I didn’t even know what “community organizing” was when I took a job as a community organizer.
I was fresh out of college and I wanted to offer some of my time and energy into full-time service work. Inner city Cleveland — specifically the old Slavic Village neighborhood — offered me the opportunity to do it. So I dove in, having no idea what my days would include.
The essential action, at least in the beginning, was something called “door-knocking,” which was exactly what you’d expect. I entered depressed neighborhoods, full of condemned homes and busted-up public spaces, and I knocked on doors.
Most had five or more locks or several large dogs as security. The area was a former Eastern European enclave now integrated into a combustible mix of young white and minority families and older, Polish folks — it was ripe for social change. Poverty was everywhere, but so was hard work and personal pride. People owned homes and wanted safe spaces for their children.
I was a young white guy from the suburbs looking to “do good,” but I had a lot to learn.
“Who is it?!”
“Um…it’s Migs. I’m with Slavic Village Development. I wanted to ask you about your neighborhood…?” I said through the locks and over the barking dogs.
Most of them spoke with me. They told me what concerned them. Though racial tensions were often at the forefront of their complaints, a city that had forgotten about them was at the root. Open, vacant, and vandalized homes were next door housing drug deals and prostitution. Too few new homes were built. Public transportation was lacking. Crime went unchecked. Neighbors didn’t trust neighbors.
One of the few institutions of pride, I found, was their hospital, St. Michael’s. It had been there for generations and had offered care for people in poverty well past the days that institutions could survive doing such work. It employed many who lived there. The elderly saw their doctors there. It was close and resembled home as much as LTV Steel, which, though on its last legs, was still producing and still employing.
But St. Michael’s was faltering. Cleveland is home to two of the largest and finest hospital systems in the country and the healthcare landscape was changing. Little, independent hospitals couldn’t remain viable, so either the large systems bought them up and consolidated beds, or those little guys faded away and became part of the growing surplus of empty and decaying buildings.
But the people of the Slavic Village wanted St. Michael’s. As a community organizer, I brought residents to planning meetings attended by stakeholders and local politicians. We made plans to bring in other businesses to increase the hospital’s viability and keep it thriving into the next generation. It created hope.
One Sunday I got a call from my boss. One of those giant hospital systems had made a deal with the mayor to buy St. Michael’s and two other small facilities owned in collaboration. The plan was to close St. Michael’s. One of the other facilities was in the suburbs and specialized in geriatric care. It made money. St. Michael’s did not.
So our efforts were nothing more than a farce intended to make the neighborhood believe that the city cared and legitimately tried to save their proud institution. I thought it would end there, just another disappointment for people who had become accustomed to such “progress.”
But that was not to be so. The people of the Slavic Village were not about to let their hospital go, nor were they prepared to let money and backroom deals determine the fate of their communal future. From the first day, they fought.
And they taught me how to do my job as well as what I needed to do to serve them: they demanded that I help them fight, that I give them the tools to win. They didn’t need me to do it for them. They needed me to serve them. Overnight, I became a community organizer — a real one.
We marched and protested daily. The residents taught me to sing “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not be Moved.” When politicians wanted to grandstand, we gathered to hold them accountable. A United States Congressman was using a Mass at a local Catholic church as a publicity opportunity when he was a self-proclaimed atheist, and we told him, to his face, that he had to do better.
When the mayor held a meeting at St. Michael’s to defend his secret negotiations to hospital board members, a nurse tipped us off. In the middle of his meeting, I ushered in a wheelchair-bound senior who lived in an assisted living facility next to St. Michael’s. She received all of her care at St Mike’s. I seated her next to the mayor and left.
“I gave it to him good, Migs,” she said. I knew she would. And what was he going to do? Throw her out?
For two months we were the lead story on the news and in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The city council held publicized hearing after publicized hearing. One of the two large hospital systems had bought St. Michael’s to close it, and we stood outside the office of the CEO of the other large hospital system until he was forced to comment. A group of us almost got arrested when we assembled along the route of the motorcade on a day the President happened to be passing through Cleveland. We just wanted him to see us and the words “Save Our Hospital.” He did.
Because of the public pressure we applied, hospital number two was forced to buy St. Michael’s to keep it open. We got the first meeting with the CEO before he met to explain it to the council. Or the mayor. Or our representative in Congress.
It didn’t end there. These residents felt the weight of their new power. They saw that all of the slick and polished men seemingly in control of their destiny weren’t in control at all.
These people weren’t done with me, either — they wanted to do more. So we increased public transportation after the city told us they wouldn’t do it. We created an initiative to have new, market-rate housing built. Buildings that had been condemned for years and not yet demolished because “funds were unavailable” came down in bunches. Our city councilman’s entire annual budget for public space improvement went to our little park in the center of the community.
A resident who had stepped forward during the St. Michael’s campaign seemed to be the perfect leader for the effort to improve public transportation, so I asked her to chair the movement. She was dazzled by what she could do. She stared down the head of the transportation authority, publicly, and forced him to agree to our demands.
“Now how did you know I could do that, Migs?” She was in her late 60s and retired. Months prior she was known to only a handful of residents in a nursing home. Now she was receiving offers to sit on boards across the city.
I’ve often thought that her question is at the heart of community organizing because the answer is that I didn’t know any such thing. I just know, from experience, that once we start moving together, the force is often too great to stop. Governments can’t stop it. Money can’t stop it. Those are just ideas anyway, constantly in flux and afforded far more reverence then they’re often due.
Listening to one another and committing to our shared, common good is always going to be the right answer. But getting to where such things are possible requires a leap of faith — to come out from behind locked doors, to talk to each other, to fight together for what’s most important. That faith, as witnessed in the people of Slavic Village, can save hospitals and neighborhoods. It’s much more than an idea — it’s a real thing, one you can see and touch and experience. As such, it’s capable of winning any battle.
It all taught me hope when I was younger. And I still carry that gift with me.