19th 05 - 2017 | no comment »

Heather Booth: Changing the World (2017)

Director: Lilly Rivlin

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“They said, ‘Elizabeth, if you really want to push for this consumer agency, you’ve got to get organized.’ And I said, ‘Great! How?’ They said, ‘I’ve got two words for you: Heather Booth.’” –Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the subject of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Ever since the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election became known, people throughout the country and the world have been mobilizing in a resistance to the current regime the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1960s. The current outrages to human decency that are emanating from Washington, D.C., however, are neither as unprecedented nor as unusual as many newly woke people seem to think. Again we have had to learn that democracy is not a spectator sport. Now is the perfect time to reflect on the power of community organizing, and virtually no one has been a more important community organizer than Heather Booth.

People who know what community organizing is usually think immediately of the late Saul Alinsky, a Chicago-based educator and activist who wrote Rules for Radicals and is often called the father of community organizing. Or they may picture young community organizer Barack Obama, who we see in a still photograph at the very beginning of Heather Booth: Changing the World knocking on someone’s door. However, although few outside the groups that call on her for help know about Heather Booth, her influence is enormous. One interviewee says: “It’s like Zelig.” Anywhere a progressive cause needs a helping hand, you’re likely to find Heather Booth.

The sheer volume of Booth’s activities could be a challenge to any documentarian, but director Rivlin takes us through Booth’s life and career economically through the use of Booth’s audio diary, begun in September 2015, and interviews in which Booth recounts her personal history. What emerges is an inspiring portrait of a highly effective activist who has accomplished a great deal in her 70+ years on this planet.

The film starts with a look at the nuts and bolts of organizing, as Heather records in her audio diary the steps she is taking to organize a September 2015 rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C., for a group called Moral Action for Climate Justice. Booth lays out the basics of a successful action: “Clarity of purpose, clarity of the specific tasks, accountability on the tasks, and interconnection on the tasks.” Rivlin films her laying the groundwork for the event and then the successful rally itself. It then segues into a rough chronology of Booth’s life and activities.

Booth was raised in Brooklyn by progressive Jewish parents. When they moved to Long Island, she realized that did not feel comfortable in a suburban social setting. She spent as much time as she could in the free-wheeling atmosphere of Greenwich Village, taking up the guitar and hanging out with “the beatniks.” It was there that she took her first steps as an activist, handing out flyers for a group opposed to the death penalty, a task that intimidated her. Her own experience informs her approach to activism: “We need to give people confidence to take even simple steps like that.”

She lived on a kibbutz in Israel, but galvanized by news of the 1963 March on Washington, she returned to the United States to be part of the civil rights movement. Among her activities at the time involved going to Mississippi to set up freedom schools and to register voters. Her visit to Shaw, Mississippi, during Freedom Summer put her in touch with the Hawkins family, who eventually sued the city for equal access to services the white side of town enjoyed, such as sewers, traffic lights, and fire hydrants. Booth says that some consider the U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of Hawkins to be as important as Brown v. Board of Education, which codified equal access to education for white and nonwhite citizens.

She met her husband Paul, then the national secretary of Students for a Democratic Society, in 1966 while both were involved in a sit-in on the University of Chicago campus to protest the war in Vietnam. He proposed on the third day of their acquaintance, and their life together, says Heather, “gets better and better. We work on our marriage the same way as our organizing.” It was inevitable that once the Booths had children, in 1968 and 1969, Heather’s work would turn to the plight of families. She helped organize the Action Committee for Decent Childcare in 1972 that eventually squeezed $1 million from the City of Chicago for childcare services. Her account of how the group accomplished this amazing feat shows her humor, ingenuity, and tenaciousness.

It’s not often commented upon, but the progressive movement was and often still is dominated by men. Booth decided that to help women avoid being marginalized in the movement, she would help found an institute to train more women in community organizing. The Midwest Academy, which she chairs to this day, was the result. Other work on behalf of women included JANE, a service that provided illegal abortions before Roe v. Wade made the procedure legal and widely available.

