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121 MARCH 2009
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The closing: Alinsky revisited

Mark Krueger

In 1976, the place I loved to work closed. It was a publically funded residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed boys owned by the Lutheran Church. The board of directors had decided the church was losing its influence. Originally they had planned to close gradually. Their first step would be to replace the current supervisors, my colleague and I, with a teacher who was a member of the church. The next step would be to raise private funds. This would free them of public funds and allow them to preach more of the Lutheran doctrine.

The Child and Youth Care workers and I did not like this. Together with our social work and education colleagues we had built the program into one of the finest interdisciplinary teamwork programs in Wisconsin. We were proud that we served children and families from diverse backgrounds with many different belief systems.

I had moved up the ranks with them and was named their supervisor along with another man who had mentored me in my early days. My replacement was nothing personal I was told by the executive director who had been assigned to pass on the news from the board. I was an excellent Child and Youth Care worker and supervisor according to my evaluations, but, I was not religious, which meant Lutheran. While it was true that I was not Lutheran and did not want to be (I had abandoned all organized religion early in my life), I did not like the insinuation that I was not spiritual. Recently I had read to the youth from Cahill Gibran's The Prophet, and spoke again about Martin Luther King and how important it was to find something outside your self to believe in. This, however, was not the religion, or sense of spirituality, the board of Pastors was looking for from me and my colleagues who had their own sense of open minded, humanitarian spirituality. “Humanism” was not an accepted form of religion to the pastors; it was the enemy to religion.

The workers felt betrayed. They wanted to keep their supervisors. I was moved. “Why don’t you make one of the Lutheran Child and Youth Care workers supervisor of the education or social work department?” they asked the board. The workers knew, of course, that the board really did not look on us as qualified professionals the way they did the teachers and social workers even though the teachers and social workers saw us as equal in our interdisciplinary teamwork. We had insisted on mutual respect, and ahead of our times perhaps, it was gladly given by our colleagues in social work and education with whom we had really become true team members, making and implementing decisions together. It was the church that was behind the times, not them, many of whom were also destined to unemployment because of their lack of “Lutheran-ness.”

The workers explored the option of unionizing. The board did not like this. They already felt they had lost too much control over the workers. The union was surprised to hear that the workers were not interested primarily in organizing for pay and benefits. They wanted to organize over the right and principle to have one of their own as a supervisor and to not be controlled by a board that seemed insensitive to the power and importance of Child and Youth Care.

Upon hearing this news, the board threatened to close the center and open a new one immediately that served just Lutheran youth and hired only Lutheran employees. They would go totally private free of any restrictions connected with public funding. I got the news that this was indeed what they would do, and that the agency would close in 30 days, the day after I returned from a the first national professional Child and Youth Care conference in Austin, Texas. We were angry and sad at the loss of the place where we had worked so hard together, but we really didn’t have time to grieve because we had to find places for the kids.

The workers decided to try one last trick. They protested in the city square with a coffin and the grim-reaper (one of the workers dressed in costume). The message was the Lutheran Church kills a good program for kids, and leaves them homeless. Needless to say this radical, somewhat misguided, approach did not change many minds on the board of Lutheran Pastors, but you have to admit it was gutsy, and a sign of how strongly the workers felt about what was happening to them and the kids. Even though I was not the organizer of the protest, I was proud to be their supervisor and colleague. As a middle manager, I had tried to use a more diplomatic approach with the board. Using what I had learned as a Child and Youth Care worker, I tried to listen to, and hear what they had to say, and then propose an alternative. As part of our two pronged strategy, this was equally unsuccessful.

Eventually we found placements for all the kids and a handful of workers came with me and a group of the youth to another treatment center where we occupied a vacant unit, and continued to work as a team. Soon afterward I went on to found the Youth Work Learning Center where I still work at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.

* * * *

I was reminded of the experience of this closing just recently when our center along with several partners ran a two day community organizing conference based on the life and times of Saul Alinsky. A former high school classmate of mine, Sanford Horwitt who wrote an Alinsky biography, Let Them Call me Rebel, spoke at the event which was particularly significant and timely because Alinsky was a major influence on Barak and Michelle Obama and others such as Hillary Clinton and Cesar Chavez.

