By AARON GETTINGER
He is present at most events put on by the Coalition for a Community Benefits Agreement, though he rarely speaks at them. He interrupted a City Council meeting from the spectators’ gallery, banging on the glass and chanting “CBA now!” He was one of two activists arrested late last year in Woodlawn.
His name is Alex Goldenberg, head of Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP). He’s a Little Village resident and a University of Chicago alumnus, and he spoke to the Herald at length about his background and the CBA campaign earlier this month.
“Our position has been that we support the Obama Center coming and that we want to ensure that the longtime residents get to stay and benefit from it and all the related developments are coming,” he said, adding that he “absolutely” takes the Obama Foundation’s outreach activities and incorporation of feedback into its plans, especially the Community Commitments pledge, in good faith.
“I think that the example of their local hiring commitments being stronger than any other developments that you could think of is significant. The Obama family’s million-dollar contribution to getting more people of color in building trades is also very significant,” he said, referring to a donation to the Cook County Workforce Funders Alliance that has funded, among other things, a United Way program that gives tradespeople boots and tools.
“They’re proactively thinking about that, and that, to me, is like, OK one couple is able to have this impact on the system. How is it that the University of Chicago, with its immense development resources, isn’t able to at least match that? Which, to me, seems absurd,” he said. “They are building and have been building for so long, they have the ability to leverage that work to actually produce a transformation around issues like getting more people of color into trades.”
Goldenberg, 35, was born and raised in Miami, the son of a Cuban mother who lived through the Revolution and a Jewish Argentinian father who lived through the Dirty War — both liberal first-generation Americans.
“They brought me up to be concerned about social justice with good values about caring for the poor and the least among us, and I was kind of just inspired by their experiences of struggle and transformation from their countries,” he said. “Lively conversations with them inspired this, I would say, kind of idealistic understanding of social change.”
It took an education at the U. of C. to bring that idealism into practice, however. He got involved in Student Labor Solidarity after graduating in 2002, taking particular inspiration from protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. He said his first taste of grassroots organizing came from action with farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida.
Later in college, Goldenberg got involved in tenant organizing on the South Side through the Metropolitan Tenants Organization. He met Sharon Payne with STOP, then the Student–Tenant Organizing Project, through the efforts. Someone tipped them about U. of C. plans to redevelop the Grove Park Plaza Apartments on Cottage Grove and helped, through canvassing and informational events, with an ultimately successful effort to turn the site into affordable housing building.
“After the U. of C. failed, because we stopped them, they continued to let it go into disrepair. Their plan was to give everybody vouchers and push them out, and we put a stop to that, forced HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] to consider an alternative plan,” he said. “We reached out to POAH and invited them to come present an alternative plan, which would redevelop and keep people in their neighborhood.”
Goldenberg started at STOP full-time after earning an anthropology degree in 2006 and worked on a youth organizing arm for two years before getting an urban planning degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He came back to Chicago afterwards and got heavily involved in the campaign for a trauma center at the U. of C. Medical Center, becoming STOP’s executive director at the time.
“I was a little bit uncomfortable with the idea,” he remembered. “I always felt like this is a primarily black organization; it needs a black leader. And so there was this feeling that, whatever I did, it would have to result in making that happen down the road.” A five-year term has turned into nine, “But this is the year that I basically committed to making that transition happen.” He expects the organization to grow under new leadership.
“I have to understand myself as part of that collective but also understand my role in that collective, and it really is to defer to black leadership at all times,” Goldenberg said.
In the meantime, the CBA push continues: some precincts in Woodlawn and South Shore have a non-binding referendum about it on their ballots next month.
Fundamentally, Goldenberg said the U. of C. is not operating in good faith. “A lot of African Americans are employed by the University, [but] not in their construction projects,” he said. Neither, he said, are they sharing data about construction hiring, making commitments in that area or donating, as the Obama Foundation has, to getting more people of color into trades. “Frankly, investing in workforce development writ large is something that they’re not doing,” he said.
Goldenberg said the CBA ordinance targets the U. of C. and the city primarily, blaming the media for a mistaken narrative that the organization has a bone to pick with the former president. The anti-displacement efforts, he stressed, are city policy implementations done in tandem with getting the U. of C. to make certain commitments.
“I think what primarily moves the University is a desire for prestige on a global scale. I don’t think that caring for low-income working families on the South Side fits into that priority,” he said, adding that set-asides for affordable housing, property tax relief for longtime residents and a trust fund for workforce development, a community land trust and affordable housing should be things a politician ought to support.
“I think our proposals are the only proposals that rise to the risk and the threat that people are facing, the crisis we are facing,” Goldenberg said. “We’re hoping that this referendum will be something that spells out those things I’ve been talking about.” And he thinks there is an opportunity the Foundation will eventually come around to supporting the CBA, too.