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UNO: organizing at the grass roots

Just southwest of downtown, Pilsen is a traditional port of entry for Chicago's Mexican immigrants.       Photo by Thom Clark

This is the second article in a series on community organizing in Illinois and the legacy of Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky. The series is funded by a grant from The Woods Charitable Fund.

In Chicago's southeast side neigborhood stands the modern $3.5 million Ninos Heroes Magnet Public Elementary School built in 1981. Nearby is the City of Chicago's $1.3 million public health clinic renovated in March 1983. In November 1986 Gov. James R. Thompson restored $23.7 million in state funds to Chicago for construction of eight public elementary schools in largely Hispanic neighborhoods. Five are under construction; work is to begin this year on the remaining three. Probably none of this would have come about without the efforts of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO). Its members — mainly poor and working-class Mexican-Americans — pushed, fought and pressured city and state officials to build the school, renovate the clinic and restore the funds.

UNO has earned a reputation as a strong advocacy organization, applying the principles of the late Saul Alinsky to build church-based, grass-roots organizations in diverse Mexican-American neighborhoods across the city. "UNO's doing some of the best church-based community organizing in Chicago. They have a good track record of accomplishments. And they involve a lot of people in their organizing," says Jackie Kendall, director of Chicago's Midwest Academy, a national center for training organizers and building progressive coalitions.

Founded in 1980, UNO now has affiliated chapters in four lower-income, largely Mexican-American neighborhoods. There's an UNO chapter in southeast Chicago near the Indiana border. Once a stable, working-class neighborhood, it was hammered hard in the 1980s by an economic recession that shuttered steel mills. Just southwest of the Loop, UNO thrives in Pilsen, one of the oldest communities in Chicago. A port of entry for Mexican immigrants, Pilsen's 150-year-old buildings sag under the weight of a steady influx of new arrivals. West of Pilsen, UNO operates in Little Village, a neighborhood of modest two-flats and bungalows, which is fast becoming another port of entry. And finally, UNO organizes in The Back of the Yards, once thriving stockyard country. Community organizing began here 49 years ago when Alinsky put together his famous neighborhood council, a coalition of Irish, Poles and Lithuanians, many of whom left as Mexican-Americans moved in.

Together, UNO groups claim over 1,000 members and several thousand supporters, mainly parishioners from 20 Catholic city parishes. "I think what really gives our organization strength is the parishes. Without parishes, you really don't have an organization," says Salvador Roman, an UNO leader and president of UNO of Little Village.

Like Alinsky, UNO's organizers challenge their members not to be the passive objects of other people's decisions. Organizers teach Mexican-Americans how to wield their organizational people power. "UNO is about empowering people to organize themselves so people can have decisionmaking power over the decisions that will affect them, their communities and their families," explains Danny Solis, executive director of UNO of Chicago, located in Pilsen and headquarters for the other four UNO groups. "Right now that power doesn't exist in minority communities, let alone the Hispanic community."

UNO members feel that by banding together they can gain the power to tackle problems and improve their neighborhoods. The Rev. George Schoop, pastor of St. Kelvin's parish in southeast Chicago says: "UNO represents hope to this neighborhood.

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And over the years UNO has delivered on many of the hopes of the people. Some health care, some employment training classes at Olive Harvey College, some better city services, voter registration, and a limitation on toxic dumping were won by this neighborhood because of UNO's organizing."

UNO was founded by Mary Gonzales and her husband Gregory Galluzzo, two experienced community organizers. Gonzales heard about Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), a church-based organization in San Antonio, Texas. Established by the Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation in the early 1970s and still in existence today, COPS was empowering Mexican-Americans and winning millions of dollars in neighborhood improvements. Gonzales felt that a group like COPS but with city wide impact was needed for Chicago's Mexican-Americans, who lacked power and were often short-changed of crucial city services. Indeed, in 1980 when the first UNO chapter came into being, the number of Mexican-Americans in the Chicago area had more than tripled since 1970, increasing from 93,389 to 310,428. Nearly half of those over 18 years old had no more than an eighth grade education, and most Mexican-Americans worked in low-skilled jobs, with a per capita income of about $5,000.

The Latino Institute, a social service agency in downtown Chicago — criticized by some Hispanics for not providing more of its resources to inner-city Hispanic neighborhoods — sponsored Gonzales for several years as she created the UNO network. Gonzales and Galluzzo convinced several parishes in southeast Chicago to form the first UNO chapter. Funds were quickly raised. "Foundations had neglected Latinos, so they poured money into UNO of southeast Chicago. Within two years we had a budget of about $160,000," recalls Galluzzo. By the end of 1983, UNO of Little Village and UNO of Back of the Yards were similarly formed; the fourth chapter, Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, an already established advocacy group, also joined the network.