Rivlin’s film, which includes title cards, archival footage and still photos, and talking-head interviews, moves briskly, even breezily, with encouraging news about the wins Heather Booth helped effect, all scored by the infectious Bob Marley-like social justice song by Kyle Casey Chu, “Woman Strong,” that repeats “ain’t nobody gonna stop her now.” Her accomplishments are too numerous to recount here—a very good reason to see this movie and hear people like Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Sen. Warren, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, and other community activists sing her praises.

The forces that shaped Booth’s destiny helped her empower others. Booth said that visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel with its monument to the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, had a profound effect on her. She says, “This was a place where people stood and and fought back—this feeling of better to go down standing up than living on your knees.” Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, whoever and wherever they are. A sign on Booth’s desk confirms this idea, but prescribes an attitude that refuses to admit despair: “Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will.” It’s a good thought to keep in mind for the fight ahead.

Heather Booth: Changing the World screens Friday, May 19 at 7:45 p.m. and Saturday, May 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Heather Booth and director Lilly Rivlin will be present for audience discussion after both screenings.

12th 06 - 2008 | 16 comments »

Our Backstreets #20: Corruption on Steroids


By Marilyn Ferdinand

It was my sincere desire to write a review of a wonderful film I saw the other day and post it today. Unfortunately, local events that perhaps have global implications have my mind spinning in a murderously angry haze. I will lay the facts of the case down for you and ask you to consider what your role as an active citizen of the United States and the world will be at this crucial time in history. Sorry for getting political on you. Please ignore if you turn to this site just for fun.


As most of you know, I live in the Chicago area. I was born here, in the now burned-out ghetto of Lawndale, on the city’s Near West Side. I was raised in a near north suburb, but moved back to the city to attend college. I lived in the city as an adult for 22 years. Currently, I work in an area called Streeterville, walking distance from the #1 tourist attraction in the city, Navy Pier. Upon this pier rests the Chicago Children’s Museum, by all accounts, a very needed and successful institution for visitors and residents alike.


Over the past few months, Mayor Richard M. Daley has expressed his deep desire to move the museum to Grant Park, often called Chicago’s front yard because of its wide-open expanse of public parkland. It would be somewhat analogous to Central Park in New York, but it is not as large and, therefore, all the more precious as a haven from the concrete and steel just to the west.

It’s not only a nice thing to have in our very big city, it’s protected by law. I’ll quote part of an article from the Chicago Reader dated September 14, 2007, and written by Lynn Becker:

Bob O’Neill, president of the Grant Park Advisory Council, jokes that his usual response to citizens concerned about new construction in the park is this: “Well, they’re actually out there building it right now, but thanks for the public input.”

It’s funny, as Homer Simpson would say, because it’s true. Or nearly. O’Neill is lobbying overtime to build a new Chicago Children’s Museum in Grant Park—the same Grant Park that, a century ago, A. Montgomery Ward fought a long, bruising, ultimately successful battle over. Ward was defending the 1836 mandate to keep Chicago’s lakefront public ground, “a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever.”

The Children’s Museum is but the latest in a long procession of hustles seeking to circumvent that mandate. It’s looking to replace free access to open land with new construction and stiff admission charges, and Bob O’Neill is doing his part to keep those who don’t think it’s a very good idea safely on the sidelines.

I would add that he is doing that on orders from the mayor.

I won’t go into all of the criminal, unethical, and outrageous things the mayor and his lap dogs in the City Council have said and done to ensure that the city is profitable for the few by being paid for by the many. His favorite way of doing this is through misuse of a law setting up tax-increment financing (TIF) districts to help blighted areas make improvements. If you read any of the long-running series of articles on these legal slush funds reported on brilliantly by Ben Joravsky in the Reader, you’ll see how it works—ridiculously, a TIF has been set up in the city’s financial district, hardly blighted with anything but the greedy and ethically vacant. The mayor’s latest big dream is to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to Chicago, lying about not using public funds to help pay for it, even while he allows our formerly wonderful public transit system to fall into ruin and our schools to go further into a pit of despair we didn’t think could get any deeper.

