Woodlawn leadership calls for more businesses

By Carl Pickerill

Woodlawn community leaders say their neighborhood is in dire need of more local jobs while community organizations hope that their training programs can alleviate the problem.

The need for increased employment opportunities in Woodlawn is essential to the health of the community, said Gail Taylor of the Woodlawn Community Service Corporation (WCSC).

“We need jobs,” said Taylor, who is the daughter of Corporation founder Faris Mercherson, at the fourth anniversary of the Corporation. “Businesses need to know that people in this area want to buy things and that they can buy things—the only way job creation is going to happen, though, is with more retail development in the area.”

An increase in residential and retail development along 63rd Street has been apparent in recent years. Unfortunately, however, opportunities for job training in the community have proven to be limited at best.

“Many people looking for jobs within Woodlawn would prefer to stay within the area,” said Charles Jackson, an officer at the Illinois Department of Employment Security, which refers job seekers to training and apprenticeship programs in the city. “Woodlawn has a few places within the area where people can work, but once those contacts have been used, then we have to start working our way out of the area, looking for places for people to work.”

The First Aid Care Team (FACT) is a first response unita of the Jane Addams Hull House Association and the Chicago Fire Department located at the Parkway Community House on 67th Street. It is in the process of implementing a new strategy to combat the issue of insufficient job opportunities by expanding their EMT training program, particularly for residents facing the challenges of poverty and forced relocation.

“Our intent is to open our training services to anyone who’s interested,” said Camille Quinn, FACT Program Director and 1998 graduate of the University’s School of Social Service Administration. “A special focus has been placed upon former and current [Chicago Housing Authority—CHA] residents because they are generally the ones who are at or below the poverty line.”

Some voices within the Woodlawn community are still clamoring for job opportunities, however, indicating that the University should perhaps assume a more active role.

“There’s not enough effort being done right now,” said Alice Johnson, head of the South Side Federal Credit Union, “The people at the University have to come outside that campus. They set up eateries and restaurants in Hyde Park. Why can’t they do it here on 63rd Street?”

Johnson pointed to the glut of barren land in Woodlawn, which she said would easily lend itself to retail development.

The University, for its part, is involved with the FACT program, providing medical oversight for the program, and ensuring that the work done is in accordance with the standards at the Illinois Department of Public Health, said Camille Quinn.

“We meet monthly with the groups we are associated with, including the University, and they are 100 percent invested in the FACT program and many would be happy to hire the staff we train,” Quinn said. The CEO of Jane Addams Hull House Association is Clarence Wood and the South Region Director is Larry Alexander.

FACT, which responds to emergencies in three Chicago public housing units—often accessing hard-to-reach, high-rise areas that the Fire Department has trouble reaching— is facing the need to restructure its mission following the demolition of Robert Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens in 2002-2003 by CHA. Although many former public housing residents have moved to other complexes, such as Harold Ickes Homes on 22nd and State Street, others have been pushed out toward the south suburbs.

Quinn said that the last time she went to visit one of their sites, at Dearborn Homes on 29th and State Street, she overheard the conversation of a man who was displaced by the Housing Authority to Richton Park. “I remember him saying he wasn’t going to [move from the community] because he had a job in Downer’s Grove, and it would have meant another long commute on top of his one hour commute to the western suburbs just to get to work.”

Quinn underscored the point that there has been pressure recently on residents to vacate the near South Side, using vouchers provided by the CHA to find housing elsewhere. This has presented Chicago’s poorer South Side residents with the challenge of uprooting their families and changing their employment situation. The ultimate effect has been to concentrate pockets of poverty in other regions of the city.

She sees job-training programs, like those provided by FACT at Hull House, as paramount to combatting poverty in Chicago. “Our goal in the coming years will be to create a different vision for the program,” she said.

Cornelia Gray, a former resident of the now demolished Robert Taylor homes on State and 54th Streets, began her training with the FACT program in 1983. “I was a single parent with one child, no job,” said Gray. “I had graduated high school, but with a child, I had to stay home to take care of it.”

Gray was eventually contacted by the Fire Department and the Chicago City Colleges in their effort to recruit poor city residents for employment and training as EMTs.

“They asked me if I was interested, I said ‘yes,’ got my training from City College and eventually signed on with Hull House on 67th Street, the delegate agency of the Chicago Fire Department,” Gray said. “I started, and then worked up the ranks, went back to Christ Hospital in Oaklawn to get my paramedic license and if I were interested now in a position as an EMT with the Fire Department I would be first on the list to be hired.”

Because the Chicago Fire Department provides technical assistance to the FACT program, graduates of EMT job training are given special consideration when employment opportunities with the Fire Department become available, Quinn said.

Gray, who is still with the FACT program as a program manager at the Parkway Hull house, also instructs EMT trainees of her own at Malcolm X College on the near West Side. Quinn alluded to the increase in FACT’s recruitment efforts within CHA housing, and at Malcolm X College.

“This program is unique and the education it has brought me is probably the best thing that has come into my life,” Gray said.