Annual budgets of the nonprofit UNO groups range from $72,000 to $280,000. Parishes contribute from $2,000-5,000 yearly; fundraising and small grants from Chicago philanthropies account for the rest. Gonzales now serves as associate director of UNO of Chicago, and former UNO director Galluzo heads the Gamaliel Foundation, which trains organizers and gives technical assistance to Chicago and downstate community organizations like the Quad Cities Interfaith Organizing Committee.

In typical Alinsky fashion UNO groups avoid taking on unwinnable issues to prevent defeatism among their members. For example, Wisconsin Steel in southeast Chicago shut down late in 1980, throwing about 3,500 people out of work. UNO knew it couldn't do anything to reopen the mill, so it didn't try.

But emphasis on winnable issues leads some to question UNO's effectiveness. "UNO's orientation to organizing is pretty conservative. They concentrate almost entirely on safe, bread-and-butter issues, like putting in a stop sign, garbage pick-up that sort of thing. They don't take up citywide or larger political issues affecting Hispanics," says Roberto Rey, a former organizer for UNO and Comite Latino. The latter is an Uptown-based, Alinsky-style group organizing South and Central American Hispanics on local issues like tenant rights, immigration and naturalization, and hiring of more Hispanics in the Chicago Park District. Two years ago Comite Latino invited Ernesto Cardenal, "poet of the Nicaraguan revolution," to Chicago to speak to its members. That led to counter protest by Chicago's anti-communist Cubans and underscores the difficulty of organizing the city's uniquely diverse Hispanic community.

In response to critics, UNO's staff explains that while stop signs and better garbage pickups may seem like small issues to others, they're significant to neighborhood residents. They also contend that political ideological issues such as Nicaragua's revolution are irrelevant and divisive to Chicago's Hispanics, who already have plenty of socioeconomic problems to deal with.

Moreover, UNO doesn't claim to represent all Hispanics. It says it speaks for about 5 percent of the city's Mexican-Americans. In 1985 UNO did try to organize Puerto Ricans and form another parish-based UNO chapter in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of West Town and Humboldt Park on the city's near north side. But Puerto Rican leaders vehemently complained that UNO was an outsider. "We don't go into their neighborhoods organizing their people, why should they come into ours? That's a lack of respect," the Rev. Jorge Morales, a Puerto Rican leader, said at the time. Morales is cofounder of the West Town Concerned Citizens Coalition, a once active Alinsky-style group. Parishes in the area quickly shied away from UNO, forcing it to pull out. The incident clearly shows the parochialism of Alinsky-style groups, which refuse to cooperate with one another while zealously competing for turf, recognition, members and funds.

But in spite of rivalries with other groups and the persistence of urban problems which extend far beyond neighborhood boundaries, UNO has been able to slow down the deterioration of inner-city neighborhoods, improve existing services and generate new ones. Equally important, UNO helps residents acquire a voice in the renewal of their neighborhoods, as they pressure public officials to be accountable to their needs. Theresa Fragra, an outspoken UNO leader and former president of UNO of Pilsen says: "We want the superintendent of public schools, the mayor and politicians to listen to us, treat us as equals and include our needs and issues in their agendas. We want to be respected and not have to go to the superintendent's house at night to give him a message from the community."

Influential public officials are regularly invited to UNO's neighborhood meetings to hear the community's messages and demands on specific issues. To ensure maximum turnout, UNO groups rent school buses and arrange babysitting services for their predominately female members. Anywhere from 300 to 3,500 people attend these meetings, applauding loudly when public officials concede to their demands or booing wildly when they do not. If meetings fail to win issues, UNO members intensify the confrontation tactics — demonstrating and picketing at the offices and homes of public officials and holding sit-ins, call-ins, etc. — to press their case.

Some community residents refuse to join UNO, frowning at its aggressive methods. "Second and third generation Mexican-Americans are very Americanized and think they are

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part of the system and have won their piece of the pie. They feel you don't go around doing those kinds of things," says Gonzales.