It appears that the Children’s Museum move is simply a ploy to break the back of the law to open the lakefront to development, with its first objective being to allow for restaurants and concessions for the Olympics. From the Division Street/NBC5 Chicago blog:

“Opponents are also criticizing a provision of the museum’s secret agreement with the park district that allows them to transfer their 99-year lease to another private corporation without any oversight from the City Council. That agreement between the museum and Park District Superintendent Tim Mitchell allows the museum to transfer the building with only the Chicago Park District’s approval:

“CCM may not, without the prior written consent of CPD, which may be withheld or conditioned in the sole discretion of CPD, assign all or any rights under the Use Agreement, provided that CPD’s approval shall not be unreasonably withheld, conditioned or delayed if the proposed assignee intends to continue to operate the project as a children’s museum.”

Navy Pier is the museum’s third home in as many decades, and the museum still hasn’t paid off loans for construction at Navy Pier issued in 1994. Opponents also argue that the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, with one million visitors per year, is four times larger than the proposed Chicago museum, yet CCM officials hope to reach one million visitors in the near future. That makes it likely that CCM will have to abandon its Grant Park location long before their 99-year lease runs out.

“The Chicago Children’s Museum is already in its third home in as many decades, and it’s clear they’re already making plans to move out of this building before it’s even built,” said Figiel. “The inclusion of a liquor license in their zoning application means that this could be a 100,000 square foot restaurant and mini-mall just in time for the 2016 Olympics.”

Why should you care

I’d like to think you should care because you like me and trust my judgment. No, seriously, you should care because this situation is all about good government and bleeds over into our presidential election.

As we all know, Barack Obama will be the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, campaigning on a platform of change. I know some people fervently believe he will be a breath of fresh air, a break from business as usual in that dirty game of politics. I want you to think about it. Change. What does it look like?

Does it look like a politican endorsing the people who are behind the Children’s Museum land grab, who are trying to break the law? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Barack Obama did. From the Reader:

I’m not surprised that Senator Barack Obama endorsed Mayor Daley’s reelection. We’re used to the sight of erstwhile reformers scrambling to board the mayor’s gravy train before it leaves the station.

“Even [Daley’s] detractors acknowledge that the city has been well-managed and has performed in all respects in ways that are the envy of a lot of other cities across the country,” Obama said at his press conference with the mayor yesterday.

Well managed? Daley’s public transportation system is literally falling apart even as it squanders millions on projects it doesn’t need and, in the case of the express lines to O’Hare and Midway, may never even use. Property taxes are skyrocketing as the city plays games of deception with its off-the-books TIF program. Just about every significant public works project—from the O’Hare expansion to the construction of Millennium Park to the Brown Line renovation—has come in late and overbudget.

Mr. Obama also endorsed the entire Regular Democratic Party ticket, which included some people with ethics problems and the incompetent legacy candidate Todd Stroger, who took his father’s place on the ballot after the elder Stroger had a stroke whose severity the Party kept hidden to keep him on the ticket until deals could be made. Toddler has padded his office with PR flaks and high-priced jobs delivered to people he knows in what has been mockingly referred to as the Friends and Family Plan.

barack-is-hope.jpgNow people will say that Obama had little option, that this is what Illinois politicians must do to have a career. But if Obama really is a reformer, is really about change, why wouldn’t he help out the long-suffering residents of Chicago and Cook County. Don’t be fooled by reports that Mayor Daley got 75% of the vote in his latest election—only 20% of eligible voters cast ballots. Everyone else has become too jaded. We don’t believe in the hope that is plastered on Mr. Obama’s attractive, heroic postcards. I’m not asking you all to vote for Mr. McCain. I’m not endorsing anyone for president. What I am asking you all to do is to GET INVOLVED after the election. Hold Mr. Obama—should he be elected—to his promises for change. Do the same of all your elected officials in Congress who are needed to make change. l

If you want to help Chicagoans preserve their public lands, go to Save Grant Park and contribute to the legal defense fund for the lawsuit the organization has filed against the city.

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