Community outreach is a self-defining term — it quite literally is just reaching out to the community. But still, the parameters can be broad — if you don’t match it with context. 

One thing that neighborhood organizations, politicians, philanthropists and large corporations have in common is that they say they want to be for the community.

It may not always be genuine (that determination comes down to the folks within the community they’re hoping to benefit), but organizing community events is the most common way they strive to build those relationships. 

We spoke to local organizers and community residents about what organizing looks like when it benefits the community, as well as how to ensure that the community you hope to organize within is receptive to your outreach efforts. 

Carol Johnson is the secretary of the Garfield Park Advisory Council and a volunteer park steward who has been organizing on the West Side for more than two decades. Prior to her position at the park, she spent years organizing around schools and youth alongside violence prevention organization CeaseFire and others.

Johnson said that her work in organizing is relationship-driven, and it is those personal relationships that help her get people on board with the work she does. 

“Building relationships within a community is how you figure out what a community’s needs are, and who you can work with to help address those issues,” Johnson said. And, the only way to build relationships is to be there. 

“You go up to Garfield Park and make yourself visible, or any other community space really, and talk to the people who are always there. They’ll tell you what they see,” she explained. “People will let you know what they need if you ask. But you gotta be there to ask.”

A few West Side residents visiting Garfield Park on July 30 expressed how they’ve felt about events being organized in the community and what it takes to get the people around here to attend them. 

“My uncle is out here with his grandson all the time and there’s nothing to do. But we know that the Golden Dome gets money to put on events for the community,” Keisha Golden said, referring to the Garfield Park Fieldhouse. Golden is a mother and frequent visitor of the park. 

Golden said she has been out and about the park numerous times and stumbled on public events that she had no idea about. “They need to have people coming door-to-door and handing out flyers,” she said. “A lot of these people over here, who would come out, [aren’t] on social media to see posts about it.”

When it comes to organizing, knowing is half the battle, which is why part of Johnson’s approach to outreach emphasizes educating people about their role in the park.

The Chicago Bulls mascot Benny the Bull is surrounded by attendees at a recent unveiling of a new basketball court at Burnside Park. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

“One of the biggest complaints from people in the community is just the trash all around the park,” Johnson said. “I try to educate folks to make sure they know it’s their park. These people who get paid to come clean it up get done with their hours and leave to go home. This is your home, and it is partially your responsibility.”

The last part of her statement— about responsibility— is actually one of the keys to successful organizing and outreach. In a TRiiBE story about a basketball court unveiling in Burnside Park, residents of the Burnside community expressed frustration over not being informed about the family-friendly ribbon-cutting event put on by the Chicago Bulls and its eyewear sponsor, Zenni. 

Briahna Gatlin, founder and CEO of boutique agency Swank PR, explained that while they might not have gotten the local turnout they hoped for, they did make an honest attempt to bring the community out. 

A key part of that effort was the late Barbara Britten. In addition to being the president of both the Concerned Citizens of Burnside organization and the Burnside Park Advisory Council, Britten — by all accounts — was Burnside Park’s staunchest advocate. 

CeCe Edwards is the president of the Grand Crossing Park Advisory Council, and worked closely with Britten in her efforts to bring additional funding to Burnside Park for the construction of a comfort station, a sort of miniature fieldhouse with a couple of restrooms, water fountains and no staff. 

“She’d been holding events at that park for two decades with nowhere to wash up, nowhere to take shelter in inclement weather,” Edwards said. “She would speak to the park district, and to the alderman again and again. Barbara would not rest until that comfort station was built.”

Britten tragically passed away after suffering a heart attack in the summer of 2020. Her loss was a shocking blow to her family and the Burnside community at large. “Britten was somebody who was a pillar of the community in Burnside,” Johnson said. 

Johnson said she had also been working with Swank PR on the Burnside Park Court unveiling. “We had been working on this event for two years before it happened, and when Barbara passed,” she said, “communication with the community just wasn’t as consistent.”

When outreach extends to a single well-connected community member, rather than the community at large through a grassroots effort, it is not uncommon for those outreach efforts to fall short.

“When people feel a part of something, they’re going to show a greater interest in it,” said Parrish Brown Jr., an organizer with Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO). “It can’t be building a relationship with one person. It needs to be many people in many places.”

Brown believes that the best way to organize in a way that ultimately benefits the community is to do the work with the community rather than for the community.

“Organizing ‘for people’ is when the campaign or event comes from an individual, and the development of it does not involve the community even though they might be trying to do something good for the community,” he said. “When you organize with the community you’re building relationships with people. It’s checking in on them, listening to them, hearing what it is they feel is necessary to do, and making sure they have a role in making it happen.”

The difference in these methods can be vast in terms of the approach and the results. When folks organize for people, the optics veer towards charity— which is nice, in theory— but Black people, especially in Chicago, have seen decades of charity amount to little in the way of systemic change.


An example is how a backpack drive lifts the burden of buying school supplies off of families , but it won’t lift the burden of displacement caused by school closings. 

On the flip side, in 2015, KOCO was able to help students of Dyett High School in Washington Park organize to keep their school from being phased out. Parrish, who was Dyett’s 2014 valedictorian, was among countless South Side organizers, students, teachers and families who protested the impending shuttering of the school.

“When organizing with youth, especially, they can tell the difference between somebody who genuinely cares about them and wants to assist them, rather than someone who isn’t really invested in them,” Brown said. “If I’m someone who wants to do an event in the community to benefit the kids, I need to first be at the schools, to meet them where they are.” 

Meeting people where they are, building relationships with them and making them a part of the effort are all tried-and-true methods of ensuring that outreach goes successfully. And, fortunately, there is no shortcut to these steps; if you don’t take them seriously, your outreach efforts will end up falling short.

“You can’t make people feel like you’re running a thing and asking them to help, you need to be doing it with them. It is their community,” Brown said. “If someone is saying they tried to reach out but the community didn’t want to be involved, chances are they did something wrong in those first steps. Go back and start again.”

is a staff writer with The TRiiBE. Email him with news tips.