SOI’s rank-and-file leaders critical to resistance, transforming Chicago’s political landscape

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CTU members attend a solidarity rally for striking SAG-AFTRA workers.

CTU Organizing Director Rebecca Martinez sees the four-week Summer Organizing Institute as an investment in our members and in our resistance.

“SOI is an intensive training program during which we invest in members, invest in their leadership and invest in their organizing skills so we can develop another level of union leadership,” she said. “It has been foundational in developing the rank-and-file leadership that we’ve needed to fight the big fights, whether it was pushing back against school closings in 2013, against charter expansion, against awful mayors like Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot. It’s been a really integral part of our resistance.”

In its 13th year, the Summer Organizer Institute (SOI) seeks to train and develop the leadership and organizing skills of rank-and-file CTU members and increase their political analysis and involvement in the union’s work. Mayor Brandon Johnson participated in the first summer organizing institute in 2011, a testament to the program’s success at developing skilled organizers.

This year’s institute saw 27 members representing every corner of the school building:  high school, elementary, PE and music teachers; teacher and instructional assistants; school psychologists and health service nurses. The SOI presents theoretical training in organizing combined with hands-on experience in the field.

For example, members are trained in being leaders in their buildings, how to run a productive union meeting, how to build a strong PPC or PPLC and how to identify the issues that affect our communities. They also learn how to phone bank and canvass.

“They knock on doors every day, talking to members, hearing face-to-face about the issues impacting them in their buildings but also about the bigger vision: what do we want to see changed not just in our buildings but in our community,” Martinez said

During this year’s program, the interns spent time in the “classroom” at CTU, where they met and trained alongside educators and staff from a Canadian teachers union and saw how educators’ struggles cross international borders. They also learned about the Bring Chicago Home Ordinance and joined Mayor Johnson at a Treatment Not Trauma Summit in Woodlawn.

Other trainings, including Bargaining for the Common Good, Assertive Grievance Handling and Strong PPCs, Organizing Conversations, and Elements of a Campaign, helped interns prepare to organize in their schools with their colleagues, members, parents, and community.

They also hit the streets, attending a solidarity rally for striking SAG-AFTRA and WGA workers in Grant Park. They canvassed CTU members, discussing the issues important to us in our next contract, and organized and attended a community meeting on the Southeast side to further those discussions.

Two SOI interns consult during an afternoon of door knocking.

Interns Jonlyn Miller (left) and Rhonda Stone.

CPS Health School Nurse Jonlyn Miller said she joined the SOI in hopes of honing her organizing skills.

“I wanted to do the summer organizing institute because I realized I’d gathered skills in kind of an ad hoc way and I really wanted some sort of more formal training program to give me the tools and the swagger of a CTU organizer,” she said.

As a city wide delegate for clinicians, school psychologist Rhonda Stone joined the summer organizing institute because she felt she didn’t have the skills to serve clinicians or teachers in her schools. Now, she feels more confident about her organizing skills and is sold on the value of the summer program.

“Seeing that we have a mayor who actually paved the way for this is exciting because it lets us know that this actually works,” she said.

Kathryn Zamarrón, a music teacher at Walt Disney Magnet School, appreciated the SOI discussions with organizers from CTU’s partner organizations and allied campaigns.

“I’ve often seen these struggles presented as independent calls to improve one facet of Chicagoans’ lives, such as improved health care access, fully funded schools, affordable housing, or participatory democracy. Instead, we talked about what it would take to thrive,” she said. “As organizers shared their experiences and their interactions with CTU, I saw that each fight encouraged different people to imagine different conditions for ourselves and our neighborhoods and to stop asking ‘do we deserve more?’ and instead ask ‘why wouldn’t we deserve more?’”

Martinez notes that, through the SOI, CTU has built important community relationships.

“It’s been a tool for building with community, building with parents and students,” she said. “And that’s resulted in our union being one of the strongest, most powerful unions in the country.”

And, it helped us send a teacher, a public school parent, a union brother to the fifth floor of City Hall.

“During the summer institute, our members lose their fear of working at the doors and that experience has been really important in changing the political landscape in the city of Chicago,” Martinez said. “It’s been a building block for having a powerful ground game that made the election of Mayor Brandon Johnson possible.”

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