One woman talked about her 16-year-old son who has been mentally disabled since suffering a trauma at age 5. Another woman worried about finding a new school for her seventh grader whose charter school is closing at the end of this year.
The town hall meeting on Chicago’s West Side drew about 45 women on Saturday morning looking for ways to improve education for their children. Community Organizing and Family Issues hosted the meeting as part of its campaign on early education.
“It is what we call organizing around the issues that are important to families, and having them be a spokesperson for those issues,” said Tracy Occomy Crowder, an organizer with the group. COFI-trained organizers have also undertaken the task of reforming school discipline policies and mandating recess for schoolchildren. The organization focuses its reform efforts on the West and South sides through its working arm, known as POWER-PAC.
Getting community members to participate in these efforts and help themselves is key to COFI’s work. To make participation easy for mothers on Saturday, the group served breakfast before the meeting, then provided care for the kids so the mothers could talk about their issues.
Attending town-hall meetings is just the first step, however. COFI also teaches low-income minority women how to be community organizers themselves so they can work on issues that affect them on a personal level. COFI uses a three-tiered system, said Kellie Magnuson, citywide policy organizer. The first phase allows participants to examine their personal lives and find common interests and concerns with other trainees. This phase is what makes COFI a unique organization, Crowder said.
The next phase is based on more traditional community organizing activities. It is here that program participants learn the basics of community organization by talking to their neighbors about community issues, learning how to approach politicians, all focused on the trainees’ own communities.
In the third phase, also known as POWER-PAC, the trainees work on an actual community campaign on a specific issue affecting low-income families, Crowder said. COFI organizers believe their participants’ unique experiences allow them to serve as an important voice for community issues.
“I think that a lot of times [officials] just think for [community members] and assume they know the best way to solve a problem instead of people who are impacted,” Crowder said. “And that is kind of where we come in.
"We are working with the moms and grandmoms and getting them at the table to have their voices heard, and getting them at the table and getting them to feel that they are an expert about the things going on in their life.” Lynn Morton, of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, went through COFI’s training five years ago and now is active in POWER-PAC and is a peer trainer. She said the training she received from COFI only further enhanced her desire to be active in her community.
“I was always pretty active and aware,” Morton said. “But my work with COFI just increased my desire to get involved with these issues.”