"So I looked at it as a tool to help
people in their organizing," he says.
Orenstein's documentaries, "American Idealist: The Story
of Sargent Shriver," "The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His
Legacy," and "No Place to Live: Chicago's Affordable Housing
Crisis," focus on ordinary people and forgotten historical
characters like Peace Corps founder "Sarge" Shriver and grassroots organizer Saul Alinsky.
"The over-arching goal was not necessarily to solve the issues, the
idea was to build power, to build power for change," Orenstein says
of his films. "And if you have power to create change, you can
address the issues of homelessness and the issues of poor education
in the community."
Orenstein has also produced what he calls short organizing videos. Cindi Canary, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, recalls working with Orenstein in 1997 on a 12-minute video that told the story of how money generated by ATM fees, a rented apartment, or a student loan was related to a special interest lobby.
The video was shown to legislators,
community leaders and in town hall meetings. Its call-to-action
generated interest and energy, Canary said.
"I think in a lot of ways it was a mobilizing factor in getting our organization off the ground, because it was like, 'Who were these people? What were they trying to do?' " she said.
"This video, in
a concise and energetic way, told the story ... and put everyone on an even playing field
for the dialogue."
Orenstein says he has turned down requests when there was no organizational capacity to put a video to good use.
"I've turned down a lot of
fundraising videos," he says.
"I turned down videos ... when a group doesn't have a good idea of what they want to do with it, because everything, all these pieces I'm making, are strategic organizing pieces."
Orenstein says he turned to community organizing as a reaction to the frustration he saw in his father, who drove a cab and ran a small delivery service in the city. His mother worked in a department store.
While his parents weren't politically involved, Orenstein, 56, says he was influenced
by the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, and the Vietnam
war. His office is decorated with pictures of former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and a poster of
the AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils that reads, "Organizing for
Justice in our Communities."
Recently, Orenstein worked with Students for Barack Obama to produce a short pro-bono video. His relationship with the Democratic presidential candidate goes back to their organizing days in Chicago.
Orenstein says his goal is to create a dialogue in which
citizens become engaged in their communities and the world.
"The theme of everything I do is engaging people in their political world around them," he says. "That's the way we're going to have a vibrant, healthy democracy - when we get people to act and engage on their own behalf."