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Making it Happen in Bankrupt Midwestern Cities

Making it Happen in Bankrupt Midwestern Cities

By Kirk Noden

I sometimes like to describe my first seven years of organizing in Chicago as shaking oranges from a tree. Our strategy was simple. We would build pocket power organizations rooted in two or three low-income/working class neighborhoods.  We would round up our troops, march down to City Hall, the alderman’s office, the local developer, or whoever had the resources, and shake the orange tree for our communities. After some thorough shaking through various means, we would collect the oranges in baskets and bring them back to our neighborhoods… winning new school buildings, affordable housing set asides, more police patrols, and even jobs.

When I first moved to Youngstown Ohio, I did what organizers do and applied the same tried and true strategy.  I rounded up the troops and headed to City Hall.  But nothing happened.  There wasn’t a big development deal to disrupt. 

I began to understand that organizing is fundamentally different in the Midwest and it has implications for the rest of the country.

City Council didn’t have any money to invest in its neighborhoods to fight over.  Instead, the city was grappling with how to deal with losing nearly two thirds of its population and 27,000 vacant properties.

It took me about a year to understand that the tree was in fact barren. It was counterintuitive to what I had been taught in my first ten years of organizing: that the money was always there, just hidden or misdirected, that local organizing could impact issues of inequality.

Even though I had grown up in Ohio, I essentially had no idea what was happening here.

I began to understand that organizing is fundamentally different in the Midwest and it has implications for the rest of the country.

I couldn’t initially comprehend the contrast of working to deal with the impacts of gentrification (driven by overinvestment) versus people’s homes being worth virtually nothing to the point where inner city houses in Youngstown are sold on eBay for $5,000.  I began to understand that organizing is fundamentally different in the Midwest and it has implications for the rest of the country.

This difference is perhaps best illustrated in the fight over Detroit’s bankruptcy. While nationally it is often viewed as an isolated story or an anomaly–it encapsulates the crisis that faces older industrial cities all across the Midwest and is the first of what will be many collapses. Every single one of Ohio’s major cities, with the exception of Columbus, has been in a 40-year tailspin with massive population loss, increasing poverty, racial segregation, and decreasing opportunity for the people who live there.  A census study of population trends between 2010 and 2012 of cities found that 90 percent of the 729 cities over 50,000 people experienced population growth during that period. 

The cities of Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, Canton, Dayton, Cincinnati, and Toledo all have child poverty rates above 45 percent, with four of those cities having more than half of all the children living in poverty

Of the 73 cities that had a decline in population, 14–or roughly 1 in 5–are in Ohio, and Youngstown was the only city to lose more than 2 percent of its population during that time.

The Midwest has been on the front line of a great American economic restructuring over the last forty years where wealth has been stripped out of working class and middle class families.  The recent recession has further exacerbated this restructuring, with devastating results for those most vulnerable.  The cities of Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, Canton, Dayton, Cincinnati, and Toledo all have child poverty rates above 45 percent, with four of those cities having more than half of all the children living in poverty. A recent study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors on how the country’s large metro areas will fare in jobs recovery (a report that did not look at quality of jobs, but just quantity) tells the story of two Americas.  One set of cities (places like New York, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Trenton) have already recovered jobs lost.  In Ohio the cities of Toledo, Dayton, Youngstown, Springfield, Mansfield, Steubenville, Sandusky, and Lima are not expected to replace the number of jobs lost during the last recession until after 2023.

It is in this midst of this crisis that community organizing has been forced to evolve and to think bigger. The possibility for an Ohio turnaround is unlikely unless there is a dramatic re-imagining of its economy, a complete reversal in regressive tax policy, and a mass movement of community members and workers who demand social and economic justice.  Local community organizing on its own, no matter how well designed and executed, cannot achieve these things.

For the past six years, we’ve been working to build the kind of power in Ohio that can respond to these challenges. One, we’ve constructed a statewide network of community, faith, and labor, organizations committed to long-term permanent alliances, as opposed to coming together sporadically around the latest campaign, contract fight, or election. Second, we’ve begun to innovate by developing new projects and campaigns that address issues of scale, nimbleness, layered strategies, electoral capacity, and breadth of leadership development.  The OOC has given birth to projects like Ohio Prophetic Voices which is organizing evangelical churches for immigration reform and the Ohio Student Association fighting student debt and the privatization of public universities. In 2012, we registered more than 40,000 people to vote and made more than 500,000 voter contacts connecting issues of vacant properties and mass incarceration to elections and policy and mobilizing unlikely voters to get out to the polls. 

Community organizers and activists in the Midwest are uniquely positioned.

And last, we have begun to develop an economic and organizing agenda that address de-industrialization and the decades-long decline of urban cores in the Midwest (see NPA’s long term agenda or OOC’s strategy paper on economic revitalization).

But perhaps more importantly, we’ve admitted that we’ve been failing for the past 40 years on all the things we care about. We’ve been losing ground on poverty, workers rights, racial equity, and opportunity for our children. And when we usually “win” like we did when we overturned SB5, the state’s anti-collective bargaining measure, these are defensive fights where we are protecting the status quo, not advancing innovative progressive policy.

Community organizers and activists in the Midwest are uniquely positioned.  What we’ve been doing up until this point to address economic and social justice issues has not been working, so it should be easier for us to let go, think bigger and longer term, and take the risks that are so desperately needed to catalyze new social movements in America.  And this work is beginning to happen in places like Ohio, Minnesota, and Michigan.  The Midwest is not only the place where presidential elections are decided every four years, but it is a key battleground for the future of the working class in this country.

Kirk Noden is the executive director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative/Ohio Organizing Campaign, a non-profit started in 2007 that unites community organizing groups, labor unions, faith organizations, and policy institutes across the state.

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1 Comment responses

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    January 27, 2014

    Good article. As a (former?) local organizer in Youngstown and having worked with/for Kirk, I agree in general. However, I also believe that local organizing & neighborhood development is still very important because there’s a great deal of room for improvement in individual communities. In some cases and with some issues, it can help lay the groundwork for larger change. Like with most things when trying to improve distressed urban communities, the answer is: ‘all of the above’.

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