Introducing: Student Tenant Organizing Project

“Let us in to see the plans they’re rolling out for our community!” says Marie Goodwin, an elderly poet and Woodlawn tenant, standing at the entrance to the Hilton Hotel downtown on a hot July day.

“U of C is Exclusionary” reads a sign held by a University of Chicago student next to her in the thick crowd of community members and students gathered to question exactly what kind of “new community” is being planned for Woodlawn.


“Homeowners, we are next. Our taxes shoot up if those buildings go condo!” says a Woodlawn homeowner to a packed room of homeowners and tenants in a church basement in Woodlawn.

A large group of students in a campus coffee shop listens to Woodlawn community members tell how the “El” tracks came down, what the university and developers have done and are doing in their neighborhood, and how the community is fighting back.

Organizers fighting gentrification in Humboldt Park, Pilsen and Woodlawn share stories and perspectives from the struggles to stop displacement of low-income and working class people.

A cross-section of community members and students fill a church in Woodlawn where the Kimbark Tenants Association forces a HUD representative to step in and make management take care of neglected building repairs.

These are some scenes of solidarity playing out in the work of a new organizing project on the south side called STOP.

Emerging, grove parc and the university

The Student/Tenant Organizing Project (STOP) works to identify and build grassroots leadership around issues of community concern in Woodlawn. We focus on issues that advance a racial and economic justice agenda and impact large numbers of people. The backdrop for all of our work is the ongoing gentrification and displacement of African-American residents of Woodlawn. STOP emerged in 2004 when Woodlawn East Community And Neighbors (wecan) proposed to a group of University of Chicago students who had been researching gentrification and urban issues on the south side that the two groups launch a collaboration aimed at STOPping displacement in Woodlawn. The idea was that student activists, rather than just concentrating on national and international issues, could learn from and make connections between these issues and the displacement of working class and low-income people just a few blocks south of their campus. Woodlawn is a neighborhood with a rich history of social and political struggle and a long tradition of community organizing. For decades the neighborhood has been home to an array of civil rights organizers, black power activists, community organizations, musicians, and artists. In the 1960s, residents forced the University of Chicago to halt its southward expansion at 61st St. and built power to address a wide array of community issues. The idea behind STOP was to build a principled solidarity based not on service, hand-outs or dependence but rather mutual learning and action to address displacement in Woodlawn. Immediately, questions emerged: what role would students play? Who would train the student and tenant organizers? Which buildings should we start with? How can real trust and solidarity be built given the transitory nature of students? How could we avoid the fate of large organizations in the neighborhood that had started as powerful vehicles for social change but gradually sold out and became conduits for the gentrification of the community? How would the new organization be structured? Where could it get funding without compromising its values?

We started by identifying a core group that consisted of both Woodlawn community members and dedicated student and alumni activists; then we began to build trust and develop ideas for specific issues to tackle. After numerous false starts, by the summer of 2004 a consolidated, balanced group had emerged and almost simultaneously the first issue fell into our lap— a document we obtained showing that the University of Chicago was considering acquiring large tracts of land in Woodlawn, including the 500-unit subsidized complex Grove Parc, home to nearly half of the project-based Section 8 housing in the neighborhood. Quickly, the core group, which was made up of four Woodlawn residents and three U of C students/alumni, researched subsidized housing and the rights of tenants and launched STOP with its first organizing drive.

KTA—getting organized

From day one, STOP was founded on the idea of solidarity—not just tenant/student solidarity, but homeowner/tenant solidarity, cross-racial solidarity, worker-community solidarity, and inter-generational solidarity. After forcing a public commitment from the University not to acquire Grove Parc, numerous homeowners and tenants approached STOP with concerns over the New Communities Program planning process taking place in Woodlawn. Led by the program’s fiscal agents—the University, The Woodlawn Organization (wto), and the Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corporation (wpic)—the New Communities Program process had included little or no input from community members facing potential displacement. All committees were controlled by members of the three fiscal agents, and questions about the preservation and expansion of affordable housing were constantly sidelined. One of the fiscal agents and authors of the plan, wto, was in the process of telling its 100 tenants of 5 buildings to get out of their buildings so they could be converted to condos. This experience of exclusion and lack of information created what some consider an uncommon alliance. In contrast to the commonly held belief that all homeowners want subsidized tenants off their block, we found numerous homeowners who recognized the need for solidarity with subsidized tenants to STOP the whole community from being displaced as a result of rising rents and property taxes. The result was the formation of the Kimbark Tenants Association (kta) and some major victories—not just securing continued affordability of the buildings, but also winning major repairs and maintenance improvements.

Woodlawn homeowner P.J. Humphries describes these early efforts as, “a united effort, solidarity in progress. … Holding on to eviction notices, and repeating verbal threats from greedy intimidating land owners and property managers, this dual combination of students and tenants raised their voices, marched, wrote the federal government and appealed to the media in solidarity to STOP the illegal removal of tenants from their residences,” recalls P.J. Nonetheless, there have been consistent challenges and barriers to tenant/homeowner solidarity that we also must acknowledge. The people who are profiting off the gentrification of communities like Woodlawn, namely developers and large institutions such as the University of Chicago, have long sown seeds of division within the community. Rather than talking about the need for safe and decent affordable housing, living-wage jobs, and more opportunities for youth, the business-controlled media and the University-created and -controlled South East Chicago Commission focus on crime as if it occurred in a vacuum. The attempt to criminalize youth is one way to divide the generations and create an excuse to displace people to make way for the massive profits that come with “re-development.” Rather than play into the divisions sown by the media and other vested interests, STOP has worked to build unity. The results of this include a balanced turnout of tenants and homeowners to protest the New Communities Program as well as the ongoing participation of homeowners in the kta’s campaigns to preserve and improve their complex.