Lately, UNO is using more negotiation and lobbying and less confrontation. Some wonder if UNO is losing its toughness. Last year, for example, UNO's negotiations failed to persuade Chicago immigration officials to place an immigration and legalization office in Pilsen; three offices were placed in non-Mexican areas of Chicago. Some of UNO's members in Pilsen and Little Village wanted to apply for American citizenship through the federal government's new immigration amnesty program. Mike Royko, syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, took the wind out of UNO's sails, writing that Mexicans could easily pay 95 cents to jump on a bus and travel to the other immigration offices. "Royko missed the point," says Kelvin Jackson, an UNO organizer: "About 77 percent of the people who are applying for amnesty come from the Mexican community. Why can't this community have an office? The point was, we didn't want to be ignored."

But UNO's organizers deny they're losing punch.Toned-down tactics show they're gaining respect from the system, they argue. The late Mayor Harold Washington did seem to respect UNO, and UNO rarely employed

Mary Gonzales: 'You can't sit back and do nothing'

Photo by Jon Randolph

Mary Gonzales

Saul Alinsky staunchly believed women could not be good community organizers. Women lacked toughness, street-smarts and astuteness, he felt. But had Alinsky met Mary Gonzales of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), he'd quickly change his mind. Gonzales is considered the best and most dynamic organizer in Chicago. According to veteran organizer Peter Martinez, who worked closely with Alinsky and has trained UNO organizers: "Gonzales is a good strategist. She's got what it takes to win issues. Her ability as trainer and developer of leadership among people is outstanding."

Tall, with a commanding presence, Gonzales, 47, has been organizing in Chicago's predominately Mexican-American neighborhoods for about 17 years. She was the mastermind in the creation of UNO and is currently its lead organizer and associate director. She has also worked with community groups like Pilsen Neighbors Community Council and The Latino Institute.

Throughout her career, Gonzales has helped Mexican-Americans, blacks and whites win improvements in the areas of health, education, housing, city services, transportation and job training. She has also trained and mentored hundreds of lay leaders, who respect her and see her as a role model. She says: "An organizer's job is to challenge people to take a stand and act on things they see as valuable — family, church, community. You can't say 'I believe in this' and sit back and do nothing. You've got to act to improve those things and challenge institutions to live up to those values."

Many city and state public officials know Gonzales as the keen strategist bringing hundreds of community residents to their front doors demanding that they take action on neighborhood issues. While Gonzales is glad more Hispanics and blacks are winning elected office, she warns: "I don't care if you're an Hispanic, black or white politician, you've got to be accountable to the people you serve."

"If I had a problem in my neighborhood, I would want Mary Gonzales organizing my neighbors to get it resolved. She's that good. She's intelligent, hard-working, sophisticated, and she's not self-righteous," says Eduardo Camacho, who has consulted with over 100 community organizations as research director of the Community Renewal Society.

Gonzales is an anomaly in organizing circles. Most organizers are white, male and college-educated. They usually don't live in the neighborhoods they organize, and they tend to leave organizing after several years. But Gonzales is Mexican-American, a high-school graduate, a longtime resident of Pilsen, and a career organizer. A mother of four — two daughters in college, one in high school and a son in kindergarten — Gonzales got her first taste of community activism in the late 1950s when she tagged along to meetings with her mother, Guadalupe Reyes. An active volunteer in Pilsen's settlement houses and social service agencies, Reyes founded the Esperanza School for mentally handicapped children in 1972. From these experiences, Gonzales learned that residents are willing to work collectively to improve their neighborhoods. When she was in her teens — and, she says, a wallflower — she got involved in bettering neighborhood social services.

In 1971 Gonzales and Gregory Galluzo, a former Jesuit priest, worked together at Pilsen Neighbors Community Council. They married in 1979. Gonzales credits Galluzo with helping her realize that many problems of Pilsen residents couldn't be solved by social services alone and that organizing and advocacy were necessary. During the 1970s Gonzales and Galluzzo moved the council from social services into advocacy. They won numerous tenant issues, organized parent groups and forced Chicago Board of Education officials to build Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen in 1977.

"You might want to take this with a grain of salt because I'm her husband, but Mary is a winner. People are attracted to her because she is a winner. She's not afraid of telling it like it is. She's willing to face bureaucrats or anyone else and kick their ass if she has to. She's a heroine in her community," says Galluzzo.

Wilfredo Cruz

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abrasive tactics against him. Washington attended many UNO meetings and backed many of its issues, including twice-a-week garbage pickup for Pilsen in 1983, a $1.3 million City Colleges of Chicago job training center in south Chicago in 1985, and moratoriums on new waste landfills in southeast Chicago that expires in February 1989. When Mary Montes, an UNO leader and current president of UNO of Southeast Chicago, aggressively questioned him on landfills at a public meeting, Washington admiringly said: "Boy, you're a tough woman. I don't want to mess with you. I'll do anything you want me to do." Shortly before his death, he appointed her to the Colleges Board of Trustees.

