By Mike Isaacs
Inside her cozy Skokie living room, Gail Schechter takes her clarinet from its case and plays a few harmonious notes from it before packing it away again.
She wants to have more time to play music, she says, but that is not the real reason she is resigning next month as executive director of Open Communities. The organization’s self-proclaimed mission is to “educate, advocate and organize to promote just and inclusive communities in north suburban Chicago.”
“This isn’t easy for me to leave although I have been itching to really get back and do organizing,” she said. “I love community organization as well. I just feel like it’s time for somebody to take the baton.”
When Schechter became executive director of the nonprofit more than 20 years ago, the organization was called the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs. A few years ago, it changed its name to Open Communities to reflect its expanded goals.
“Over the years, we were finding that we were getting involved in issues that were beyond housing by popular demand,” she said.
One example she gave is when the Rev. James Meeks, a former Democratic member of the Illinois House, staged a boycott of Chicago Public Schools around the issue of Illinois education funding.
Meeks announced he was coming to New Trier High School with Chicago students; Interfaith helped pave the way for the protest, she remembered.
Schechter grew up in New York City and attended Oberlin University in Ohio before returning after college to work as a tenant organizer in Brooklyn.
At 23, she had a staff of five organizers in Brooklyn, she said. She later was leading a city-wide task force on housing court.
Schechter returned to school, earning an advanced degree in urban and environmental policy from Tufts University. She followed her then-husband to the Chicago area where she knew she would continue working for fair housing and justice.
“I grew up in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens,” she said. “My formative years were in this big middle-income high rise.”
She wanted to live in a real community where it didn’t take 10 minutes just to get out the door, she said.
Aside from her urban upbringing, Schechter also said she was greatly impacted by her mother being a Holocaust survivor, her grandfather having been killed in Auschwitz. Her mother and grandmother survived only because they were taken in by others, she said.
“I wouldn’t be around today if there hadn’t been this amazing large Catholic farm family that protected them,” she said. “I feel my life is a gift and that its purpose is to make sure that I’m useful.”
In Chicago, Schechter initially worked as part of a team for the Center For Neighborhood Technology. She helped administer a loan and grant program for the Amoco Foundation around affordable housing, credit unions and economic development.
Wanting to work closer to her home, she later volunteered for the Interfaith Housing Center for the Northern Suburbs, which was created in 1972.
Posing as a potential tenant, Schechter looked at apartments to document any discrimination to use as evidence for complaints.
Following a test on the Evanston side of Howard Street, Schechter said she had an epiphany about “white privilege.” A landlord regularly charged an application fee, but he said he would waive it for her, she recalled.
“I remember leaving that test, walking out the door, and saying to myself, ‘Would he have said that to me if I was black?'”
Schechter became executive director of Interfaith Housing at the end of 1993.
When Interfaith first got off the ground, she said, there was blatant discrimination that drew a response from people who united from Skokie to Highland Park. Now, the discrimination wasn’t so blatant, but it still needed to be addressed, she said.
“I learned that the unique thing about Interfaith as a fair housing agency is income,” she said. “Here we are on the North Shore where income is as much a barrier to moving here as actual acts of discrimination.”
What became clear to Schechter early on, she said, is that the agency could not talk about fair housing without talking about affordable housing.
Open Communities under Schechter’s leadership has been involved in many different projects. The organizations’ advocacy has revolved around fair housing, foreclosure prevention, landlord and tenant advice, home-sharing, general advocacy and community organizing.
Schechter has worked with many people and government agencies in the Open Communities area, making a lasting impression on many.
“She is someone who is not afraid to speak her mind and is a true advocate for the powerless,” said Skokie Village Trustee Randy Roberts in an earlier interview. “I greatly admire her and am glad that she is part of the Skokie community.”
“Stable, affordable housing is the foundation for individual and family well-being and life opportunities,” said Highland Park attorney Betsy Lassar. “Gail has pursued that for all people regardless of race, income, ethnicity or gender.”
In 1998 and 1999, the agency advocated for tenants who lived in the Admiral Oasis Motel on Waukegan Road in Morton Grove, Schechter remembered. The village was set to tear down the motel, which they considered blight, she said.
Schechter keeps a pin that Open Communities created for tenants and their advocates at the time — it reads “I’m not blight.” She said she considers the agency’s advocacy on those tenants’ behalf to be one of the more memorable projects in which she was involved.
Another was last year’s 50th anniversary celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on Winnetka’s Village Green during the civil rights movement. That speech was a galvanizing event that helped give rise to Open Communities.
But for Schechter, it isn’t just the projects undertaken by Open Communities that account for why she remained its leader for 22 years.
“There is one thing that has kept me going all along at Open Communities,” she said. “You have people who care about justice, and not just for themselves, but for everyone. There is nothing more inspiring than that.”