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Chicago Commons marks 120th anniversary

Tue, Jul 15, 2014

The social service organization Chicago Commons Association marked 120 years of serving the city in June. The anniversary was commemorated with a celebration that included board members, donors, legislators and elected officials including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said President and CEO Edgar Ramirez. The event was held “to celebrate Chicago Commons’ long- standing contributions to the City of Chicago, and to rally support for all the work that still must be done,” Ramirez said.

Chicago Commons CEO Edgar Ramirez

Chicago Commons CEO Edgar Ramirez

Founded in 1894 by Graham Taylor, the organization began as a Northwest Side settlement house for Irish, German and Scandinavian immigrants. It has since grown to a city-wide entity that seeks to “improve the economic, social and educational well-being of residents living in communities that are at the highest risk of poverty, violence and low educational attainment,” said Chicago Commons Communications and Special Events Manager Carolyn Branton.

Taylor moved to Chicago with his family in 1892 when he was offered the position of Professor of Christian Sociology or “applied Christianity” and Department Chair at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Already interested in the settlement house movement of the day, and having visited Hull House and its founder Jane Addams, as well as other settlement house founders throughout the country, Taylor was inspired to start a similar organization of his own.

“When he accepted his new job in Chicago, he accepted it with the condition that he could work on family and neighborhood rehabilitation,” Branton said. “He saw an opportunity in Chicago to have impact on people as well as social policy.”
By 1903, Chicago Commons had moved into a five-story building at Grand Avenue and Morgan Street, and Taylor had founded the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. In what he called a “wonderful coincidence,” Ramirez received his master’s degree from the school before finding his way to employment at Chicago Commons. While an undergraduate at DePaul University, he had also volunteered at the organization’s Paulo Friere Center in Back of the Yards.

“Growing up in Albany Park made me appreciate the value of multiculturalism in community,” Ramirez said. “One of the most appealing characteristics of Chicago Commons is that it is a very multicultural organization in both the populations it serves and its workforce.” He said that even after his first interview with previous executive director Dan Valliere, “there was a clear alignment of a community vision.”

Valliere left Chicago Commons last year to head a community development organization in Portland, Oregon. Ramirez, who had been in-house as associate executive director, was chosen as the organization’s 7th leader after a six-month national search for Valliere’s replacement.

“I have worked in very modest settings, with very little resources…it helps me at this point, running a large human service organization, [to] keep me focused on Chicago Commons’ mission of partnering with communities to alleviate poverty and isolation with impactful community interventions,” Ramirez said.

With its current administrative headquarters in Grand Boulevard, the organization also has locations in West Humboldt Park, Pilsen and Back of the Yards. “Our programs include child development, youth services, adult education and senior care,” Branton said.

Chicago Commons photo

Chicago Commons photo

The child development program centers on the Reggio Emilio Approach, an Italian educational philosophy that allows children greater control over their learning and personal development. In the past, this approach has largely been seen in more affluent and resource-rich settings. Students in youth services programs also participate in in-school, after school and summer activities; adults advance their education with courses in basic education, English as a Second Language and computer training. The senior care program provides adult day services and in-home care that “keeps 1,600 seniors in their homes, reducing [and] preventing the need for expensive institutional care,” Branton said.

Even after so many years of work in some of the city’s most underserved communities, “our services are just as critical now as they were 120 years ago,” Ramirez said. “I think that the sociological issues immigrant populations face now are similar to ones they faced when Graham Taylor was leading the organization.” He cited “lack of access to quality education, economic issues…[and] isolation from services as well as emotional isolation and prejudice” as community concerns highlighted in Chicago Commons’ mission.

Also, despite undeniable evolution in areas that the organization has served in the past, poverty rates remain high in many neighborhoods. As Chicago Commons marked its historic anniversary, Ramirez said that “this has and will continue to be a year of growth and reflection, so we can continue to build capacity and serve communities for 120 more years.”

Thomas Fowkes
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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