Our South Side

Published in the Spring 2010 issue of SSA Magazine

Abstract: The South Side of Chicago, filled with a mix of vibrant communities and neighborhoods, is also the home of the University of Chicago. SSA has a long history of ties to organizations throughout the South Side in service of its mission to combine research with action in order to help distressed individuals, families and neighborhoods. Now, working with the University’s Office for Civic Engagement, SSA is creating more collaboration and partnership between the University and the surrounding communities and hosting events such as town meetings and information sessions.

SSA and the University of Chicago’s neighborhood tour of research and advocacy

From its beginning, the School of Social Service Administration has always seen its mission to do more than study the issues faced by distressed individuals, families and neighborhoods. By explicitly linking research to action, teaching generations of practitioners and leaders, and working with service providers through field education, SSA is a partner and resource for communities, and nowhere is that more true than in the School’s home, the South Side of Chicago.

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and according to the 2000 Census the South Side is home to 1.3 million people. It is a home for families and neighbors who have defined neighborhoods such as Bronzeville and its proud history, live in the bungalow belt of Auburn Gresham, and enjoy picnics, baseball and the DuSable Museum in Washington Park. The South Side is home to a multitude of churches, block clubs, stores and schools.

SSA does not have a direct connection to every community on the South Side—it’s hard to imagine any one organization could—but through its programs and people, the School has an impressively wide and deep relationship with institutions throughout the area; the photos and programs on these pages are only a sample of the School’s interaction. “SSA has been the leader in community engagement in Chicago for over a hundred years–and though we lead the way, we lead by example. We have a historic record of positive community engagement and we continue to seek ways to enhance that engagement,” says Associate Professor Waldo E. Johnson, Jr.

Today, SSA is in a new partnership with the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, which is writing a new chapter to the University’s history with the surrounding neighborhoods. In the past, the U of C has been described by its neighbors as at best aloof, and at worst a bully. Today, though, under the leadership of President Robert J. Zimmer, the University is developing permanent and positive relationships with communities on the South Side.

The efforts are being led by Ann Marie Lipinski, the University’s vice president for civic engagement, who is working with the city and local communities to determine how to best leverage the strengths of the University to provide transdisciplinary approaches to urban challenges. “We are working toward a model where the University’s distinctive assets can be focused on Chicago’s opportunities or problems in ways that create unique value and relationships. Much of that is achieved through partnerships with faculty, and we have spent significant time with members of the SSA faculty, whose work often aligns with the city’s most pressing issues,” she says. “Dean Jeanne Marsh has been a tremendous partner.”

Lipinski’s office has worked with SSA faculty such as McCormick Foundation Professor of Social Service, Law, and Public Policy Jens Ludwig and Helen Ross Professor Harold Pollack on the University of Chicago Crime Lab. The office has worked on education issues with Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor Charles Payne and Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor Melissa Roderick, and with Johnson, the community engagement chair for the South Side Health and Vitality Studies. She notes that SSA Associate Professor Robert Chaskin, whose expertise is in community development and organizing, has spoken eloquently about connecting experience to scholarship and the opportunities the University has to harness skills across disciplines. “That’s a potent idea,” Lipinski says.

A big part of the approach is working in partnership. “We’re creating a new paradigm in how we collaborate with the South Side community,” Johnson says. “All urban universities bear some responsibility to their communities. But it means that we are a ‘partner’ not a ‘leader.’” For example, before the Mapping Project was started, Johnson, SSA Professor Colleen Grogan (the project’s co-chair), and other University faculty and staff worked with local aldermen and church and community leaders to create an advisory board to determine how best to conduct the surveys. “Community engagement sometimes means that we’re behind the scenes or part of the choir,” Payne says.

The Office of Civic Engagement has engaged the South Side by holding town hall meetings for community leaders and residents (hosted at SSA) where collaborations and research projects have been presented and discussed. Other groups, such as the Community and Economic Development Organization, a joint student group of SSA and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, have held information sessions for the residents of Woodlawn and the University community, and Lipinski’s office has also worked with SSA on projects such as the Census Conference held at the School in February (see “Stand Up and Be Counted,” page 6).

“We’re asking communities to collaborate with us as research partners, not solely as research subjects. This approach includes working with communities to determine the appropriate questions and subsequent projects that should be pursued and how the community can be brought into the decisions about how the research is conducted in a respectful manner,” Johnson says. “This is a very different approach than in the past, where social scientists would go into communities and observe them as outsiders. We want to conduct research that’s going to be useful to the communities as well as the University.”

-By Julie Jung