At he beginning of the event Sandy held up Obama’s handbook for campaign volunteers and said it was pure Alinsky from a community organizing perspective. “I’ve been part of several political campaigns over the years, but clearly this was the best grass roots, campaign ever,” Horwitt said, and went on to describe Obama’s success in applying what he had learned from Alinsky, and others versed in the use of contemporary technology.

The informative and colorful presentation by Horwitt, which was filled with stories about how Alinsky got things done for the working man and women, made many of us in the audience remember and rethink our community work. Alinsky’s work in the places such as backyards of South Chicago, then later within the civil rights movements were and are classic examples of how to create change through community organization.

One story Horwitt told stuck with me. It was about a meeting between Alinsky and Studs Terkle, the great US historian of the common man. One day, as the true story goes, the two met for the first time on a Chicago bus stop:

“You live around here?” asks Alinsky, a big, rather imposing man.
“Yeah, right over there in that building,” replies Studs, outgoing, friendly always.
“That run down building over there?”
“Yeah that run down building.”
“It’s really run down.”
“you’re telling me. It’s a wreck, rats, rodents, leaky plumbing, and terrible heat.”
“You pay rent?” Alinsky asks.
“Of course I pay my rent.”
“For that run down building?”
“Yes, I don’t like it but I’m an honest man.”
“Ever think about not paying rent?”
“What are you nuts? I’d get kicked out!”
Alinsky pauses then says, “Are the other people in the building as disappointed as you with the condition of the building?”
“Yes, of course, anyone would be, it’s a dump.”
Alinsky pauses again, perhaps with his hand on his chin, “Ever think about if nobody in the building paid rent.”
“What kind of silly idea “hmm” Studs pauses, contemplates.

After telling the story, Horwitt said that it captured the essence of the Alinsky strategy. It begins with relationships and agitation. You have to meet face to face and stir something up in people that they feel passionate about. Then you have to connect people who share that passion, in this case the renters perhaps. And then it takes collective action, focused on a specific issue, “Getting the place fixed up,” that has a reasonable chance of getting a good result.

By the end of the two day conference, Horwitt and the other speakers had many young folks and community leaders stirred up to take action on something they felt passionate about that had a possibility of a good result. I thought about all the efforts many of us made over the last 40 years to gain recognition for the field of Child and Youth Care work. Almost all of our successes met the criteria set by Alinsky. A group, sometimes a handful of us, agitated (spoke out) for something, rolled up our sleeves, and focused on getting a result, usually on a local level, such as raising licensing standards for Child and Youth Care work, creating a step system in an agency that would allow workers to advance and receive pay increases, insisting on workers supervising workers, or in our case developing an education and research center. Sometimes, however, we also worked together on a much larger scale, such as the early efforts to form a North American professional association in the 1970s and the current effort among many people and organizations in the US and Canada to create a national certification project.

And one by one these efforts perhaps more than anything else helped advance our cause, which still has a long way to go, but can find hope in the way the Obama campaign showed how engaging people in small projects on a local and national levels can lead to big change.

In a conversation with Sandy afterwards, I said I had another reason why Obama won.
“Why,” he asked.
“Because he plays basketball,” I replied. “It’s all about timing, teamwork, positioning, being nimble, and knowing when to change the tempo. Just like Child and Youth Care work.”
He laughed, perhaps remembering when we played basketball in high school.

* * * *

For me, in hindsight, the closing in the 1970s turned out to be a painful but positive and important event. Had it not closed, I might still be there, which would be okay because sometimes I still miss the work, but I have been happy with the way my work has gone since them. I was able to take those eight wonderful years with youth and use it as a source of my learning and growing over the next 32 years. Shortly after it closed I finished my PhD and founded the center where I often draw on those early years in my writing, research, and teaching. I have also tried to use what I learned from my colleagues about activism, and standing up for something you believe in! “It’s your time to step up,” I said to my students in class after the Alinsky lecture.

A few days ago I read an article about how important the Civilian Conservation Corp was during the Great Depression. It put young men and women to work on projects that they could be proud of and gave them hope. This has been a dream of mine for some time. In the past when I mentioned it at community meetings, it rarely got much support from people with political power. People who worked with youth always thought it was a great idea, but not the politicians. They knew most youth didn’t vote. Maybe the time has come to resurrect this idea for youth in Milwaukee and the US? Let’s see, who can we agitate?

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