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Get Organized

Turning community organizing into a tool of empowerment

The man who trained Chicago's most famous community organizer has a new assignment. Jerry Kellman is back working in some of the same Chicago communities where he and Barack Obama organized laid-off factory workers more than 20 years ago.

Now the associate state director for outreach at AARP Illinois, Kellman oversees a pilot project that trains older African American and Hispanic adults to do community organizing where they live. By helping them develop what Kellman calls "public skills," they can communicate and resolve some of the problems plaguing their own lives and neighborhoods.

Kellman said AARP is investing heavily in training community leaders. "Community organizing will allow people to do things for themselves, which means they have to be trained, so they have the skills and understanding to solve problems for themselves," he said.

Why is it important? Twenty percent of Illinois residents over 65 are minorities, and 8.5 percent of older Illinoisans live at or below the poverty level.

Kellman and five community organizers are working with several organizations — Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, Gamaliel Metro Chicago, South Suburban Action Conference and the Community Renewal Society — on Chicago's South, West and Northwest Sides and the South Suburbs.

Community organizing arose as a priority after AARP Illinois worked with a diverse coalition on legislation to reform nursing homes. One of the issues was an unacceptable disparity in how African Americans were treated in Chicago's for-profit nursing homes. The bill, signed by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in July, protects all nursing home residents from violence, requires more frequent inspections and imposes mandatory staffing levels.

AARP's organizing efforts blossomed, including these two projects under way:

  • In Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, one of the area's largest Latino hubs, AARP is working with allies on access to public transportation. For years, the Alivio Medical Center has tried to persuade the Chicago Transit Authority to change a bus route so older adults and parents accompanied by small children do not have to walk several blocks to reach the clinic. Until now, the CTA has refused. Recently Alivio helped develop a new housing complex on its property, called Casa Maravilla, to serve adults 55 and older. The nonprofit developers of Casa Maravilla also need the change in the bus route. AARP is working with other groups to persuade the CTA to change the route.
  • In the South Suburbs, a number of communities are plagued by high crime rates. As a consequence, older people are afraid to leave their homes, which affects their health and isolates them from friends and family. AARP is working with the South Suburban Action Conference, a faith-based organization, to create safe zones within several towns, and provide safe access to transportation so residents aren't prisoners in their own homes.

In all these projects, the goal is outreach to Hispanics and African Americans, who Kellman said are underrepresented in AARP in proportion to the population.

AARP is taking an expansive view of livability in minority communities, Kellman said.

"For people to remain in their community, they need to be able to afford housing. They need transportation, they need health care, places to shop where they can find healthy food, they need access to other generations so they're not isolated. All these things create livable communities for people as they get older."

Cassandra West is a freelance writer-photographer based in Chicago.

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