UNO continues using negotiation to cultivate support among Chicago's changing political players. Politicians are invited to UNO's accountability night forums in parish halls, and they often back UNO's issues. In return, members usually vote for these politicians. But UNO carefully avoids close friendship with politicians, fearing that it might be taken for granted.

Recently, these tactics paid off. For the last three years UNO groups, concerned about rising unemployment, tried to convince City Colleges of Chicago to build a state-of-the-art facility to train residents for future technical jobs. UNO lobbied key politicians such as Mayor Washington, state legislators and local Hispanic aldermen. In November 1987, Salvatore Rotella, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, announced that construction would soon begin on a $40 million West Side Technical Institute to be located at 27th and South Western, bordering the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods.

Sometimes UNO gets angry enough to resort to its old confrontation tactics. Two months ago, for example, 100 UNO members protested a plan by Waste Management Inc. to spend millions of dollars on community development projects in southeast Chicago. The company proposed to invest the money to win neighborhood cooperation for its continued waste disposal in the area after the 1989 moratorium expires. But UNO members argue that southeast Chicago is already highly polluted with the company's toxic waste dumps. Shouting "No deals!" they marched to a local bank and broke into a meeting being conducted by James Fitch, president of South Chicago Bank, who was leading community discussion of the plan. "We will fight you every step of the way," Montes, quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, told the astonished Fitch and other residents at the meeting. The plan is stalled. Montes promises that UNO will continue to oppose the plan and the opening of new Waste Management dumps in the area.

Like Alinsky in his organizing days, UNO sees parishes as intitutions that can facilitate neighborhood organizing. Parishes provide UNO groups with a sense of legitimacy, funds, free meeting rooms and offices, and most important of all, a large supply of potential supporters, members and lay leaders. "Heck, if our church backs them on an issue, UNO knows they got people there. By golly, we can produce a couple hundred people. So it became clear to UNO that if you want the numbers, the churches are the place to get them. If we decide to do it, it will be done," says the Rev. Gerard Cleator, pastor of St. Pias Church in Pilsen.

Some priest join UNO out of religious conviction to help the disadvantaged. But priests also join because UNO's organizers spend a lot of time helping them and their laity to improve their parishes. Ironically, while Chicago's Mexican-American population is booming, only about a dozen of the city's 1,000 diocesan parish priests are Hispanic. Thus white priests look to UNO for help. Organizers work with priests and laity to increase parish membership and Sunday collections, improve fundraising, increase parish school enrollment and plan Spanish and English religious services, retreats and parish outreach.

But UNO's relationship with parishes is not all heavenly. Organizers express disappointment that while priests are generally pleased with UNO's assistance to parishes, some priests are not encouraging their parishioners to actively participate in UNO's neighborhood advocacy efforts. "We found that there are real limitations to what you can do with the church. The basic reason is because you've got a lot of white priests whose fundamental self-interests are advancing within the church hierarchy and not making life better for their constituency," says Josh Hoyt, a former UNO organizer.

One UNO organizer, who requested anonymity, thinks priests shun UNO because higher church officials see it as a threat. He recalls that a parish priest was told by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin "that while he liked the work UNO was doing with parishes, he hoped they didn't try to form a separate church."

Two parishes ended their participation in UNO of Little Village because priests and some parishioners didn't feel it was the church's responsibility to engage in neighborhood advocacy. Three other parishes in Pilsen — possibly fearing resistance from higher church officials — decided to distance their ties with UNO. According to Father Cleator, "It became a conflict of who is really running the church. UNO was so involved in helping to organize the parishes, sensing that it was a most important institution. But then the question became: Who are we accountable to, UNO or the Archdiocese?"

Monsignor John J. Egan, a close friend of Alinsky, laments that churches are not more involved with groups like UNO. Egan recalls that the early 1960s, a time of civic crisis, was the "golden age" of church cooperation with Alinsky-style groups in Chicago. Egan challenges the church to continue this legacy: "I personally don't think the Catholic Church is giving that much support to Latino organizations in Chicago. There should be far more support so the organizations can get stronger and stronger," says Egan. "After all, Latino groups come into our city and they have been exploited, pushed around; they have problems of unemployment, dropouts. And for us, Hispanic people are a great treasure; they're part of a whole Roman Catholic tradition. We should put money, personnel and all the resources we have, to enable them to acquire the fulfillment of their dreams. They're our people."

