We are encouraged by the advocacy and leadership of high school students in our Chicago Northshore communities. New Trier High School and Evanston Township High School students are learning about and advocating for solutions to existing housing and economic inequities.
New Trier students are advocating for mixed-income housing in their towns, Kenilworth, Glencoe, Wilmette, Northfield and Winnetka, and getting rave reviews! Village officials, town trustees,
commissioners and community members are expressing excitement about hearing from so many students invested in their communities and so well-versed on housing. All 60 juniors and seniors in New Trier’s Integrative Global Studies School (IGSS) studied poverty and housing this fall, after reading the new Matthew Desmond book, Poverty, by America. (Desmond, M. 2023, Poverty, by America. Crown). Desmond explains that our housing system creates the housing shortage,
“...we create prosperous and exclusive communities. And in doing so, we not only create neighborhoods with concentrated riches but also neighborhoods with concentrated despair…” (Poverty, p. 121.)
One Kenilworth student noted, “Housing is really difficult and complicated, but it shouldn’t be.”
The students want to share the resources in their beloved towns.
One Winnetka student explained, “My family comes from India, and my grandfather used education to improve his social status. My family believes that living in a town with great schools is important and that giving that opportunity to other families, especially with lower incomes, is important.”
Students studied exclusionary zoning laws that affected all Chicago towns, including theirs, which motivated them to advocate for more mixed-income housing options. Their eloquent call for a more diverse housing stock on the exclusive Northshore spurs optimism that future generations will see more inclusive communities.
Open Communities connected with the New Trier IGSS lead teacher, Lindsay Tobias, to learn whether
our team could support their learning around housing advocacy. We know that young adults can make valuable contributions to their communities. Remember Greta Thunberg, the young environmental advocate? She was only 15 when she started her first school strike for climate outside the Swedish parliament!
IGSS is a school-within-a-school at New Trier High School in Winnetka, that juniors and seniors can join. IGSS students take English, history, and art together every afternoon. This integrated approach with large blocks of time spent together allows the undertaking of larger topics. Tobias said,
“IGSS empowers students to formulate creative solutions to real-world, interdisciplinary problems through the application of their learning, to serve their community.”
Open Communities convened a panel of housing experts to support the housing unit. IGSS students prepared hundreds of questions for our panelists. We all met at New Trier one afternoon so students could ask their thoughtful questions in person.
“It was amazing to walk around the classroom listening to students debate the merits of scatter site housing, wonder whether Accessory Dwelling Units would be effective in their town, consider potential obstacles, and research how exclusionary zoning policies have shaped where they live,” remarked Tobias after students met with panelists.
Who was on the panel?
We created a coalition of community partners with housing expertise. Open Communities had four staff
members on the panel: Director of Housing Counseling Sarah Delgado, Director of Fair Housing Dominic Voz, Fair Housing Test Coordinator Kenya Barbara, and Outreach Coordinator Eve Subrin Williams. We invited H.O.M.E. Executive Director Gail Schechter who has long advocated for mixed-income housing on the Northshore, Community Partners for Affordable Housing President Rob Anthony, and Elissa Morgante who created an affordable housing foundation through her architectural firm Morgante Wilson Architects. Huge thanks to our community partners!
The Town Meetings
The students coordinated meetings with every village; the village leaders were welcoming and accommodating, agreeing to meet during the school day. Students met with leaders from their respective villages for about an hour. Leaders included village trustees, housing commissioners, and paid village managers and staff. One Wilmette student said,
“I really liked the hands-on approach to the project. I felt like I was actively making a difference by speaking to the Board.”
What the Students Propose:
Comprehensive plans for affordable housing in each town
Specific locations for the housing
Multifamily mixed-income housing and land trusts
Less expensive housing options so they can afford to return to live in their respective towns
Less expensive housing for older adults (including grandparents)
Allowances for garages to be rented
Less expensive, accessible housing for people with disabilities
Workforce housing for people who work in the villages
More diverse housing stock to create more diverse communities
Students advocated for more inclusive communities with people from all racial and economic backgrounds. A Winnetka student astutely explained to staff,
“People think our towns are like this because they’re a product of market forces and it’s organic, but in reality, it’s a product of deliberate social design.”
Students repeatedly stressed how lucky they feel to live on the Northshore, and they want to share their abundant opportunities. A Glencoe student poignantly reflected,
“How can we expect our town to grow when we just recycle the same people over and over?”
More Student Advocates in Evanston!
Open Communities CEO, Cheryl Lawrence, connected our staff with Evanston Township High School students in the Emerge leadership program, a group started to create social justice leaders. The group meets at Northwestern University and was recently introduced to various organizations that center social
justice initiatives. Emerge is a student-led program that focuses on developing empathy, justice, and community, while fostering youth agency and leadership. There are two different programs, Initiative and
Sustainability. In Initiative, students use the principles of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) to work with a partner organization in order to develop a program that addresses a community issue. In Sustainability, students continue the work of implementing a project that might be sustained long-term. This year, students have chosen projects focused on Economic Disparities and Resource Distribution, among other issue areas for change.
Open Communities welcomes the chance to form community coalitions to increase housing opportunities. In the above instances, we worked in cooperation with high school faculty and students, community experts, village employees, trustees and commissioners, and Northwestern University.
Can we help you build a coalition for housing justice in your community? Can we partner to ignite the next generation to advocate for more inclusive communities?
Let’s brainstorm together! Contact our Outreach Coordinator, Eve, at firstname.lastname@example.org to collaborate.