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Cutting the Cord

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"I'm not gonna stand up here waiting for another Martin Luther King to come along," Shekeyah Yehuda said, her voice rising as she exhorted her audience "to get up off that low self-esteem of yours and do something. God helps those who help themselves. You can do it. There ain't nobody who's come through what our ancestors came through and is still standing."

"Mrs. Yehuda's preaching, laying it on the line," murmured a woman in the crowd of 75 people, most of them public-housing residents, attending last month's meeting of the Saint Agatha West Side Scattered Sites Residents' Organization (SAWSSSRO). The three-year-old group, one of the first scattered-site resident organizations in the country, represents people from 300 rental units living in the 23 Chicago Housing Authority apartment buildings dispersed through North Lawndale.

The west siders are far from realizing their dream of managing the properties, but they've come a long way since 1990, when the residents of the building at Albany and Douglas got together to see what they could do about getting such things as a lock on the front door. Word spread quickly after that first meeting at Saint Agatha's, on West Douglas, and more people began coming to meetings. Soon they realized that a show of unity from the large number of CHA buildings in the neighborhood would give them leverage with the bureaucrats downtown.

Demanding that their buildings be either torn down, rebuilt, or rehabbed, the group wound up in federal judge Marvin Aspen's courtroom two years ago. Since then the CHA has budgeted $3 million for improvements and for the demolition of some empty buildings.

On this Tuesday evening the west siders took another big step, conducting their first meeting without Michael Ivers. In his fourth year as pastor of Saint Agatha's, the 45-year-old priest is a peace-and-justice activist who's earned a reputation for creating vehicles that allow people to help themselves. This evening he was in south suburban Country Club Hills having dinner at his mother's house.

Yehuda, a 39-year-old mother of five, filled in ably. A tiny woman whose head barely peeked over the podium, she's president of her local school council and accustomed to speaking her mind in public. Wearing a tan jacket, white button-down shirt, and baggy blue jeans, she looked the part of a confident and experienced community organizer.

Yet earlier, as she handed out agendas to the people streaming into the church hall, she said, "I'm nervous about the organization, about talking, about knowing answers to the questions." Her wide eyes darted around the room. "People don't understand the bureaucracy, the process. Things don't get done at once."

After SAWSSSRO president Marie Davis began the meeting with a prayer, Yehuda announced, "Father Mike isn't here tonight purposely. We decided that it's time for the residents to take charge." The attentive audience crowded around eight tables consisted mainly of women, though there were also men, teens, and small children. Late arrivals were noisily opening folding chairs.

Yehuda then told a joke about a boy who's asked by an angel why he doesn't believe God is in heaven. "My daddy gets up every morning and the first thing he does is knock on the bathroom door," she said, stepping away from the podium to rap the air with her fist. "Then he always says, 'My God, you still in there!'"

The crowd laughed, and Yehuda beamed.

Davis returned to the microphone to introduce the five women of SAWSSSRO's interim board. "This isn't permanent," said Yehuda, the vice president. "We have to have a vote sometime in the next year or two." And, as she later tried to explain, they also need an MOU. "The memorandum of understanding, I forget what that is," she said, frowning. "Some kind of agreement."

Buoyed by a $40,000 HUD grant, the group is embarking on the long road to becoming a Resident Management Corporation (RMC), weaning itself away from CHA supervision and eventually managing its own affairs. No scattered-site development in the city has ever governed itself.

One of the obstacles in the residents' way is a looming mountain of paperwork. To become an RMC, SAWSSSRO will need an MOU with HUD and CHA. To hack through the bureaucratic thicket they'll have to hire a technical assistant, better known as a TA.

"Lack of knowledge is the problem, not lack of money," Yehuda said. She looked around the room at the passive faces and suddenly said she was going to break from the agenda. She said she felt the need to underscore the challenges facing the organization.

"I've got to say that many of you are sitting here waiting for somebody to give you something. The Johnson School has a choir with 50 or 60 kids--and almost no help from parents. Just people saying 'Whaddya gonna give me?' You see Bosnia and all that fighting, and you know it's going to come here too. The black race is in trouble. But don't blame no other race for your troubles.

"There's going to come a time when they stop subsidizing us. There's already a stigma on us here in North Lawndale. Let's talk about reading and housing. You know all this works hand in hand. But if we act strong we can do it. Look at the Hispanics in South Lawndale. They're no different than us, but they take care of their neighborhood. They stick together and now have businesses on every corner."

Later Yehuda said that part of her speech was prompted by two things that had recently happened to her. The previous day at Johnson School she'd watched dismayed as kids came dragging through the door at 9:15, 9:30, and 10:00. And two days earlier she and another woman were walking the neighborhood, distributing fliers for the SAWSSSRO meeting. Standing on the sidewalk in front of a CHA building, the pair suddenly found themselves trapped. Gang members were coming from all sides, and one fellow was racing to his car. Yehuda was sure he was going to grab an Uzi. Her companion said they should run. "I said no, be still. My little heart is pounding, and I started praying." Moments later a police car came around the corner.

Eventually Yehuda returned to the business of describing SAWSSSRO's six-month action plan. "We're in the process of hiring a TA [technical assistant]. And yeah, we're scared, scared to death. Like they say, a nation without vision will perish. There's a lot of money out there to help us, not government money but foundation money. There's the Joyce Foundation and Wieboldt Foundation. We're going to have to write grant proposals. And we're going to have to develop leadership. It's not about saying 'Why you MF.' No, we have to become professional."

There are strings attached to the HUD grant, and Yehuda described them. "We as residents are supposed to sit and discuss what we want to do in our buildings. We have to prioritize. We have to do what they call 'coming to a consensus.' We have to have a vision, a dream. Does anyone have one? Would you like to have lawns and pretty flowers instead of dirt flying everywhere?"

A couple of people mumbled.

"I can't hear you."

"Yes!" several people said.

"Also, we have to maintain the buildings. We can't let kids mess up the hallways. How can janitors do the repair work if they have to spend all their time cleaning up garbage?"

Yehuda paused, scanned the room, and asked for "input." A woman near the back said the people in her building would like a fence to keep kids off the newly planted grass. "We need area coordinators," Yehuda responded. Nobody volunteered. Four or five more people spoke, but they just asked questions. The meeting ran only a few minutes over the scheduled hour.

Yet that evening the group did make progress, Yehuda suggested shortly before closing the meeting with a prayer. "Father Mike fought for us. He got a federal judge to come here and see what we have to live with. This man's been carrying the ball for us for too long. Mike has an agenda that's out of this world. So tonight we're breaking the umbilical cord."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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