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Shannon Bennett is a community organizer for these times, as more people soon will see

The longtime organizer and new head of KOCO — the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization — has what it takes to bridge new activists and older stalwarts of the good fight.

Shannon Bennett, the new executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization at the Bronzeville offices of the group known as KOCO.
Shannon Bennett, the new executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization at the Bronzeville offices of the group known as KOCO.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

If you’re a public servant wrestling with community issues in Chicago, you already know Shannon Bennett.

The rest of you will soon learn that Bennett, 49, is a community organizer for these times.

A born and bred West Sider who has lived on the South Side for the past 30 years, Bennett has quietly developed the leadership skills needed to bridge the gap between young activists on the streets and the old-school organizers still fighting the good fight.

The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, where Bennett has served in several roles since 1991, announced Thursday he’s been named executive director.

The move comes as KOCO is campaigning to prevent the closing of Mercy Hospital, a pillar of the South Side.

“Our biggest fight right now is to save Mercy Hospital,” Bennett told me. “The company is planning to move against countless voices and close in February.

“Mercy Hospital— where ‘the Mayor Daley’ was born and where we found has the second-highest amounts of black births in this city after Northwestern — they are threatening to close this hospital in the middle of a pandemic.

“Guess what, everybody should be outraged and should be pushing back against this. But they have been quiet as a mouse,” Bennett said of government officials.

At KOCO, he succeeds Jawanza Malone, who led the organization for the past eight years and was a leader in forming the Obama Presidential Center Community Benefits Coalition.

“Shannon brings deep experience as a seasoned organizer, strategist and trainer and has worked behind the scenes of many of KOCO’s most successful organizing campaigns,” KOCO’s board chairman Jitu Brown wrote of his appointment.

Bennett started out wanting to be a journalist.

“I thought I had something to say,” he said.

But during his sophomore year of college, a mentor got him involved in a program that sent college students to work with kids in Chicago elementary schools, and volunteerism hooked him.

“I became a summer camp coordinator, a youth development coordinator and went on from there to do youth organizing and housing organizing,” he said. “I must have torn up three or four of my mother’s cars commuting from the western suburbs to the South Side.”

His passion for helping seniors matches his love for showing young people how to take control of their destiny.

“We have a proud 55 years of independent black leadership, and our organization is made up of members who refuse to accept that we don’t have a right to be in these neighborhoods and in this city,” he said. “We work to make sure that we not only remain, but we develop, and we thrive.”

On the day that Mayor Harold Washington died, Bennett pointed out, he had attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the Woodlake Townhomes at 44th Street and Lake Park Avenue, a KOCO project.

“That famous picture of Washington with the shovel in his hand was taken at our project that developed over 120 units of housing,” Bennett said. “That was one of the last things that Washington did because he understood the collective power of the community. No other mayor since him has gotten it.”

Bennett counts as wins the campaign to save Dyett High School, the passage of a city ordinance that will provide affordable housing for low-income and working families in an area that will feel the impact of the Obama Presidential Center and the opening of a trauma center at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

He also has worked with young people to address issues that often are overlooked, such as the alarming number of young Black girls reported missing.

Bennett also has confronted the Chicago Housing Authority and other developers about the deteriorating conditions of some senior citizen buildings.

“Organizing gets a bad rap, but organizing is the only way that low-income and working families can use their voices and their actions to determine what happens in their lives,” Bennett said.

And, as they say, actions speak louder than words.