“Forget the address. Got some paper? Take these notes. Here’s how you’ll really find this place.”

When Bob Vondrasek gets someone from a newspaper on the phone, the one-time English teacher opts for nothing flowery, especially when he learns that person has no problem boarding a bus to cover a protest.

Vondrasek, a community organizer since the 1960s who can talk about his days with Saul Alinsky and Gale Cincotta, means business from the get-go. At 72, this oldest member of the Coalition for Community Banking is a seasoned coach who misses no opportunity to focus and involve people. In a U.S. House of Representatives meeting room Thursday morning, he made sure two people arriving seconds before the much-awaited hearing found seats in the last full row. He asked everyone to scooch and share the lined-up chairs: “Come on, folks, we can do this. This is old-school.” That afternoon, in a strategy meeting about who should stay to meet with the federal regulators and U.S. Bank and who should go ahead to visit offices on Capitol Hill, Vondrasek suggested a quick negotiation at the beginning of the meeting for coalition members interesting in auditing, but not speaking, to be allowed seats in the back of the room.

Picking up on little things. Tending to them immediately to make a situation better. That’s Bob’s gift, his old friend Jacqueline Reed would say. And in this coalition – as in every healthy community – Reed will tell you, everyone has a gift.

“You don’t have to be shy about your gift. You say, ‘This is what I do,'” says Reed, mother of the mothership in Austin that’s the Westside Health Authority. And for Reed, who defines the second word in her organization’s name as overall well-being, when you share your gift, you empower yourself and your community.

Empowerment was the word last week for the historic trip to Washington, D.C., by members of the grassroots group that for weeks has been demanding – and this month got – a Congressional hearing into the takeover of Park National Bank.

‘We’ve had enough’

“This was civil rights stuff from 40 years ago – that we have a voice, that we can make a difference,” said Reed, a social worker with a degree from the University of Chicago who 22 years ago founded what’s now the largest nonprofit in Austin.

“We’re not the big-money groups with special interests. We don’t have lobbyists framing our arguments. We’re not unions throwing clout around. This is just ordinary people who had a relationship with a little bank and with a banker who would stick his neck out for them. Ordinary people who said, ‘We’ve had enough.'”

Reed, who is 60 and has a father who’s sick and a husband who’s on dialysis, took a plane to Washington. But members of her staff went on the bus, along with neighborhood representatives they work with, whom she calls citizen leaders. Westside Health Authority had the most people on the bus of 41 passengers. Groups from three other West Side institutions filled most of the Spirit Tours motor coach: Bethel New Life, a community hub in West Garfield from where the bus departed and whose CEO, Steve McCullough, delivered the coalition’s testimony at the hearing; South Austin Coalition Community Council, the nonprofit that Vondrasek has led since 1978; and Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, the congregation of Rev. Marshall Hatch, another member of the coalition. Hatch is the one who closed a prep meeting the night before the bus ride by saying, “You can’t just do anything to the West Side. We fight back!”

A quieter contingent

Individual Oak Parkers made up the smallest group bound for Washington. Though among them are activists who’ve demonstrated for women’s lib, against Vietnam and for fair housing, theirs is not-so-fiery an approach to mounting a protest.

“We didn’t have to fight city hall. We had the Village of Oak Park on our side. That all makes for a different approach,” says Bobbie Raymond, who’s activism started in the 1970s, when she fought for racial balance in the village by founding the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. All along she knew of Vondrasek and his work in Austin.

“This is gut-level stuff. There’s nothing like that type of community activism,” Raymond says of what she calls the Austin brand of organizing. “Bob and I sometimes weren’t on the same side, but I always respected him.”

The fact that Vondrasek is a year older than she is and endured the bus ride isn’t lost on Raymond, who used air miles to fly to Washington. She sees herself and Vondrasek, an Oak Brook resident who’s lived more years in Oak Park, as rare 70something locals who are still getting out and making their stances know. “A lot of people I know who were activists are my age and don’t want to do it anymore,” says Raymond.

She’s a fan of the contributions of village residents in the coalition, particularly of her outspoken neighbor Beth Harvey, owner of Harvey House Bed & Breakfast on N. Scoville. Still, says Raymond, “more Oak Park people should be involved.”

