Meet the Community Organizers Fighting Against … Barack Obama. Locals in the former president’s hometown worry that the new Obama Center will leave them out.
It’s the ultimate in irony: The world’s most famous ex-community organizer is facing a minor uprising from the community where his presidential center is supposed to be built—the same community, in fact, where he got his start in politics.
The center’s troubles became clear last September, when Jeanette Taylor, the education director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, walked into the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago with something on her mind. She was there for a public meeting with officials from the Obama Foundation, the entity that is building the Obama Center—a monument to the career of former President Barack Obama for which construction is scheduled to begin later this year in Woodlawn, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Taylor so wanted to be first in line for the microphone that nearly a dozen of her fellow community organizers had camped out overnight to save her a spot at the front of the line to get into the event.
As she entered the hotel ballroom, Taylor expected to interrogate a member of the foundation’s staff. Instead, she found herself face to face with Obama himself, appearing by video conference from Washington.
“The library is a great idea, but what about a community benefits agreement?” Taylor asked, referring to a contract between a developer and community organizations that requires investments in, or hiring from, a neighborhood where a project is built. “The first time investment comes to black communities, the first to get kicked out is low-income and working-class people. Why wouldn’t you sign a CBA to protect us?”
Measured as always, Obama began by telling Taylor, “I was a community organizer.” Then he said, “I know the neighborhood. I know that the minute you start saying, ‘Well, we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that’ … next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork.”
The answer infuriated Taylor, who pays $1,000 a month for the Woodlawn apartment she shares with her mother and two children, and is worried that the Obama Center’s cachet will drive up neighborhood rents. Months later, she is still furious at the former president.
“He got a lot of nerve saying that,” Taylor told me. “He forgotten who he is. He forgot the community got him where he is.”
Taylor is not alone in her complaint. Since 2016, more than a dozen local groups—neighborhood organizations, labor unions and tenants’ rights activists—have come together to form the Obama Library South Side Community Benefits Coalition, which is pushing the library to account for local needs. At the University of Chicago, where Obama once taught at the law school, more than 100 faculty members signed a letter in January supporting the demands of local organizers. “There are concerns that the Obama Center as currently planned will not provide the promised development or economic benefits to the neighborhoods,” the letter reads. “It looks to many neighbors that the only new jobs created will be as staff to the Obama Center.”
Although the Obama Foundation has signed a private agreement with its contractors that guarantees minority hiring, local activists say it doesn’t provide enough public oversight of the project or address the issue of gentrification. It’s an ongoing battle that activists have taken all the way to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office, and that may have implications for next year’s aldermanic elections.
Obama now finds himself on the receiving end of the same demands his younger self once made to crusty Chicago politicians he derided as “ward heelers.” But, as the dispute plays out, Obama the former president is far more powerful than the City Hall bureaucrats and state senators he once badgered for resources—maybe too powerful for organizers to rally against.
Barack Obama moved to Chicago in 1985 to take a job as director of the Developing Communities Project, a community organization founded to help Far South Side neighborhoods that were struggling because of steel mill closures. During his three years with the group—a period recounted in his memoir, Dreams from My Father—Obama lobbied City Hall to build an employment center in a poor black neighborhood, and led a sit-in at the offices of the Chicago Housing Authority to demand asbestos cleanup in two public housing projects. He left organizing for Harvard Law School in 1988 because, as he told an early mentor, he was tired of begging politicians for handouts. He wanted to be on the inside, where he believed the real power to inspire and organize people lay.
It is probably no surprise to Obama that activists in the neighborhood he chose for his presidential library are now clamoring for a place at the table: Woodlawn is one of the birthplaces of community organizing. Saul Alinsky, whose book Rules for Radicals informed Obama’s own organizing, helped found The Woodlawn Organization to battle the expansion of the University of Chicago (which today is proposing to build a 15-story hotel for Obama Center visitors). The campaign for a community benefits agreement is part of a tradition that both predates Obama’s arrival in Chicago and made his career there possible in the first place.
The Obama Center isn’t scheduled to open until 2021, but it’s already being touted as a residential amenity by realtors. Perhaps as a result, the real estate website Redfin named Woodlawn the third-hottest neighborhood of 2017, reporting a 23.3 percent increase in home values in the first six months of that year. Woodlawn is a poor, African-American neighborhood adjacent to middle-class Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago. Woodlawn residents worry that their neighborhood is an ideal target for gentrification, and that the center will raise rents. Jeanette Taylor originally moved to Woodlawn because she was priced out of Bronzeville, a historically black neighborhood closer to downtown that Chicago Agent magazine calls “the next most-desired neighborhood for developers and homebuyers.” Taylor says she doesn’t want to move again, and she is surely not the only one—just 24 percent of Woodlawn residents own their homes.
The contract that community organizers are demanding—the “community benefits agreement”—would require the city to freeze property taxes within a 2-mile radius of the Obama Center and guarantee “a significant guaranteed set-aside of new housing for low-income housing in the area surrounding” the center. It would also require the foundation to establish a trust fund for nearby public schools and small businesses, and mandate that 80 percent of library construction jobs go to South Side residents.
“The community benefits agreement isn’t to stick it to the former president,” says Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “CBAs have been crafted across the country for all types of developments, in places where developers have gone into a community and used public assets.”
Developers frequently sign CBAs to build neighborhood goodwill that in turn helps them win permits from local governments, says Virginia Parks, a CBA expert who teaches urban planning at the University of California-Irvine and formerly taught at the University of Chicago. Some well-known examples include the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which devoted $1 million to parks and agreed to pay a living wage for 70 percent of its jobs; and Columbia University, which built a $30 million public school and $20 million in affordable housing in exchange for expanding into West Harlem.
