Introduction to capitalism: suburban mentors work with west-side minorities in joint economic ventures | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Introduction to capitalism: suburban mentors work with west-side minorities in joint economic ventures 

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A visitor to this near-west-side neighborhood won't be long deceived by the colorful sign at 2454 W. Harrison: "B and E Country Store: Specializing in Country Ham and Loose Chitterlings." The door and windows are shuttered, testimony to a steady economic deterioration in the neighborhood that gives some streets an eerie ghost-town atmosphere.

But inside, an unlikely combination of people is planning not only the renovation of the building but the economic revival of this community. It's a Tuesday night in mid-June, and a group of Latinos, blacks, and suburban whites are discussing ideas for a grand-opening party in August, when they will dedicate the building and announce to the neighborhood the project they've been working on for nearly 18 months.

The Partnership for the Common Good brings together neighborhood people and affluent suburbanites in joint business ventures that combine the business acumen and contacts of suburban corporate types with the energy and various talents of inner-city people. Since it began as a planning council in January 1989, the partnership has already launched several projects, some of them quite successful.

But there is more to this partnership than the profit motive. The idea is "to create new ways of living together as Christians." That means, in part, bridging cultural gaps, not only between inner-city people and suburbanites but between blacks and Latinos. What the partnership has done is give a sort of capitalist flavor to the liberation-theology concept that Christian communities will be the foundation for social change. The partnership would like to give powerless people access to the same opportunities and connections as the wealthy--put capitalistic individualism and competition to work to better the community as well as the individual, spiritually as well as materially.

The partnership's founding members are Darrell Rupiper, a priest at the neighborhood's Precious Blood Church, and Jim McKeown, a Naperville marketing consultant who phased out his own successful business in order to work full-time for the partnership. Despite a drastic life-style change, McKeown is still very much the businessman--he gets up at 5:30 in the morning, often wears a suit and tie at the partnership, works 10- to 12-hour days, and talks about "putting product lines to bed." He believes in the system that made him wealthy and thinks it can work for others. The partnership is an opportunity to "plug people into the power system," he says. "If we can plug them in, they can capitalize on opportunities, generate further connections, business, and assets. They can have some direction to their lives."

Rupiper has a long history of peace activism and civil disobedience. In the 1960s, while working with poor communities in Brazil, he was accused by the government of being a Communist and an internal security risk; he was then jailed, released only after pressure from the U.S. government, and expelled from the country. In the 1980s, he spent a total of nine months in Chicago's Metropolitan Correctional Center for three separate sentences for civil disobedience during nuclear-weapons protesting. After five years of working amid the gangs, drugs, and poverty of this neighborhood, Rupiper is realistic about the neighborhood's revival: "I'm not going to sprinkle with holy water the capitalist system. But I think we are approaching the poor with a real sense of respect, recognizing their dignity and what they have to help the wealthy put into perspective their own lives. I've been protesting all my life. This is one of the first times I've felt my protest is really impacting the wealthy and really helping the poor."

Nina (who has asked that we not print her last name) was an unemployed single mother last November when her parents, members of the partnership's council, suggested that she become involved in the group's first project, the sale of holiday fruit baskets from the floundering locally owned J and J Fruit Market. Nina was hired to do paperwork, but when the partnership realized it needed a local person to run the project, she got the job. She supervised nine other workers for the five-week run, which grossed $15,000, largely in sales to suburbanites. The $5,000 in profit went back into the partnership.

This work gave Nina a sense of ownership and control she hadn't experienced in other jobs. It was also an opportunity to do something for the neighborhood, which had been a fairly prosperous and friendly place when her parents moved into it 30 years before but since then had deteriorated and grown hostile. Nina encouraged rapport between blacks and Latinos, because she noticed early on that blacks were working on one side of the room and Latinos on the other. "But then I paired people off, a Spanish with a black worker, and after a couple of days everybody was working together. They was trying to teach us Spanish, we was trying to teach them English. We was sharing our collard greens, they was sharing their tacos. We talked and found out that we share lots of the same problems."

Reluctant to lose momentum, Nina and McKeown decided they should create a permanent project to sell seasonal gifts. The 16-member governing council approved the idea, and thus was born Nina's own company, Nina and Friends. Their next project was Mother's Day gifts; Nina and two Latino women learned how to make artificial-flower corsages and arrangements. They borrowed $4,600 from the partnership, bought supplies, designed order forms, made contacts with DePaul University business students who helped with sales, and hired ten workers for three and a half weeks at $4.50 an hour. Although the project grossed only $3,200, Nina is optimistic about selling the remaining inventory. More important, she says, is the fact that neighborhood people for the first time planned and executed a project on their own, from start to finish. (The fruit baskets were designed by suburban people involved in the partnership.)

