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By Tom Holmes
Would the Comcast building development have been voted down had the community organizing coalition, United Power for Action and Justice (UPAJ) not been pushing for it from the start of the approval process in January to the project's approval by the Oak Park Board of Trustees on May 23?
"I think United Power's involvement was critical," said Trustee Adam Salzman. "I think that at the policymaking level, it's much easier to talk in terms of dollars and cents. ... United Power's argument was a moral one — that this was the right and just thing to do. ... That sort of discourse is often missing from board discussion."
Trustees Glenn Brewer and Colette Lueck said that the facts presented to them, not the influence of United Power itself, determined how they voted.
"The trustees based their decision on the Findings of Fact and the record from the plan commission public hearing," Lueck said. "I think that United Power for Action and Justice was instrumental in providing to the plan commissioners and the board significant reasons for why the project met the standards in the Planned Development Ordinance. They also made sure that the board understood that there was significant public support for this project."
United Power for Action and Justice is a "broad-based citizen organization," according to UPAJ organizer Amy Totsch. It was founded in 1997 at the UIC Pavilion with 10,000 leaders from religious, civic and labor institutions across the city and suburbs in attendance.
Their website states: "United Power for Action and Justice is an independent, non-partisan, self-funding organization of churches, synagogues, mosques, civic, neighborhood, health, and ethnic institutions from across Cook County. These institutions have joined together to fight for social justice and the common good on issues of shared concern."
Present member organizations include faith communities like the Chicago Sinai Congregation, the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview and St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Park Ridge. Health care organizations like Advocate Health Care and the Lawndale Christian Health Center are members, along with community organizations like the Interfaith Leadership Project of Cicero, Berwyn & Stickney and the Southwest Organizing Project. Good Shepherd Lutheran, Euclid Ave. United Methodist and Ascension Catholic churches in Oak Park, the Progress Center for Independent Living in Forest Park and Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest all participate.
UPAJ was involved in the Comcast issue from the beginning. In fact, there might not have been a Comcast proposal had United Power not been addressing the affordable housing issue. Dave Roth, the director of Advocacy at Lutheran Child and Family Services in River Forest, helped spearhead the UPAJ campaign to approve the redevelopment of the Comcast property into affordable, integrated and accessible housing, an issue, Roth said, that has been in the mix for United Power almost from the beginning because the issues the coalition addresses are raised by the members themselves.
Jim Schwarber, a longtime member of United Power and Ascension Catholic Church, said, "One of UPAJ's signature issues has been affordable housing. We were instrumental in getting $145 million in the Capital Budget for affordable housing from the state of Illinois."
UPAJ got involved with the Comcast project, he said, by initiating it. He and other United Power leaders got together with Perry Vietti, C.O.O. of Interfaith Housing Development Corp., and Ed Solon, executive director of the Oak Park Housing Authority, to explore a model that could be used to redevelop the Comcast property. They liked what they saw, so the Housing Authority formed a partnership with Interfaith and Catholic Charities to redevelop the Comcast building.
Roth recalls becoming aware of the project last December and then reading a John Hubbuch column in Wednesday Journal, which, in effect, stated that Oak Park policy makers would talk the issue to death and would find some technical way to stop it.
"My goodness," Roth thought, "he's probably right." Roth resolved then and there to get more involved and not let the Comcast proposal fail for want of support and accurate information.
An informal group of about 18 local United Power leaders developed a strategy at the beginning of 2011, for coordinating with member institutions in this area and allies like Oak Park Temple and First United Church. The strategy to influence first the Oak Park Plan Commission and then the board of trustees to approve the proposal, according to Schwarber, included personal testimonies, signed post cards, an email campaign and a meeting at Ascension School where 186 United Power members and friends presented their argument to the four trustee candidates who showed up.
Bob Haisman, a First United member who "can see Comcast from my front porch," said the strategy was "positive, positive, positive." The six sessions with the plan commission and the two with the village trustees was "to make sure the decision makers knew there were reasonable people in support of affordable housing with rational and well thought out reasons [and] making sure there was a counter to misinformation, fear and conspiracy speculations.
"UP's supporters," Haisman added, "helped change the symbolic face of Comcast from scary, non-middle class strangers prone to inappropriate behavior if not outright crime to hard-working people with jobs who need a hand up and a chance."
Linda Hill lives in the neighborhood and admits to being initially "on the fence" about the redevelopment. That is, until she was able to tour an Interfaith development in the city. "Everything about the buildings, people, atmosphere and support services was top-notch," she said. "I think United Power made a big difference. United Power's efforts educated and encouraged supporters to work together and speak with a strong voice about what our community stands for."
Roth is attracted to United Power because "I value and give credit to United Power's focus on relationship building. As important as our values are, what really motivates me is building a relationship with the folks who will benefit."
One example of the power of relationships has been the participation of the Progress Center for Independent Living, whose clientele is suburban Cook County residents with disabilities. The Forest Park non-profit influenced United Power to add the words accessible and integrated to affordable in the project's proposal. Nancy Leonard, a Good Shepherd Church member who was involved in the Comcast campaign, said, "A new member of UPAJ, the Progress Center, widened the prospective tenant population to include persons with disabilities who are currently unable to afford to live independently due to income and the need for accessibility."
Roth gave credit to both the plan commission and to the village board for holding up their end of "the relationship." He acknowledged that the commission and the board put in a lot time on the issue and provided feedback that clarified elements of the plan and even improving it.
This is an example of how UPAJ has evolved away from tactics used by the godfather of community organizing in Chicago, Saul Alinsky, whose fundamental strategy was to unite the diverse elements in a coalition by helping them identify a common enemy. Totsch said UPAJ now talks about having "a common target," not a common enemy. Roth said the testimony offered by UPAJ members and friends was "totally respectful of the opposition."
Roth said this style of community organizing attracts religious groups to participate, and in turn the predominance of faith communities in United Power's membership encourages the style that attracted them in the first place.
"I think religion is a very important factor in United Power," he said. "My involvement in the organization comes through my church membership. I see the same motivation in my friends and colleagues at Ascension, Euclid Avenue Methodist, First United and Oak Park Temple. Many member organizations of United Power are non-religious, but its roots and its majority have definitely come out of faith-based groups."
Before anyone in United Power chalks the May 23rd vote to approve the Comcast project as a win, Roth cautioned, "My common sense tells me that all the steps along the way are going to require a supportive community. There are a lot of ways potentially to undermine a project as you move forward."
Trustee Bob Tucker added, "Those who testified or wrote emails and identified themselves as members of United Power provided some compelling — and at times touching — testimony, providing excellent examples of potential residents who might live at the development. They also presented comments from a broad policy perspective that should be useful as the village board continues to explore the issues of affordable and accessible housing in Oak Park."