“[CBAs] evolved initially because communities couldn’t get traction within the public arena,” Parks said. “The organizing effort put pressure on the city. Elected officials would say, ‘If I’m going to approve this, I’m going to need you to work out some agreement with these people, who are my voters.’”
The Obama Foundation has tried to ease neighborhood anxieties by pointing out the steps it has taken to address hiring concerns. The foundation signed a contract with its construction team, the Lakeside Alliance, a consortium of five mostly minority-owned businesses selected specifically for its diversity. The contract has not been made public, but the foundation says it requires that half the $300 million in subcontracts be extended to businesses owned by minorities, women, veterans, people with disabilities and LGBTQ individuals. According to the foundation, the contract also calls for a “significant percentage of the total project work hours” to go to “minorities and residents from the project’s neighboring communities,” and imposes financial penalties for failing to meet these benchmarks. The foundation is seeking a diversity consultant to ensure those goals are met.
Foundation officials say the CBA agreement sought by local organizers simply does not make sense in these circumstances. The center—which will include a 235-foot tower, a Chicago Public Library branch and a campus on 19.3 acres of parkland—is, in itself, “a community benefit: a museum to upgrade a public park,” David Simas, the foundation’s CEO and Obama’s former political director in the White House, said in an interview. “This is not a private project. The model doesn’t fit.” Negotiating with community organizations, foundation officials argue, will just slow down construction of a project that stands to benefit the South Side economically.
An economic impact study commissioned by the Obama Foundation forecasts that the center will create 5,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent jobs on the campus and in the surrounding area after it opens in 2022. The study estimates the center will create $2 billion in economic activity for the South Side over the next decade. Parks, the CBA expert at UC-Irvine, predicts that most new jobs will be positions at the center itself, and that the “multiplier effect”—in which new employees demand more goods and services, which in turn leads to more new jobs—won’t be significant. The best thing the center can do for the neighborhood, she believes, is to pay its employees well. “There’s no reason security guards and cafeteria workers can’t be paid a living wage,” she said.
Michael Strautmanis, the Obama Foundation’s vice president of civic engagement, estimates he has held between 300 and 400 meetings with community members—often including the groups campaigning for a CBA. Strautmanis, who has known Obama since they both worked at Chicago’s Sidley Austin law firm and was also a White House aide, shares his boss’ view that a CBA is not “the right tool. He doesn’t want to spend his time negotiating with whatever community organization comes out of the woodwork to claim they represent the community,” Strautmanis says.
That answer has not satisfied some organizers, who say the Lakeside Alliance contract lacks sufficient independent monitoring and noncompliance penalties. Now, the fight is entering local politics. At January’s City Council meeting, Alderman Leslie Hairston, whose ward encompasses Woodlawn, held a news conference with other African-American aldermen to praise the Lakeside Alliance contract, but she was shouted down by protesters chanting “CBA! CBA!” Ordinarily, Hairston’s opposition would close the matter. Chicago’s tradition of “aldermanic privilege” gives aldermen final say over projects in their ward. But neighbors angry at Hairston’s opposition are discussing running a pro-CBA candidate in next February’s election.
Hairston, for her part, believes the Lakeside Alliance adequately addresses activists’ concerns about minority hiring, and that the CBA wish list is asking too much of the Obama Foundation: “They’re building a center. They can’t solve all the problems of the city of Chicago. You really have to be focused on what a not-for-profit can and cannot do,” she says. Paula Robinson of the Bronzeville Regional Collective—the first group to call for a CBA—is another activist who has praised the alliance as “wonderful,” while at the same time crediting the coalition with pressuring the Obama Foundation to guarantee minority hiring. “We moved the needle with the Lakeside Alliance,” Robinson says.
The coalition plans to continue its campaign for a CBA, but its members face a tougher opponent than any Barack Obama faced during his time as a community organizer: Barack Obama himself. The president, local activists acknowledge, is not a deep-pocketed out-of-town developer who can be shaken down for playgrounds and affordable housing. He is the most beloved politician in Chicago. He used to be Mayor Emanuel’s boss, when the latter was White House chief of staff. Obama doesn’t need to sign a deal with community organizers in order to win the goodwill of the city government—the city gave him 20 acres of parkland to build his center. And community organizers won’t easily persuade local politicians to throw their weight against the wishes of both Obama and Emanuel, who has called the center a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the city.
Activists are lobbying aldermen for an ordinance that would mandate a CBA, says Jawanza Malone, who believes the real opposition to the proposal is coming from Emanuel, who, like most Chicago mayors, dominates the City Council. “Part of the calculus is trying to convince a reticent mayor,” Malone says, and Obama’s project “certainly doesn’t make it easier.” Last year, activists showed up at the mayor’s office unannounced to demand a CBA. Eventually, they were granted a meeting with a deputy mayor who, Malone says, told them “they would need to look more at CBAs that have been signed in other cities before they could make a decision.” That was the last they’ve heard from the mayor’s office. (Emanuel’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
Back when Obama was a community organizer, a project was known as a “piece.” His successful campaign to pressure the Chicago Housing Authority into removing asbestos from Altgeld Gardens and the Ida B. Wells Homes was “the asbestos piece.” (Obama even chartered a school bus to Housing Authority headquarters, where Altgeld residents sat in the hallway outside the director’s office, insisting he visit the projects. He did.) Coalition organizers believe their campaign is exactly the kind of piece Obama himself would have worked on when he was in their position, 30 years ago. But that was then: before Harvard, before politics, before the presidency. For them, Obama has gone from sticking it to the man to … being the man.
“Of course, he would have,” says Jeanette Taylor. “But now he’s part of the establishment.”