Growth—making room for new roles

As STOP won victories and began to grow, we encountered another challenge directly tied to our vision of solidarity. More and more people wanted to volunteer and help out, yet we had no clear way of plugging them in to the organization. It was difficult to separate tasks that require long-term relationship-building from those that were more routine. We had been working hard to develop community leaders and organizers capable of taking on the majority of STOP’s day-to-day work, and were consequently neglecting student involvement. We were fearful that STOP would be perceived as a group of students organizing the community rather than what it has become and what we always envisioned it as being—a community-led organization harnessing the involvement of a diversity of people as organizers, leaders, and allies. We took a major step toward overcoming this barrier by creating a group specifically meant to serve as an entry point: a space in which people could learn and educate their peers about issues on the south side without needing to become organizers or make long-term commitments.

This group, the Southside Solidarity Network (SSN), has become an excellent embodiment of solidarity within STOP. SSN brings tenant leaders to speak on campuses to recruit support for their struggles, and also hosts an impressive educational series that educates the campus community on present and historical struggles in Chicago, as well as working with STOP on identifying and fulfilling research needs. Reflecting on the importance of a recent event the group hosted in Woodlawn combining art, music and community issue discussions, U of C student Thomas Kelley-Kemple described the importance of such events to building solidarity amongst students: “As far as many students here are concerned, they would be all-too-willing to push gentrification south of 61st Street. What we have done is exposed them to the reality that there already exists something there worth preserving: a vibrant neighborhood full of people.” As such comments show, the ssn is creating opportunities for students to participate in action-based instead of service-based learning. Part of the effectiveness of the ssn has resulted from using organizing tools to develop the group. STOP organizers had intentional conversations to recruit and retain prospective members, identified students with strong personal motivation to get involved in the community, and worked to create a group that could best use the students’ skills, talents and passions in the struggles taking place in Chicago generally and on the south side in particular. STOP nonetheless continues to face the challenge of creating avenues for effective involvement for newcomers directly in STOP’s work. While we took on three of the students from the ssn as interns for the 2005–2006 school year, we need to do a lot of work to better use our interns in ways that develop their skills and experience while simultaneously benefiting STOP and its other member organizations.

Reaching out to broader struggles

Solidarity for STOP is not just about connecting constituencies we work with, but also linking our work to broader struggles. A recent example of this was our work to turn out Woodlawn residents to the immigrant rights marches and foster dialogue in the community about black/brown relations and the potential power of unity. Following the May 1st march, STOP leader and Woodlawn homeowner Wardell Lavender remarked, “The African-Americans and Latinos need to march side by side. This might give people in our community an initiative to unite just like the Latinos, so we can show force in numbers. People sometimes say that ‘they’re just coming to take our jobs, they should stay in their country,’ but some people begin to understand that people from all over the world are being displaced and need to look for a country that can offer a job, something so they can take care of their family, where there’s opportunity, they go.”

Echoing this analysis and explicitly connecting the two communities’ experiences of displacement, Lonnie Richardson, president of a tenant council at Grove Parc, said, “The immigrants being used as cheap labor takes me back to how this country was built on our backs as black people through slavery. The government’s been on the backs of people of color and it’s about time we demonstrate that we’re all tired of it. I think it’s unfair for you to be used as slave labor just cause you came across illegal. Immigrants have come here and been exploited from all over. We were brought over here by force, and there still are forms of slave labor, even with blacks, look at all the prison labor, that’s a form of slave labor, of cheap labor. We got a border right here in the United States with the blacks, especially the black young men. They set them up with no jobs, no good education, not enough social services, then they do something to survive and wind up as prison labor, just like the Latinos, who do something to survive and end up as slave labor. What I would like to see is for the Latinos to support us also in the demand for reparations. I think that could happen if some of the black people who are for reparations get with the groups that we are in touch with on this issue. That would be amazing. What I really got out of it is that what we are doing in our neighborhoods, we can do it, if we unite. This sends a big signal, not only here in Chicago but across the country. The amazing thing about it was that this was going on all over the place.” Both comments are solidarity at its best—support for each other’s demands with the expectation of reciprocation and a commitment to unity.

STOP is attempting to challenge conventions in organizing that tell us people will only do what is in their narrowly-defined “self-interest.” While recognizing the importance of self-interest in getting and keeping people active, we also remain committed to continually pushing the boundaries of the “self” in self-interest and, in so doing, developing a way of understanding and confronting the systems of oppression this society is based on. We do not think it is enough for students to want to “get involved in the community,” rather we challenge them to look at the power relations that their own university maintains. We do not think it is enough to just bring together people from different races who share common issues or concerns, but instead strive to address race and class head on in all the work we do. We do not think that developing strong organizations is a goal in and of itself if there is no work done along the way to define the values those organizations exist to fight for. A person might initially involve themselves in STOP or one of our member groups because of a leaky roof. Before too long, he or she will realize that other tenants have similar issues, and seek unity. In forging this unity, tenants may then realize that other buildings are experiencing similar problems, and in fact that other communities are also having them. Through continued struggle, reflection, and dialogue, the goal is to get at the root of these problems, not just to fix the immediate situation but to use that situation as an entry point into the broader struggle for justice taking place in this country and around the world.

To contact STOP, email STOPGentrification@gmail.com