Hanging her hat on the possible

Jackie Leavy was a community organizer long before Barack Obama entered the field

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

When Park National Bank was seized by federal regulators on Oct. 30, 2009, the cell phones belonging to an informal network of social justice activists in Oak Park, Austin and surrounding communities began ringing "off the hook."

Jackie Leavy remembered the nature of the phone calls: "Oh my God! Park National is closing. What are we going to do about it?"

If anyone had an answer, she would. In the course of 40 years of community organizing on Chicago's West Side, the Oak Park resident has earned a reputation for being competent, knowledgeable, determined, tireless, fearless, smart, opinionated and compassionate.

Terry Finnegan, who left Park National Bank (PNB) about a year before it was taken over in order to start his own business, works with Leavy in the ad hoc organization that calls itself the Coalition to Save Community Banking (CSCB).

"She called me at home and immediately cajoled me into joining her fledging operation. Her dogged determination, her tireless organizing, emailing, agenda-setting, venue-finding, and coalition-building efforts are nothing short of amazing to watch up close."

Sarah Lira, executive director of Housing Helpers in Maywood, said, "Jackie Leavy has been an integral part of the coalition because she has been our central point of contact, communication and level headedness. She has been the glue that has kept us together."

As the executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group (NCBG) from 1988 through 2007, Leavy and her team won their share of campaigns. They influenced the City of Chicago to fix sidewalks, repave alleys, improve commercial intersections, repair bridges and rebuild viaducts. But their most famous win came in 1992 when the organization was instrumental in forcing the City of Chicago and the CTA to rebuild the Green Line instead of shutting it down.

"It was a wonderful campaign," Leavy recalls. "We got Oak Park and River Forest involved with inner-city neighborhood groups. We got Southsiders and Westsiders in Chicago working together. My goodness, that was a moral victory in itself!"

Many who have worked with Leavy want to lionize her. Cathy Palmer from the Global Network Community Development Corp. said, "Jackie's style is original. There is no other in all the world like Jackie Leavy. She's compassionate about what she believes and is one of the smartest women I have ever known. I met Jackie when we formed the Coalition to Save Community Banking. We have bonded and formed a great relationship. She's my hero."

Leavy herself tries to deflect such adulation by using a kind of "you are what you eat" the metaphor. In other words, who she is today is the product of many people and experiences which have influenced her along the way.

Born in 1949, she grew up on Chicago's Southwest Side in a fairly mainstream, white, middle-class family. The neighborhood was stable, her father worked for Swift Inc. his whole life, and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Her parents were definitely not social justice activists. In fact, when the neighborhood began to change demographically, her father was the first person on the block to sell his house and move out of the city.

Although Leavy's parents would never be labeled as progressive, they did pass on character traits that would inform her community organizing style later on.

"My mother imparted to me a trust in people's better angels," she says. "She told me to always expect the best in people. My father was a hard-headed, pragmatic businessman. His word was his bond. He came out of a business culture where your handshake was something people could really count on."

"My first glimmer of social consciousness was being yanked out of my Chicago neighborhood and Calumet High School," she recalls. "My parents were products of their time and were terrified of the neighborhood integrating. Racial tension could be cut with a knife."

The year was 1964. Race riots flared at Calumet High School. Redlining, block-busting and panic-pedaling were the order of the day, used by real estate agents and politicians to profit from fear. Neighbors she knew, liked and trusted began talking about arming themselves if those "other people" came into the neighborhood.

"I felt that these normal, boring, stable adults and families I grew up around all those years on the same block turned into people who scared me," she said. "For the life of me, I couldn't understand why the adults couldn't be adults ... couldn't understand why somebody wasn't sitting us down and asking how we can keep the peace and get along."

After one year living in Oak Lawn, Leavy's father was transferred to the Washington D.C. area where she went to high school in an affluent suburb in Prince Georges County, Md. Living in three distinctively different socioeconomic settings during her four years in high school forced her to develop adaptive skills and "the gift of gab."

