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As Chicago's Hull House Closes Its Doors, Time to Revive the Settlement Model?

Rebooting the Settlement House

A well-traveled African proverb from the rich treasury of the African-American experience informs us that “it takes a whole village to raise a child.” In times past the persecuted black community in the United States drew from our African forebears a system of extended family and close community ties that acted as our safety net and support system long before Jane Addams and her supporters invented the concept of social work. Slavery, American apartheid and overt oppression couldn't tear it apart. Here in the twenty-first century, we find that village on life support, if not in catastrophic failure. Re-gentrification and stratification of urban black culture have produced alienation, lack of opportunities and a seemingly permanent black underclass. The result has been urban violence, drugs and a community preying on itself. This hopelessness and frustration in Chicago drove one local pastor in our Parkway section of the Lawndale community to garner national headlines and support by camping out in the winter, in a tent on the roof of a dilapidated former motel. He did this to raise funds to purchase the land, raze the structure and begin further fundraising (some $15 million worth) to build a community resource center. Hollywood mogul Tyler Perry and an anonymous donor heard about it and gave $98,000 and $85,000 to this work respectively.

Lost in the wake of this feel good story, a place known to all in the community (but less known outside) the Hull House Parkway Community Center ceased seventy-five years of uninterrupted vital community service due to the Jane Addams Hull House bankruptcy. This place was an urban oasis and was providing vital community services like Head Start, after-school, adult literacy and childrens’ and youth athletic and cultural enrichment programs. It was a safe place for children to go to play and learn. We await a new community center in a violence-ravaged community, while a useful building with classrooms, a gymnasium, kitchen and a theater stands vacant.

As a youth pastor in a small store front church located just next door to the center, I often donated and volunteered for many of the programs. This was wise, as we were serving many of the same families.

As far as seeing again what was before, we all realize that that ship has sailed. Publicly available bankruptcy papers from the Chapter 7 filing list 991 creditors from service providers to utilities, to former employees. Social service agencies nationwide are consolidating in order to survive underfunding from government and fewer contributions from private donors, while serving more needy people than ever.

So where does that leave us? I believe that the settlement house and the village model can be resurrected in modern day iterations for the twenty-first century. Volunteers and donors from the community and outside could convert an existing structure into a well insulated energy efficient, sustainable green building, teaching green technologies with a green roof and organic garden for manageable expenses. When I did voluntary hurricane Katrina relief work in 2006, the enterprising Mississippi town of D'Iberville provided a work camp with housing for volunteers and logged those volunteer hours for which they were reimbursed by FEMA , this against expenses charged to the town. That small town was fiscally sound and on its feet looking up months before even debris had been cleared in Gulf Coast neighbor New Orleans. I believe the future of social work is smart, sustainable, green outside partnership for locally staffed and financed micro-development. I am doing due diligence along with my village, my local church family and the local community to acquire the former Parkway Center and give the settlement house another go. Interested parties with information, support or just desiring to check out our progress can presently contact me at: ministarick@yahoo.com; other official avenues of communication and finance will be set up later. Thanks for this forum.

Richard C. Long

Chicago, IL

Mar 4 2012 - 6:15pm