For Nina, running a business requires risks she never imagined taking. In April, through McKeown's contacts, she spoke to about 85 businesswomen and -men at the Naperville Rotary Club. She was the only black person present. In the middle of her talk, her voice cracked and she lost her train of thought, but when she told the people "I'm afraid and I'm struggling," they gave her a round of applause. Afterward people were quick to congratulate Nina on her business sense.

The scene may do more than hint at white patronage, which seems almost inevitable despite the partnership's explicit wish to counter it. The partnership has to appeal to people with money and contacts, and in turn, these people like the idea of helping people help themselves. Nina doesn't see it as patronage so much as outside support, which she says is critical in a neighborhood where people are reluctant to take risks. "People in this neighborhood have been told for so long that things are going to get better, and they haven't seen it, so they're real skeptical," she says. "My pride is on the line. I'm taking the risk."

In the fall of 1988, Jim McKeown was 56 years old, the head of his own profitable marketing-consultant business, and considering some changes. He and his wife, Evelyn, had raised eight children, six of whom were through college. "There was something gnawing at me that I wanted to be doing," he says.

That October the McKeowns went on a retreat, "Feel the Inner City," organized by Rupiper and other members of his community. "It really shook me," McKeown recalls. "I remember walking the streets that day. We had heard about the way people were shoved around, about gentrification. And here I had existed out in the suburbs, a well-meaning, goodwilled person, not knowing anything. I had really abandoned them . . . I remember thinking, there is no way these problems are ever going to be resolved."

Several months later, Rupiper called together people who had been at the retreat and they began to brainstorm about ways to address the problems--thus the idea of the partnership. The McKeowns decided Jim should work full-time with the project; he phased out his business, and Evelyn went to work at Illinois Benedictine College to help make up some of the vast loss in the family's income.

Unlike Nina, whose style is measured and relaxed, McKeown is very much the aggressive, persistent entrepreneur. Before he started his own business, McKeown had been a marketing consultant for several Fortune 500 companies, and in some ways he still seems to be dealing with them. At the June meeting to plan the grand opening, he interrupts Nina's explanation to give his own version of the plan. He has big ambitions: he wants to raffle off 30 to 50 gifts, but the rest of the council says 3 to 5 is more realistic.

To his credit, McKeown is conscious of his desire to control the situation: "We come from a society of efficiency. It's so hard for me to allow ownership to people who stand around and hope. I'm used to jumping in and doing things for them. It's been very hard for me. Father Darrell and Father Bob [Kell, also of Precious Blood Church] have been coaching me. We have to avoid a neocolonization of sorts."

One of the partnership's biggest tasks is to confront the attitudes, on both sides, that accompany such an intrusion, if not colonization, by a wealthy culture. Suburbanites' attitudes are one thing, but the neighborhood people may have feelings of dependency and mistrust.

Vivian Johnson was extremely skeptical when the partnership began. She has lived in the neighborhood on and off for 13 years and blames its economic problems on the inequities of the capitalist system, "which is based on an upper class and an underclass." When she heard about the partnership through Precious Blood, she was anxious to get involved in order to better the community, but she also had reservations: "I thought they [the suburbanites] were probably here strictly for personal gain, that they saw an opportunity where they could join an organization, a minority group, and as you know the government awards grants to minority groups . . . I thought we were going to be victims of exploitation once again."

Her fears have not yet been realized, Johnson says, and right now she's relatively comfortable being involved in the partnership through her seat on the elected council. Of the 16 people on the council, 4 come from the suburbs; of the neighborhood people, all but one or two have incomes below the poverty line.

Recently the partnership received a much-needed shot in the arm--a $20,000 grant from the Campaign for Human Development. That will help them with other projects in the works: a transportation company for the disabled, elderly, and others; a furniture- refurbishing and -resale venture; and a cookbook project that would collect recipes from various neighborhood culture. Nina and Friends is already gearing up for an expanded Christmas season, including cards, decorations, ornaments, and wreaths. The partnership has also started to explore buying property in the neighborhood through city programs available to community groups.

But the key to the partnership's success, says Rupiper, will not be its dollars-and-cents profitability: "There has to be a hell of a lot of goodwill, not motivated just by dollars but by a collective desire to build something better. The foundation has to be a willful, conscious effort to make this a better community. That's an ingredient that can't be bought."

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

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