The School of Community Organization and the Center for Radical Research

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

In the summer of 1967, organizers in Chicago created a “School of Community Organization,” an outgrowth of the Chicago Freedom Movement. The program was intended to attract recruits from around the country, mainly to train Black and Latino organizers to work in Chicago neighborhoods. Chicago was a testing ground for movement work because it was considered the most segregated city of the north, with the most powerful political machine. While classes for organizers were held in Garfield Park, college students, most of whom were white, were advised they could participate by conducting research into topics essential to grassroots work in order to produce handbooks for the teaching and practice of community organizing. These students also had the opportunity to take “free university” classes with radical faculty and invited lecturers such as Staughton Lynd, Jesse Lemisch, Rennie Davis, Heather Booth and Naomi Weisstein. This collaboration at a distance between middle-class white college students and Black and Latino organizers followed the emerging Civil Rights movement ethos of “organize your own,” articulated by Stokely Carmichael in 1966.

An invitation to college students began by noting that students returning to campus from political work were finding their university coursework unsatisfying, and offered the Center for Radical Research as a “free university” alternative. “To meet the challenge offered by the political machine in Chicago and the economic sources which back that machine,” the Center’s typewritten brochure stated, “a union of community organizers in Chicago has formed the Union of Community Organization. The School hopes to give major impetus to a major attack on such problems as police brutality, high rents and slum housing by directly attempting to alter the existing power relationships between the Chicago Police Department and Chicago youth, and the landlord and tenant, the poor and the Democratic machine.” The call for participation articulated the goal that “independent ghetto organizations must be built on a ward basis which compete with the machine for power … A staff of 300 or more organizers must be recruited and trained and put to work helping Chicago’s powerless to build powerful, self-governing organizations.”

Classes were held on the University of Chicago campus under the umbrella of a “Center for Radical Research” that was a registered student organization (RSO) under the sponsorship of student government. They thus could use space on campus, including Ida Noyes Hall’s third-floor theater with its magnificent “Masque of Youth” mural. Ironically, some classes also met in the Chicago Theological Seminary building that, in 2008, was slated to house the controversial Milton Friedman Institute. College students assembled information on political and economic power in Chicago that could then be used as a resource for the School of Community Organization. Students were given the ambitious project of producing information and handbooks on an array of practical topics about the way the city of Chicago worked politically and economically (see below).

The School of Community Organization, located at 3101 West Warren Blvd. in the Garfield Park Neighborhood, circulated its own booklet aimed at recruiting a different audience. It promised a “major, new direction” for the movement. The organizing school offered general tools and strategies but was targeted specifically at Chicago, where “Courts work against the poor. Schools works against the poor. Employers work against the poor.” Trainees were asked to come live in Chicago for three months at a time and find part-time work to sustain themselves while studying techniques of community organizing. Classes were to be held on various topics: the community union model, the organizer in American history, types of community organizations, Black history, community theater, the role of the organizer, election law and regulations, the Chicago political machine, Vietnam, welfare union organizing, Chicago youth gangs, organizing parents, the good society, tenant union organizing, city planning and the poor, beginning the organization, communication, fundraising, and the history of the Chicago protest movement.

The collaboration was not without some tensions; the white college students, at times, felt shut out by the organizers, as they reported at the end of the summer to Skip Landt, then Director of Student Activities. Some also chafed at their assignments, perhaps not fully grasping the urgency of the nuts and bolts information they had been asked to assemble. The separation between the groups also allowed the students the umbrella of university sponsorship, which had practical benefits: meeting spaces and library resources. The university archives are silent on the outcome of the research the students produced, making these historical tidbits all the more tantalizing. What might it look like to re-create this project—an organizing guide for the city of Chicago—for the 21st century? ◊


Source: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. Office of Student Activities Records 1921-1981. Box 15, folder 6, “Center for Radical Research.”

Topics assigned to student researchers: Urban Renewal (in general), Current Urban Renewal, Public Housing Organizer’s Manual, Mortgage Blacklisting, Tax Assessment, Chicago Dwellings Association, Home Loan and Rehabilitation, History of Chicago Segregation, Tenant Housing Organizer’s Manual, Land Ownership, Model Cities, Relocation, Public Aid Housing Policy, Structure of Political Power (Political Money, Committeemen and Aldermen, Conflict of Interests Law, City Council Report, Precinct Captains, Ward Zoning Histories, Taxes, Judiciary, Executive Branch of the City Government, War Money, Demographic Ward Studies, Diagram of the Democratic Party), Health (Title 19 Manual, Ambulance, Neighborhood Health Facilities, Mental Health Guide), Education (Budget Breakdown, Federal Money, Building Program, Parents Groups), Labor (Labor and the Democratic Party, Negroes [in relation to union membership], Guide to Part-time Employment), Police (Staff, Harassment, Internal Investigation Division), Welfare (IUPAE, Organizer’s Manual, Recipients, Social Agencies), Communications (Weekly Dispatching Service, Neighborhood Newspaper Manual, Media in the City, Scoops), Consumers (Credit Manual, Profit in the Slums), Public Transportation (Rapid Transit).


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