PI Original Josh Kalven Tuesday August 19th, 2008, 2:21pm

Going For The Gold: Organizing For Community Power In Chicago’s Olympics Bid

Community benefits for community residents - a straightforward concept, right? It's the idea that large-scale development projects must actually meet the needs of local communities. Vancouver Winter Olympics planners understand this, and have been negotiating with ...

Community benefits for community residents – a straightforward concept, right?  It’s the idea that large-scale development projects must actually meet the needs of local communities.  Vancouver Winter Olympics planners understand this, and have been negotiating with community stakeholders to protect local residents’ needs in advance of the 2010 games.  In the U.S., however, no Olympic host city has ever entered into a legally-binding agreement with community members aimed at negating the detrimental impact of the event.  

The result of that neglect is clear.  In 1996, the homeless got one-way bus tickets out of Atlanta.  In 1984, jobs in Los Angeles communities consisted of two-week gigs as street sweepers.  Folks in Chicago know that if we do end up hosting the summer games eight years from now, there must be a community-driven effort to ensure that low-income areas and residents of color gain real benefits from this monumental event.

Communities for an Equitable Olympics 2016 (CEO 2016) is a newly-formed coalition of community and labor organizations, working together to win enforceable community benefits in conjunction with Chicago’s Olympics  bid.  The Grassroots Collaborative, a coalition of organizations dedicated to issues of economic and racial justice, has joined with organizations such as the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), Centers for New Horizons, and MAGIC, to form a broad and deep coalition of South Side and city-wide groups organizing for justice.

One major area of concern is Chicago’s plan to build the Olympic Village at the site of Michael Reese Hospital.  Mere minutes from downtown, the 37-acre plot represents a potential bonanza for the city and developers and the prospect of hosting the games provides the city with an excuse to secure the prime lakefront property.  Just as the dismantling of public housing led to the immediate creation of half-million dollar homes across the street from Cabrini Green, the plans for Michael Reese set the stage for a land grab that will push out low-income residents and seniors in the area.  The city plans on building over 7,000 units of housing at the site -- regardless of whether we win the bid for the games -- sending local property taxes and rents skyrocketing.  With all that’s at stake, we know that it will take a broad and deep coalition to move our efforts forward -- to ensure that South Side communities not only survive in the coming years, but thrive.

Members of CEO 2016 have been intensively organizing and strategizing around the core platform of our campaign, which stipulates that affordable housing, transportation, public subsidy accountability, employment and workers’ rights, public space, education, and public safety are among the issues that the city and Chicago 2016 need to address.  To do this effectively, the community must be at the table.

The Grassroots Collaborative is focused on two particular aspects of the campaign.  The first is developing a “Living Wage Olympics,” one that leads to long-term, sustainable economic opportunities that lift low-income families out of poverty.  The second area of attention involves accountability and transparency around public financing.  The city has a little habit of promising that projects will be fully privately funded, only to later extract hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by raiding Tax Increment Financing (TIF) accounts.  The risk of cost overruns surrounding Chicago’s bid leaves already neglected communities vulnerable to the siphoning off of much-needed tax dollars intended for local schools, parks, and libraries.

In the last two weeks, over 500 community residents organized by CEO 2016 have come out in support of a process that incorporates the voices of the communities that will be directly impacted by the games.  And that number will continue to grow if Chicago insists on developing billion-dollar plans for the South and West Sides without any real input from grassroots leaders themselves.  Black and brown communities have been underserved for way too long.  As KOCO organizer Jitu Brown recently stated, “We support Chicago getting the bid, but not on our backs.”

Chicago’s residents just won’t stand for it.

Amisha Patel is the director of the Grassroots Collaborative, whose members include: Action Now, American Friends Service Committee, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Illinois Hunger Coalition, Metro Seniors in Action, Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, Service Employees International Union Healthcare IL/IN, and SEIU Local 73.

Previous columns by Patel:

A Living Wage Is A Right -- Not A Luxury

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