Wednesday, February 8, 2012

R.I.P Hull House

For those of you unfamiliar with Hull House, here's the rundown:
It's old.
Started in 1889 by public intellectuals, authors and suffragettes Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, Hull House began as a safe haven for feminist activism. Founders Addams and Starr worked tirelessly to provide shelter for neglected children, female victims of domestic abuse, and European immigrants.Under their watch, Hull House helped influence loads of legislation, from creating the local library branch system in Chicago, to child labor laws and immigrant rights. What started as a state-level project to ameliorate poverty, turned into a major political platform for the Progressive party on the federal level.
Jane Addams, co-founder of Hull House

Hull House was created out of the founding tenants of Americanism-- hard work should yield equal rights and opportunities. Its mission was the kind of thing we only hear presidents talk about now, but never fully feel the effects. I mean, here's an inspiring tidbit: Starr taught Shakespeare, Browning, and Dante in the slums of Chicago before "reading initiative programs" even existed!

The original Hull House building
Over time, Hull House grew out of its physical namesake house, and into a larger umbrella organization offering social welfare services across the city of Chicago.The association had over 50 programs in 40 sites, serving around 60,000 individuals, in families and communities every day. Late last month, however, with little warning, Hull House employees were handed their last paycheck. Few knew the organization was in financial trouble, let alone filing for bankruptcy.
The words "too big to fail" didn't seem to hold true in the banking industry-- but where does this leave non-profits?

The social issues that moved Addams and Starr to start Hull House haven't drastically changed in the last, oh, 123 years. Addams wrote in her book The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909), that she feared the urban life had a negative effect on children, harming the spirit of youth ( as the title suggests). Art, drama, and foreign language, and free-speech were valued above all. In her public speeches, Addams strayed from academic language, hoping to inspire and reach an audience without an education. This is a pre-World War ideology we're talking about here, where the practice of democracy trickled evenly into the realm of ethics, immigration, and most importantly, education. 

What does a non-profit strive to do now? Provide economic empowerment options, better educate youth, and facilitate social mobility-- these objectives don't seem too far from our predecessors' (Addams and Starr) initial dream. So how can something so deeply embedded in an American and Chicagoan history,  just go away? Why does Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac get bailed out, while Hull House slowly sinks into a watery grave?

I already mentioned earlier this week that we had to say goodbye to one of our locations after our after-school coordinator was let go from Hull House. Although this is something that personally hit our organization, it's more shocking that I was one out of 60,000 individuals in Chicago affected by the Hull House. So what is there to say? 

The slums of yesteryear, aren't distant cousins from the urban housing projects of today.
Chicago Slums 1890s

Chicago Urban Housing 2012
I feel like everyone in the non-profit game wanes in enthusiasm from time to time. Education outreach or urban renewal, more than any other philanthropic sect, seems to be the hardest-- a constant battle upstream. Because donors are rarely from lower-income themselves, there isn't the same humanist and subjective impulse to donate, as there is, say for cancer research. Changing lives is an amorphous goal, especially in today's world where evidence, results, and science feel like the only ways to actually demonstrate progress. Is it the inability to chart progress, through human lives, what keeps the education reform movement stagnant?

But, what about these photos? Can we say there's been progress? I think there's definitely been an increase in the quality of education since the 1890s-- but in a much different way than Starr and Addams probably envisioned.

Does the mere structure of American society ensure that "urban housing" or slums will exist? With all the help from non-profits, how can we still feel like we are getting nowhere fast? Which of us are too small to fail, but too small to make a real difference, too?

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