Brenetta Howell Barrett, 90, gives insight on what it means to organize to win at the Austin Library on Thursday, Dec. 1. | Shanel Romain

On Nov. 28, the roughly dozen candidates running for Chicago mayor each dropped off thousands of nomination petitions to the Chicago Board of Elections Downtown. In some cases, candidates turned in more than 40,000 signatures.

During a Dec. 1 lunch at the Austin Branch Library, 5615 W. Race Ave., legendary West Side activist Brenetta Howell Barrett wanted community members to understand the kind of organization that it takes to generate that many signatures.

“It takes a lot of effort to get to that point,” Barrett said. “So, organizing certainly [plays] a very important role …”

Barrett, 90, should know. She was a founding member and organizer of Protest at the Polls, a group of independent Black political activists dedicated to mobilizing voters on the West Side.

“Protest at the polls was an effort to say, ‘Yes, we support marching and demonstrations, but we think there might be something else of importance that hasn’t been recognized so far,” she said.

“In addition to trying to get people to register to vote, we also thought about running people for public office from our own communities to see what it takes to become a candidate,” Barrett added. “Who knows what the legal requirements are for if all you’ve ever done was vote and not looked beyond the vote.”

Barrett also gained prominence for her establishment of the Pathfinders Prevention Education Fund, an HIV/AIDS service agency designed to address issues of homophobia and a lack of resources.

In the 1960s, she fought for civic and economic rights through organizations such as the Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights and city entities like the Chicago Commission on Human Services under Chicago mayors Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer.

In 2007, Barrett gifted the Chicago Public Library system with her papers — some 93 archival boxes of material that can be found at the Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature on the South Side.

The gift, the legendary activist indicated, is part of what might be considered a personal motto of hers. To be successful, organizers must be lifelong learners and transparent, she said.

“Be the open book you’d like to read,” Barrett explained.