European fellows train with community organizers at CCH

It was a homecoming of sorts for Ivana Novakova when she arrived in April for a four-week community organizing fellowship at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

From left, CCH’s Keith Freeman, Zsuzsa Berecz, Ivana Novakova, and a Breakthrough Urban Ministries’ Wendy Daniels

Ivana’s job was created last year, after the deputy director of the homeless services agency, Depaul Slovensko, completed the same fellowship at CCH. When Jozef Kákoš returned to Slovakia last spring, he created an organizer’s job and promoted Ivana to the post.

“When Jozef came back, we talked about how we need to do things to work in the community. He asked me if I wanted to be an organizer,” Ivana said.

The fellowships are sponsored by the Great Lakes Consortium (GLC) for International Training and Development, an organizing exchange that trades community organizers from the U.S. and Central and Eastern Europe each year.

CCH has sent organizers abroad to offer six trainings while hosting 13 European interns through the program. Wrapping up a four-week fellowship are Ivana, 25, an organizer and street outreach worker from Bratislava, and Zsuzsa Berecz, 37, co-founder of a Budapest-based international artist collective, Pneuma Szöv.

Working alongside CCH organizers, Ivana and Zsusza assisted with shelter outreach, joined a protest rally, and traveled to Springfield. They also had fun sightseeing on the weekends and going to a Chicago Cubs game hosted by the CCH Associate Board.

Ivana said her new job was created around the time she was finishing graduate studies in social work while employed as a social worker at Depaul.

“I wrote my master’s thesis on individual work. I had concluded that it’s better to work in the community than one-on-one. I was very frustrated that nobody in my country works with homeless people. It was all the time just social workers helping people.”

So, the timing was perfect when Ivana’s deputy director, Jozef, returned home to tell his staff what he learned during a CCH fellowship.

“I remember I had 100 questions for him!” she said with a laugh.

Ivana’s Chicago fellowship gave her a chance to work in-person with Senior Organizer Rachel Ramirez. Rachel traveled to Europe last fall to offer trainings, including a follow-up with Jozef and meeting Ivana. Since then, she has mentored Ivana with weekly Skype sessions.

Although Rachel is leaving CCH after six years to pursue a Ph.D at Northwestern University, she and Ivana plan to continue Skyping.

“We are not just mentor/mentee, we are friends,” Ivana explained.

Ivana organized a core group of three leaders, all homeless men. Her first organizing success was to help her leaders negotiate with city officials who complained about the trash and noise caused by homeless people camped in a wooded area of Bratislava. They talked with neighbors, asked city district (ward) officials to provide a dumpster.

“We cleaned it together. Now the (city) district pays for a dumpster. For the district, it was a surprise that homeless people can be active and help clean things up.”

Ivana looks forward to having a colleague as Depaul moves ahead on plans to hire a second organizer in coming months.

Zsuzsa holds several jobs in Hungary’s arts community, including a position with a cultural heritage organization. The arts collaborative she co-founded addresses community issues, such as street homelessness. One of the artists in her small collective was homeless for 25 years and now works as a social worker and writer.

Zsuzsa said her Chicago training gave her new insights into “building power,” noting that CCH organizers showed her that “we can create our own power,” instead of just lamenting inequality in society.

Both women said they look forward to Organizer Keith Freeman’s training exchange when he travels to Europe next February. Keith’s trip will be the seventh exchange training for CCH since 2012.

– Anne Bowhay, Media