Whether the outcome is a modest home for a working family in Deerfield or the promise of an excellent education for any child in Illinois, it all starts with “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens [to] change the world,” as Jan Marsden-Johnson, winner of Open Communities’ Housing Action Award, quoted Margaret Mead at the agency’s “Open Minds Open Doors” celebration on May 29, 2013.
Over 185 people nodded in agreement from throughout the northern suburbs and Chicago at the award reception and fundraising event at the Park Center at the Glen in Glenview. Open Communities transformed itself from the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs to assist more “thoughtful, committed citizens” to build inclusive and diverse nothern suburbs through community organizing.
Rayna & Marvin Miller Housing Justice Award: Gail Schechter
On her 20th anniversary as Open Communities’ Executive Director, Gail Schechter was honored for organizing racially, ethnically, and economically diverse residents in the northern suburbs. Her pioneering work in justice-oriented community organizing in suburban Chicago earned her the 2013 Rayna & Marvin Miller Housing Justice Award. (Gail is pictured at right, with Susan Marie Connor, Board President of Open Communities).
Gail’s work spans the sixteen northern suburbs where she has dedicated her career to uniting local residents across race, class, and religion to address discriminatory housing and other social injustices. Some of her achievements have included: organizing low-income Morton Grove motel tenants, Skokie cab drivers, and Highwood Latino renters fighting displacement; assisting residents of more affluent communities such as Northbrook, Park Ridge, Wilmette, and Winnetka to work for affordable housing in their own communities; uniting religious leaders in the wake of hate shootings in 1999; and bringing parents, teachers, and religious leaders together as United We Learn to push for education funding reform in the wake of State Sen. Rev. James Meeks 2008 protest with Chicago children at New Trier High School. In February 2012, she was appointed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to fill the “affordable housing advocate” seat on the newly constituted Housing Appeals Board.
In accepting the Miller Award from Open Communities’ Board President Susan Marie Connor, Gail said, “I think the most compelling aspect of Open Communities is that success is measured by the extent to which means you, the collective you, are in the limelight.” She shared her “five organizing principles” for others to use, “because you can organize and build a just community. You don’t need a hammer and nails to change the world. You need the essential qualities of passion, values, and respect, combined with the ability to harness people power.” (For Gail’s speech, click here.)
“You need a vision of what can be, anger about what is, and confidence in the organizing process.”
Jan Marsden-Johnson and Gerald Howard (pictured at right, with presenter and 2012 Housing Action Award winner Butler Sharpe, also of Deerfield) won the Housing Action Award, for realizing
the first affordable single-family home in Deerfield. They were on the Board of the Deerfield Senior Housing Corporation which owns One Deerfield Place, the only affordable housing in the suburb. They had a vision of using this asset to leverage more affordable housing, this time for people of all ages and abilities. They tried to get cooperation from the Village but to no avail. So remaining
true to their goals, they worked their congregation, Christ United Methodist Church, and the non-profit Housing Opportunity Development Corporation, to realize this dream — buying up, fixing, and renting a home to a family with two children, who worked locally at Abbott Labs but otherwise could not afford to live in the area. And now, another house is in the works, this time for a family with disabilities.
“I have been interested in affordable housing for many years, as part of a larger dream of creating a more tolerant and respectful society,” said Jan.
Honoring Fair Housing Advocates for Winning Fair Housing Rights for Housing Choice Voucher Holders
Brendan Saunders of Open Communities acknowledged the tireless work of our Chicago-area fair housing colleagues — Metropolitan Tenants Organization, Access Living, the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Housing Action Illinois, the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, and the South Suburban Housing Center — in capping off a 10-year campaign to gain fair housing rights for Housing Choice Voucher holders (formerly Section 8) in Cook County.
Open Communities also thanked County Commissioners Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Robert Steele, and Larry Suffredin for their leadership. They would have attended the event but for an extended County Board meeting that day. President Toni Preckwinkle prefaced the May 8, 2013 vote by reiterating her strong support for affordable housing and urging the Board to approve this civil right measure.
Open Communities: Our First Year
“Today, we should be called Open Wings,” said Gail at the event. 2013 is the agency’s first year as Open Communities, having transformed itself from the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs in October 2012. Open Communities’ mission is to educate, advocate and organize to promote just and inclusive communities in north suburban Chicago. The name change and broadened mission expand the agency’s capacity to assist local residents to come together around diversity-related issues such as equitable public school funding and immigrant integration, in addition to fair and affordable housing. Inclusive and diverse communities are healthy, robust and right.
Rayna & Marvin Miller Housing Justice Award
In honor of Rayna and Marvin Miller, founders of Open Communities in 1972 (then called the North Shore Interfaith Housing Council) and long dedicated to eradicating racial and economic discrimination in housing in Wilmette and surrounding suburbs, the Rayna and Marvin Miller Housing Justice Award was established in 2008 to reward and publicize north suburban grassroots achievement by residents to bring about diverse and inclusive communities in their own backyards. The Millers were active with numerous local groups such as the League of Women Voters of Wilmette and the Wilmette Community Relations Commission. Rayna famously said, “If you have the spirit to struggle, you will have the power to prevail.”
Thanking Our Sponsors
Open Communities gratefully acknowledges the generosity of its event sponsors:
Major Corporate Sponsors: BMO Harris Bank, First Bank of Highland Park
Event Corporate Sponsor: North Shore Community Bank & Trust
Patron Corporate Sponsor: First Bank & Trust
Open Communities Friends: Ann Airey, Ellen & Michael Alter, Rev. Robert & Shirley Burkhart, Congregation Hakafa, Susan Marie Connor, Nancy & Bill Goldberg, The Hudson Company, Todd Logan, Illinois Association Of Realtors, Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism, Jen & Rick McQuet, North Shore-Barrington Association of Realtors, Northbrook Bank & Trust, Jennifer O’Neil, Saint Gregory’s Episcopal Church, Christine Strobel, Temple Jeremiah
…and we thank everyone who attended the event, contributed to the silent auction, and otherwise made a donation. Open Communities exceeded its goal and netted $25,000 from “Open Minds Open Doors.”
Proceeds will be used to support Open Communities’ work:
- Housing services for low- and moderate- income individuals – fair housing enforcement; foreclosure & predatory lending prevention; landlord tenant complaint Investigation and Homesharing.
- Organizing local residents to come together to prevent displacement and promote equitable housing policies and other economic and social justice issues such as access to quality public school education, transportation and immigrant integration.
- Immigrant leadership development to facilitate self-expression and civic engagement.
- Advocacy for affordable housing development, programs and policies as well as community education to build support for fair and affordable housing
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