SSA Centennial - Community Organizing

Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

-Carl Vogel

Small, community-based organizations have the passion to help residents in their low-income neighborhoods. What they're often missing, though, is the money, expertise, or administrative skills to prosper. For the first half of this decade, SSA and the University of Chicago provided technical assistance and professional development to give a boost to many local social service groups in the nearby Woodlawn neighborhood through the Community Outreach Partnership Center.

The Woodlawn program, supported by a federal grant, is just one part of a legacy at the School of a focus on the health of communities and local institutions. "Certainly these issues have been relevant to SSA for years, going back to the settlement house period," says Associate Professor Robert Chaskin.

There's a direct, if informal, line connecting Chaskin's current research on public housing transformation and mixed-income communities with The Tenements of Chicago, the 1936 book by Edith Abbott that extensively outlined the grim living conditions in many neighborhoods and the then-current strategies for "eradicating the slum." Began as the request of the city's chief sanitary inspector, its research was innovative in the use of statistics and field work and showed shortcomings that were already apparent in the execution of the public housing model.

Nearly a century later, one current model for improving distressed communities, removing the city's public housing towers and seeding mixed-income communities in their stead, is being closely watched by SSA researchers led by Chaskin and Mark Joseph, an assistant professor at Case Western University and a former post-doctoral scholar at SSA. New studies completed this year and next will cover a number of issues around Chicago's initiative, including social interactions at the sites and community-building efforts.

In addition to publishing the results in academic journals, Chaskin and his colleagues are working to ensure that the findings are accessible to relevant community stakeholders and policymakers through research briefs and presentations at community and housing developer forums. It's similar to the outreach Chaskin does with his research with MDRC on the New Communities Program, a comprehensive community-building project in more than a dozen low-income Chicago neighborhoods.

For masters students interested in issues around community, the School's Community Organizing, Planning, and Development area of practice option offers a multi-disciplinary foundation that draws on political theory, sociology, and geography among other academic disciplines. The area is built and benefits from a range of innovative research around community issues from faculty including Chaskin, Virginia Parks' work on urban spacial environments, William Sites' research on economic and political structures, policymakers, and community action, and Robert Fairbanks' work on informal poverty survival mechanisms and urban political economy. Growing from a McCormick Tribune fellowship program earlier this decade, the area offers students curricular content, specific workshops, and field placements focused on community-building issues.