The high school in Prince Georges also provided the incipient social activist another awareness-expanding experience when she visited Central and South America. She saw real poverty for the first time and how the "rest of the world" viewed America. "That really shook me to the core," she recalled. "Encountering the ugly American perception was a real shock. I came back a changed person.

"I saw a break down in big institutions, and systemic forces that served special interests to the detriment of ordinary people. It just struck a chord with me that this was wrong and needed to be addressed and in some measure rectified."

A third consciousness-raising experience took place on April 4, 1968, while she was a music major at Millikin University in downstate Decatur. She didn't hear about Martin Luther King's assassination until late in the day because "I was locked up in a piano practice room." She recalled how the news challenged what she had learned in her Methodist Church and from her parents.

"There did seem to be evil in the world," she said. "There were evil people doing evil things. At the same time my whole upbringing — judge not lest you be judged — kicks in. I'm always reluctant to judge other people. You never really know why other people do things."

That event, however, tipped the balance, and at the beginning of the following semester, she registered as a political science major. The future community organizer, like her parents, was a product of her times. She was inspired by the idealism of the Kennedy era, got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, protested racial discrimination in Cairo, Ill., and spent a semester studying at the United Nations.

It seemed like a logical step, therefore, to enter a Ph.D. program in political science at the University of Chicago. After two years of studies that seemed disconnected from reality, Leavy dropped out of graduate school and went to work for a series of community organizations until in 1988 she became executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a citywide coalition of grassroots community and economic development groups across Chicago.

In the process, she learned much from many people. From followers of Saul Alinsky — arguably the godfather of community organizing in Chicago — she learned to focus on issues that are concrete, winnable and appeal to people's self interest.

From her mentors, Gale Cincotta and Shel Trapp, she learned to respect and enlist ordinary people, folks whom Trapp referred to as "Joe and Jane Six-Pack."

"I was now walking in someone else's shoes," she recalls. "I was learning grassroots organizing techniques. I was so impressed and affected by ordinary people. I found such wisdom, compassion, endurance, strength and forgiveness in common residents. Whenever I get discouraged, I think about some of these people. It's always an uphill battle to try to change the established patterns of power and bring about a little bit of justice."

One of the power structures Leavy and NCBG took on was the office of the Mayor of the City of Chicago and the recently retired Mayor Richard Daley. True to her ethical foundations, she said her organization never demonized the mayor or called, for example, the way he handled tax increment financing (TIF) "evil."

NCBG did consistently criticize Mayor Daley for distributing the city's resources unevenly and unfairly, contending that he overemphasized the financial and tourist sectors in the center of Chicago at the expense of its neighborhoods.

"It's all about fairness, transparency and including people in decision-making," she declared. "Mayor Daley wanted results, and he got results. A lot of people are way better off because of Mayor Daley, but an awful lot of people got left behind."

Leavy brings her nearly 40 years of experience — victories and defeats, but mainly the relationships — to her present work with the Coalition to Save Community Banking. The ad hoc organization's mission is to hold U.S. Bank accountable for carrying on the legacy of Park National Bank — to do more small business and non-profit lending especially on the West Side, to help sustain vital nonprofit institutions and provide more financial literacy programs, and hopefully to establish community reinvestment partnerships with other banks as well.

"Don't get me wrong," Leavy said. "We've come a long way in developing a friendly relationship and collaborative partnership with U.S. Bank." She cited the example of the bank's following through on Park Bank's commitment to making a $3 million contribution to Dominican University's Center for Economic Education and to Christ the King High School in Chicago's Austin neighborhood.

She has not grown cynical after four decades of trying to change the system.

"I believe you can sometimes change city hall and big institutions if you think about the potential," she said. "If more people became engaged, if more of us were doing the kinds of things that have been shown to be effective, just imagine. You always have to hang your hopes on the possible."

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