Like UNO, other groups have had difficulty integrating churches with community organizing. In 1985 several organizers failed to form a new Alinsky-style group in West Town and Humboldt Park by organizing storefront Pentecostal churches. Peter Earle, one of the organizers, explains that Hispanic reverends in Pentecostal churches are conservative. They believe the poor shall realize justice in heaven and shouldn't get

April 1988 | Illinois Issues | 21

Danny Solis explains UNO's education proposal to parents and teachers at Youngman School in Pilsen.       Photo by Jon Randolph

involved in worldly matters, Earle says. He also believes that they like to maintain control over their congregations and fear organizers might steal their flocks.

UNO continues working with parishes, hoping church officials will eventually heed Egan's words. But UNO is also diversifying. Currently it is organizing parent groups in public elementary schools and working with local social service agencies on a planning grant to upgrade the Pilsen business district. On the education front UNO's parent groups recently won hot-lunch programs, building repair and upgrading, the right to form parent groups and better principal-teacher-parent communication at public schools in Pilsen, Little Village and Back of the Yards. UNO contends that Chicago school officials are not adequately addressing problems in Mexican-American schools. "As far as we can see, our schools are getting less attention than black schools. I'm talking about overcrowding and a lack of programs, discipline, maintenance, and security. [Former School Supt.] Ruth Love may have been more political, but at least she paid attention to us," Danny Solis said in a February 1987 Chicago Magazine article on Manford Byrd Jr., Chicago's current school superintendant. UNO's plan for school reform calls for more parental involvement in local schools, decentralization and a limit on class size (see "The Chicago school mess," pages 12-15).

One of UNO's overlooked achievements is its ongoing development of leadership among its members. UNO's organizer mentoring and leadership sessions have produced about 30 leaders who lead others on issues and articulate UNO's concerns in large public meetings and closed door negotiating sessions. There are also about 300 leaders who do the support work necessary for effective organizing: phoning people to get them to meetings, distributing flyers, arranging media coverage and serving on committees and fundraising drives. Many leaders say that through UNO they have gained the personal growth and self-confidence needed to improve their lives. Some are entering college, studying for G.E.D.s, taking English classes and becoming American citizens.

Southeast Chicago's Montes explains: "I've learned to negotiate a lot better, to think more strategically. I've learned to deal with people who, at one time, I was afraid to deal with. Like Governor James Thompson — he's no big deal anymore. He's a person just like me. I've learned to work in collaboration with others." Graciela Schuch, an UNO leader and former president of UNO Back of the Yards adds: "UNO's organizers teach us how to run meetings, how to develop strategies, what to look for in a problem. They kind of push you to look for solutions. To me, it has been a tremendous experience. It has enriched my life."

It's not certain what UNO's future holds. It has survived the "five-year-blues," the time most community organizations fall apart. And foundations steadily funnel funds to UNO. Yet in the past some Alinsky-style groups that appeared to growing have been crippled or broken by problems that suddenly surfaced. For example, as UNO takes on larger, time-consuming issues like the Technical Institute, smaller issues and leadership training at the local chapters tend to be ignored, causing disillusionment among members. "I think UNO has to get its grass roots strengthened. It's not as strong right now as it was. There's the danger of wheeling and dealing on the high polical level and forgetting some of the grass roots," says Father Cleator.

UNO's decisionmaking is increasingly top to bottom, with organizers and experienced staff making many major decisions. Limited decisionmaking hurts morale. This seems to have happened to The Woodlawn Organization (TWO), a black, Alinsky-style group founded in 1961 in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood. For the last couple of years TWO has been experiencing internal dissension about administrative decision making and the future of the organization.

In later years groups like UNO have tended to move away from advocacy into social services, and they sometimes mismanage these programs. This happened to the West Town Concerned Citizens Coalition, which was a strong advocacy group during the late 1970s. Today the coalition tries to survive as a quiet, small social service group. Its $1 million rehabilitation program was severely mismanaged, and it folded in 1982.

UNO's staff agrees that keeping an organization together, organizing daily and winning issues is extremest difficult. But they're confident they can learn from the mistakes of other groups. For the future, UNO will aim to stengthen its organization by developing Hispanic organizers, encouraging more men to join the local chapters and training many more leaders at the grass-roots level. Ultimately, UNO is confident that new ideas and new members will continue to come from the grass roots, invigorating the organization and maintaining it as a vehicle for the empowerment of community residents. □

Formerly a reporter for The Chicago Reporter, Wilfredo Cruz recently earned a Ph.D. in Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. The United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) was the subject of his dissertation.

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