Movement Profile: Cecile Carroll

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Cecile Carroll is the co-director of Blocks Together, a community organization dedicated to leadership development and grassroots organizing in the West Humboldt Park community. Cecile has been organizing for over a decade in low-income Chicago communities. In 2008, she was appointed to serve on the Illinois General Assembly’s Chicago Educational Facilities Taskforce to help to create legislation and to create a new process for Chicago Public Schools long term planning. She also serves as vice chair on the editorial board of Catalyst magazine. In 2013, she was awarded the Emerging Leadership Chicago Community Trust Fellowship where she was offered the opportunity to study other low income communities across the country doing community organizing around participatory planning. She has a Masters in Not Profit Management from Spertus Institute and a Masters in Urban Planning and Policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Blocks Together’s mission is to build a grassroots community infrastructure governed from the bottom up, which provides resources, leadership development and sustained focused efforts to achieve widespread improvements for the community and advance economic and social justice.

Blocks Together is part of the national revival of The Poor People's Campaign, leading it here in Chicago. Why did you join the campaign and why do you think it matters in this moment?

With the state budget crisis, one of the things that continues to happen across Illinois and Chicago is the elimination of human services that impact people living in poverty. I’m thinking about the budget cuts in Chicago Public Schools, the cuts in mental health care, the high unemployment, joblessness, and underemployment. We also continue to see the mismanagement of public funds and how our state is prioritizing affluent communities at the expense of lower income communities. On top of what's happening at the city and state levels, federal cuts and policies continue to impact the poor in this country.

Working to address poverty is about being able to state clearly that the biggest tax is on poor people and poor people are the ones being sacrificed when the government created a financial crisis. We are the ones who are overtaxed and under-resourced. Poor people are not the ones to blame for financial mismanagement and we shouldn’t be feeling the brunt of the cuts.

Blocks Together sees the opportunity around a people’s agenda to address poverty by connecting issues and people that usually don't connect. The campaign is creating an agenda that crosscuts around issues and can hold more elected officials accountable to how their votes are continuing to hurt poor people.

This May is the 50th anniversary of the original Poor People’s Campaign. We want to show that that we may have so much at stake and how important it is to address the policies that keep people impoverished.

You do a variety of organizing work across the city, including the Westside and Englewood, where you live. Why do you think it's important for people to organize in a community where they live and they call home?

With organizing, I think having solidarity with the community is important. With my work at Blocks Together, and the other work I do, many times I come to this point where I ask myself, do I keep going even though this doesn't look winnable? What I know is when you are intimately connected to the work and it matters to your own survival, you definitely approach the work from a place of more endurance. You are going to be more innovative, creative, and go the long-haul with a specific strategy, plan, or campaign. Not to say that organizers can’t do that in a community where they don't have a connection but I know there's just something about seeing yourself in that community that will make you go the long-haul and make you be more creative when it comes to thinking about how to create a victory.

Could you expand a little bit on what you think solidarity means?

An important aspect to solidarity is validating people's experiences and their perspective. When we are organizing around school issues, we often see people not validating personal experience. We will organize around some of the intentional policies and structures that negatively impact students and we will bump into this resistance from folks who say things like: “We don't believe that.” “Are you sure?” “There must be something else to it.” or “Where’s the personal responsibility?”  You cannot take away the authentic experience of the people from these communities just because you don't think it's realistic. An organizer has to meet people where they are, truly listen, and don’t try to challenge when people state what their experience is. You cannot minimize it, dismiss it, make it seem like it's something that they can get over, or act like that’s just the way that it is and the way that it will be. Some of the words that describe being in solidarity with community are compassion, trust, and understanding. To be in solidarity means to uplift experiences and the need to address those experiences.

How did you come into movement work and why do you think that work is important?

I started to do movement work towards the end of my college career. I really felt connected to and wanted to make changes to the world that I saw. Organizing doesn't really do social services per se but organizing is more about everyone doing their part to challenge systems. If a system or institution is biased or set-up to penalize others for race, class, or gender, then you are always going to need change to that system.

What do you think Crossroad Fund's role is in movement work? Do you think there’s a role for the organization that's more than just funding?

I’ve been connected to Crossroads Fund for about ten years. What I appreciate is how Crossroads Fund reviews how community organization’s processes work and how intentional these organizations are about engaging those who are directly impacted and creating the space for collective work. Because Crossroads Fund is so intentional about that, they have been able to elevate great campaign work that’s happening in this city by supporting it with funds, connecting groups that are leading grassroots movement work, and highlighting movements that do not receive the spotlight or are not in the political conversations in Chicago but should be.