Once known for the race riots that erupted when Martin Luther King, Jr. marched here 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 Latino and African American populations in these neighborhoods since the 1990’s. 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 – the old networks were gone and new ones needed to be created. The Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) was formed in 1996 to address the community change and ensure old and new residents can build relationships and work together to have a voice in decisions that impact their neighborhoods.
SWOP’s mission is to build relationships and power for the residents and stakeholders of Southwest Chicago. SWOP is a membership organization made up of 45 local institutions in Southwest Chicago. These institutions include faith-based institutions, schools, healthcare and social service providers, and community development corporations. Leaders from these institutions make up SWOP’s board and direct the work of the organization.
SWOP is best known for its efforts to end predatory lending and foreclosures; reduce violence; win rights and protect the civil liberties of immigrants; improve achievement in public schools through parent, student and school staff engagement; and, improve access to healthcare for all residents. Specifically, SWOP runs the Parent Mentor Program placing 160 parents in 21 schools to improve academic achievement, implements the Communities Partnering 4 Peace (CP4P) program to improve safety, and provides Know Your Rights trainings and Citizenship workshops for immigrant families. Each of these efforts were first identified by local leaders as being key areas of focus for SWOP.
To carry out this work, SWOP helps families and community institutions build the power they need to have control over their future. SWOP does this by developing families’ public life and relational organizing skills. This allows community stakeholders to strengthening their own personal and professional networks and the larger networks that exist in their neighborhoods and institutions. This happens through formal leadership development sessions and in the intentional day-to-day practice of public life. The organizing work starts with the concept of a one to one meeting where residents build a public relationship, understanding each other’s self-interest and challenging and encouraging each other to take action on issues they care about. SWOP helps residents build their leadership skills by helping them understand and exercise power, run meetings, conduct research, speak publically, and connect to other institutions in the community.
As one example of how this organizing strategy works, SWOP is the Chicago Lawn lead agency for the Chicago Local Initiative Support Corporation’s (LISC) New Communities Program and completed a second Quality-of-Life plan (QLP) for Southwest Chicago in 2017. Over 250 people, representing more than 50 institutions, participated in this planning process. Both of the QLPs helped stakeholders identify and secure more than $40 million of investments in to the community.
Once known for the race riots that erupted when Martin Luther King, Jr. marched here 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…