February 18, 2019

At SSA Teach-In, Activists Talk Potential Benefits of Obama Center CBA

On Tuesday night, Eve Ewing, a professor at the School of Social Service Administration (SSA), moderated a panel held at the SSA of local activists advocating for a community benefits agreement (CBA) with the Obama Foundation, the City of Chicago, and the University of Chicago. The panelists were Parrish Brown, from Black Youth Project 100, and Marilyn Harper and Alex Goldenberg (A.B. ’06) from Southside Together Organizing for Power.

Panel members were organizers for the Obama Community Benefits Agreeent Coalition, an organization of community activist groups, formed after the announcement in 2016 that Jackson Park would house the Obama Presidential Center. UChicago for a CBA, one of the Coalition’s members, hosted the teach-in.

Ewing asked the panelists to describe what they see as the neighborhood’s future without a CBA.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of big, flashy developments come in with foreign money that’s not accountable to anybody who lives here and wealth that will accumulate for nobody who lives here either,” Goldenberg said.  “I think we’ll see a lot of high-end restaurants on 63rd, low wage service jobs, and that’s about it,” he added.

Brown predicted “Black and low-income folks being pushed out to the margins.”

Harper summed up the panel’s bleak view of the scenario. “We have to take necessary steps now because if we don’t, there won’t be a community to save,” she said.

The panelists were optimistic about the potential of a CBA for the area, with Brown predicting better jobs, fewer food deserts, and “an investment in people, for a change.”

Goldenberg also emphasized that the University would benefit from investing in the community as well.

The University has yet to sign on to a CBA. Goldenberg described an early meeting with Derek Douglas, the University’s vice president for civic engagement and external affairs, saying, "The first time we met with Derek Douglas he was like, 'Well we already own the land so...why would we even talk about giving in to anything that you ask of us?'”

Douglas told The Maroon that this description of his remarks was “not accurate.”

“When the University partnered with the South Side community five years ago in an effort to bring the Obama Presidential Center (OPC) to the South Side, our collective hope was to bring new economic opportunity to an area and to existing residents that stood to gain tremendously from it,”  he wrote in a letter to the Hyde Park Herald published on Wednesday. Douglas also stressed the University’s status as the largest employer on the South Side, with over 5,000 employees who live locally, and cited several University initiatives—including its goal of relying on 35 percent minority-owned businesses for construction jobs and dining contractor Bon Appetit’s commitment to 45 percent local hiring—as evidence of the institution’s dedication to the surrounding community.

When asked by The Maroon, Douglas did not respond to the question of whether the University would reconsider its stance on the CBA in response to a large demonstration of student support.

The panel concluded with advice for students on how to become involved with the push for a CBA. Goldenberg encouraged attendees to vote in the 20th Ward aldermanic race, and noted that local voters will see a non-binding referendum for a city CBA ordinance on their ballots for the municipal election on February 26. The referendum will appear on ballots in Fifth Precinct of the Fifth Ward and First, 22nd, and 23rd Precincts of the 20th Ward.

“Any time that you’re part of an institution that has an evil history, you still have an opportunity as part of that institution to change the narrative and to say ‘this is not what it means, you do not speak for me,’” Ewing said.