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American Dream Betrayed

Will Chicago's Nonprofit Community Play a Role in Electing the Next Mayor?

I'm going out a limb and just answer my own question straight away: No.

I don't see the leaders and managers the thousands of social service, cultural and educational organizations that serve hundreds of thousand of people every week taking much of a role in electing the next mayor of Chicago.

That's not to say they shouldn't take an active role.

There may still be time if they decide they want to.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Due to state and local budget woes, area nonprofits are being decimated. Many are operating in a state of perpetual crisis. Here's the result of a recent survey of social service providers in Cook County conducted by Illinois Partners for Human Service.


services.jpeg

I call the state of affairs for nonprofits in Illinois "Death by a Thousand Cuts" - over time every line item is squeezed and nonprofit programs and workers are asked to do more with less. This is especially true in miserable financial times when people seek help in record numbers.

We bailed out the banks, the insurance companies, General Motors and Goldman Sachs to the tune of trillions of dollars. But all over America, our states, counties and cities are awash in red ink and are cutting back services and even considering declaring bankruptcy.

Our stalwart nonprofit sector is stretched and stressed out to the max. No one is bailing them out.

I've lost count of how many desperate e-mails I've received over the past six months from everyone from Voices for Illinois Children to The Responsible Budget Coalition to Arts Alliance Illinois. They are all begging me to e-mail or call someone.

So what's on tap for Chicago's mayoral election? For the first time in a couple of generations, a Daley isn't on the ballot and there is a fleeting sense of democracy stirring here.

This would be a great time for those progressive social-change champions who have been working and fighting for community development, education reform, a clean environment and social justice to come together and (a) assess the results of the Daley Era and (b) articulate a set of priorities that a new mayor must address.

But Chicago's (and, by extension, Illinois') nonprofit organizations should do much more.

They need to establish a sense of intentionality to play power politics and then they need to organize to deliver the goods. They need to instill a desire to fight and develop the skills to win in the world of politics and policy. They need to seek out and develop young leaders who will someday run for local office and whose personal values and priorities reflect what I call "The Human Agenda" that drives all nonprofits that I've seen or been associated with - that is, the desire to serve partnered with the ingenuity to invent new solutions to tough problems. How about a Human Agenda PAC to back those candidates with cash, volunteers and creative resources?

Don't bother to dismiss this idea by saying nonprofits can't engage in politics. The organizations can't but their leaders certainly can. The standard way is to create an ad hoc campaign committee. Committee members can list their names and positions with a disclaimer that their organizations are listed for identification purposes only.

I ran into a longtime nonprofit consultant and board member last week and we had a conversation along these lines. "It's the rules," she said, explaining why nonprofit leaders don't engage in this manner. "It's not about rules," I said, "It's habit and fear."

So how about the organizations and associations that serve and train the various nonprofit categories - education, health care, the arts, social services, etc., - getting together and starting down this path. Let them create a new instrumentality to do this work if necessary.

Come on, nonprofit leaders - take advantage of a literally once in a lifetime opportunity here and get involved in the 2011 election for Chicago's mayor. You can be sure every other sector of the local economy is playing. Just look at who gives who money.

A wise political operative told me a very simple rule for impacting politics. "Elected officials have a reptilian brain," he told me. "They want to know if you can help them or hurt them." It's a simple calculus. If you can help and hurt the candidate, then they listen to you. If you can do neither, then you are invisible to them. Worse, if your enemies can help and/or hurt the elected official then you are at grave risk for being attacked politically and having your programs cut.

Hey, all you artists, arts managers, creative professionals and lovers of freedom of expression - remember Culture Wars? We lost that war and America's arts and creative sector is still paying for it.

It's much more than lobbying and explaining the reasons why and how Chicago's nonprofits do so much for so many. You've got to show how you can help or hurt a candidate in order to be taken seriously.

It's the oldest political game in town. It's time for Chicago's - and America's - nonprofits to suit up and get on the field.

If you don't exert your influence now, then reconcile yourself to another four years of cuts, squeezes, unpaid contracts, and unrelenting pressure to do more with less. That's what you do best, isn't it?

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Tom Tresser is an educator, organizer and consultant. He was the Green Party candidate for Cook County Board President in the November 2010 election.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on January 5, 2011


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