SWOP formed in 1996 to challenge the history of structural racism on the southwest side of Chicago. Recognizing that the responsibility of eradicating structural racism lies with the full community and not just with people of color, SWOP leaders work to build relationships across differences. SWOP does this through a community organizing strategy that creates spaces and opportunities for families to share stories and experiences that help them identify common interests and hold up and respect the traditions and cultures that differentiate us. SWOP believes that those who are closest to the issues are also closest to the solutions. SWOP knows that its institutions and their members as leaders must take active roles in influencing programs and policies at the local, state, and federal levels. SWOP's focus on leadership development is designed to build the capacity of adult and youth leaders of color to be actors in the decisions that impact their lives.
Once known for the race riots that erupted when Martin Luther King, Jr. marched Marquette Park in 1966 for open housing, Chicago’s Southwest Side neighborhoods are now very diverse. No longer white-ethnic and predominantly Catholic, there has been a dramatic increase in the Latinx and African American populations in these neighborhoods since the 1990s. These large and rapid demographic shifts resulted in the breakdown of institutional and neighborhood cohesion, as long-term residents moved out and new residents moved in. Families no longer knew one another – old networks were gone and new ones needed to be created.
SWOP was formed to address this change and ensure old and new residents had a voice in decisions that impacted their neighborhoods. Originally, a group of local Catholic parishes formed an organization, the Southwest Catholic Cluster Project, which was designed to encourage a multiracial and multicultural response to the increasing racial, cultural, and economic diversity on Chicago’s southwest side. As these leaders engaged in their work, they increasingly saw the need to create a broad-based, multi-faith, community organization that could genuinely represent the diversity of interests and common ground among southwest side families. They became the organizing committee that led to the formation of SWOP.
In time, other faith institutions, local schools and other nonprofits joined SWOP to make it the organization it is today. SWOP’s member institutions are in the Chicago community areas of Chicago Lawn, Gage Park, West Lawn, West Elsdon and Ashburn and represent more than 40,000 residents.