College Organizing Work

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May Day March 2008

In 2007, the summer after my 1st year at the University of Chicago I was fortunate enough to get an internship through the University Community Service Center called Summerlinks. SummerLinks was a ten week paid social justice internship focused on teaching students about different social issues by immersing them in Chicago communities organizing to solve them. I spent the summer as a Kay Berkson Fellow at a local non-profit focused on arts education called Changing Worlds.
While a Kay Berkson Fellow I wrote a 75 page report outlining suggestions for new programing components. In order to develop this plan I drafted and sent out a survey to asses the need for art education programing in Chicago Public Elementary Schools. All told I contacted over 75 public school principals, analyzed their responses and wrote a report to guide the growth of the young Non-Profit. The report would eventually become part of their five year plan and many of the suggestions outlined in the report were later adopted.
That summer, when I was not working for Changing Worlds, I was attending trainings on social justice issues around the city. The experience of traveling around the city and seeing all the amazing social justice work that was being done made me want to dedicate my life to working for justice. When I returned to school the next quarter I joined almost every organizing group on campus and began my life as a student activist.
One of the first groups I joined was the Students Organizing United with Labor (S.O.U.L) [the local United Students Against Sweatshops affiliate.] While at S.O.U.L I worked several different campaigns including helping the local clerical union get better wages during their contract negotiations with the University. During the two years I organized with S.O.U.L I helped plan rallies, public education events, wrote articles in the student newspaper and had meeting with University officials. In those two years S.O.U.L was able to help workers achieve better contracts twice and we successful ended the University’s relationship with Russell Athletic over human rights abuses in their factories.
That same year I also began organizing with the South Side Solidarity Network (SSN). Our work primarily involved housing issues on Chicago’s South Side such as the impact of gentrification, restrictive covenants and economic depression on housing outcomes. As a member of SSN I worked hand in hand with low-income residents in planning Art in Action. Art in Action was an annual community event geared towards bridging the divide between the UofC community and the Woodlawn community residents that the University’s development policies were displacing. I worked with student organizations, community leaders, churches and university administrators to ensure that over 200 people could take part in the event. This entailed months of organizing community meetings, organizing phone trees, and convincing community groups that the event would not speed gentrification in their neighborhood.
Towards the end of my 2nd year at the University of Chicago I helped found the Social Justice Coalition [SJC]. SJC was an umbrella coalition for student activism on campus. We advocated for increased minority recruitment, increased environmental sustainability and for the University to divest from Darfur Sudan. Working for the SJC taught me a lot about organizing and coalition building, especially that organizations only show up for organizations that show up for them. Ultimately, my work with the SJC was a failure. While we were able to get several sustainability measures agreed to by the University we were not able to create any mechanism to ensure compliance and all of other initiatives ended without any victories. Though at the time this failure was devastating, with perspective I’ve realized that it taught me a lot about perseverance and the importance constant reflection about the direction of a campaign.
After my experience with SJC and after taking a year off of school during the financial crisis of 2008 I returned to college organizing with a different viewpoint. While I still helped organize aggressive direct actions with SOUL I also spent more time on committees with University administrators. One of the most successful of those committees was the Gender Neutral Housing Committee. The committee was formed after the LGBTQ student center asked the University for more housing flexibility for students who identified outside of the gender binary. I was fortunate enough to be among the students selected to sit on the committee along with the Vice President for Student Life. As a member of the committee I helped craft the policy and language of the University’s new Open Housing policy which allowed students to both self-identify beyond the gender binary and elect to live with students of a different sex.
Taken as a whole I believe my college organizing experience gave me the callouses and skills necessary to be an effective organizer in the real world.

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