-blackness that exists in our homes and neighborhoods. SWOP is committed to taking this work on within our organization and member institutions. We stand in solidarity with protesters in Minneapolis, and around the country, in their calls for swift and decisive change to the policing of our communities and the murdering of African Americans.
At the 2020 Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards (CNDA), Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) and SWOP were honored for the Parent Engagement Institute and the work of parent mentors with the Woods Fund of Chicago Power of Community Award. In 2004, SWOP modeled the Parent Mentor Program after LSNA’s work. Then in 2012, we partnered together to create the Parent Engagement Institute which has led to more parent mentor programs across Illinois.
Thanks to the whole team of parent mentors, coordinators, and Logan Square Neighborhood Association for their work of building power among parents and students in our schools. There are too many people to count to thank — currently there are 1,120 parent mentors in 150 schools.
SWOP’s parent mentors have adapted the ways they lead during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parent mentors are calling parents from their schools to see how families are and what resources they need. Parent mentors have:
- delivered food
- helped parents navigate remote learning
- noticed and mitigated gaps in communication between schools and families around remote learning
- reminded families to fill out the census
- shared pantry locations
- researched needed information on immigration
- urged families to practice social distancing
- collaborated with parents on how to teach their kids about COVID-19
- addressed the lack of information in Spanish related to COVID-19, resources, and remote learning
- picked up and delivered homework and medications
- collaborated on where to find cleaning supplies
- supported people through filing for unemployment benefits, SNAP
- collaborated with families to get Chromebooks and Wi-Fi for students during remote learning
- given social emotional support as many people are anxious
Thank you parent mentors for your continued work of advocating, supporting, and caring for our communities.
During SWOP’s Monday staff meeting, staff called in from their homes to share how they are and updates on their work. Everyone is adapting to the changes COVID-19 has brought.
Throughout the meeting, people shared their care and concern for loved ones, for neighbors, for people who are incarcerated in detention centers, prisons, and jails, for people who have lost jobs and work hours, for people who are sick, and for others who are especially vulnerable during the pandemic.
Staff members are caring for the people around them, including people who are sick and those physically distant from them, supporting loved ones whose work does not allow them to physically distance from others, checking in on their communities, and continuing their work from their homes.
SWOP staff and organizers are supporting one another and their communities by working on ongoing projects and campaigns and adapting in response to emerging needs given the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the ways this work has looked include:
Working on ongoing projects
- Having 1-1 relational meetings
- Supporting one another
- Referring people to resources they want and need
- Collaborating with partners at the city and state levels
- Working on ongoing campaigns and projects
- Following up on reporting
- Quantifying program work
- Creating surveys and gathering data
- Helping people connect to resources for home buying, home repairs, and other housing needs
- Communicating over email
- Working on budgets and funding
- Reaching out to local administrators
Adapting to emerging needs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic
- Checking in with youth and supporting young people feeling restless at home
- Calling people to check on their wellness and asking people what their plan is to fill out the census (SWOP made almost 3000 calls in March)
- Learning and sharing various policies and practices during the COVID-19 pandemic
- Collaborating with schools on remote learning plans
- Collaborating with youth activists to do wellness and census calls
- Advocating for people to get what they need for remote learning, including technology
- Advocating to use funds in new ways to respond to emerging needs
- Collaborating online through video calls
- Creating online workshops
- Distributing information about COVID-19, specifically for Spanish-speakers
- Setting up new boundaries so staff make sure to care for themselves and their loved ones at home
- Responding to emerging changes and needs
- Advocating for a variety of services to move online
- Developing and working through task lists given the changes in work routines
- Brainstorming ways to support families at home with virtual activities
- Supporting people learning new technology platforms
These categories are interwoven – these adaptations are possible because of the relationships that have been built over time and organizers have adapted in order to continue their ongoing work.