Harvey, who after the hearing encouraged Park National’s Mike Kelly to take the next step and say “Right the wrong,” ended up leading coalition members in that chant Thursday afternoon. Saturday night, Harvey took time to go comb through the three regulators’ testimony and compile several screens’ worth of questions. By Sunday afternoon, her processing of the details had gotten her to highlight the following sentence on her laptop screen:

“The FDIC Improvement Act of 1991 requires that all possible resolutions be considered and evaluated.”

“But at the end,” Harvey concludes from having scrutinized the regulators’ questioning, too, “they didn’t give the low-cost, low-impact solution due consideration. So, now, stand up and undo it.”

Reed, who’s no stranger to Oak Park (three of her children went to Fenwick), says she and her fellow West Siders like noting bursts in their relatively cool-tempered counterparts. “Whew, those Oak Parkers sure can get pissed off.”

Harvey’s plan was to present her dozens of questions and observations to the coalition meeting Tuesday and to have the list submitted this week for the House subcommittee’s review at the same time the panelists file the follow-up work they were asked to deliver.

Oak Parker Jackie Leavy brings another kind of organizing intensity to the coalition: her résumé. Another community organizer for Cincotta, she fought in the 1970s to end redlining. For 18 years, she was director of the Chicago-wide coalition called the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, which pushed for reform of tax increment financing. She’s now a lecturer at Chicago area universities on community organizing and urban revitalization and a mentor for social justice advocates. 

For the Coalition to Save Community Banking, Leavy’s a voice of focus in e-mail alerts and the glue between meetings. For the Washington trip, during which she nursed a sinus infection, she flew in a day ahead to make arrangements at the bus’s only District of Columbia rest stop: the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage. This was the spot the bus passengers had to get out and stretch, wash their faces, charge your phones, brush their teeth and spiff up for the halls of Congress. Bagels, biscotti, berries, juice, cider, doughnuts and coffee awaited weary travelers who had been noshing from napsacks.

This nonprofit’s director, Mary Filardo, is a colleague from Leavy’s days in education reform. On an itinerary that after 13 hours and four state lines didn’t include a motel, the anchor of hospitality, which happened to be a landmark in Washington’s historically black Shaw neighborhood, was much appreciated.

Another Oak Parker who flew ahead was coalition member Peg Strobel. A veteran of women’s lib and antiwar protests in Los Angeles, San Diego and Chicago, Strobel and her husband, Bill Barclay, are founders of the Oak Park Coalition for Truth and Justice. A historian of Africa, Strobel is respected, Reed says, for her gifts of focus and research. Her introduction of coalition members to Daily Kos, the popular political blog that often sets a national agenda for discussions, was much appreciated.

Strobel, like everyone else interviewed about their renewed or newfound connections in this coalition, says the outreach across Austin Boulevard because of this effort is a blessing.

“Whenever you can create trust across racial divisions, that’s a good start and those relationships will endure.”

Thumbs-up are mutual.

“Austin folks look at the Oak Park folks and think, ‘Oh, they get things done so well, and without bickering among themselves,'” says Reed.

“I want to see this through because of my admiration for all the people involved,” says Raymond.


Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal
Richard Davis named Executive of the Year
The same week that Wednesday Journal named Mike Kelly its Villager of the Year in Oak Park, the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal named Richard Davis, who is chairman of U.S. Bank, its Executive of the Year. Click here to read more from the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal.
Dan Watts named president of Forest Park National Bank
Back in the Near West suburbs, former Park National vice president Dan Watts is the new president and chief operating officer of Forest Park National Bank. Click here read more at ForestParkReview.com.

What was accomplished?

“We began a conversation about the plight of community banking in this country.”
Neil Bullock
COO, Bethel New Life
Oak Parker who rode on the bus
“We added to the groundswell of popular outrage that Main Street isn’t getting what it needs to recover.”
Peg Strobel
Oak Parker who flew to D.C. for the hearing
“Going there put a face and a meaning behind the seizure. We demonstrated that these actions have consequences.”
Steve McCullough
CEO, Bethel New Life
Panelist for the coalition
“Every single person sitting in that room understood the outrage.”
Bobbie Raymond
Oak Parker who flew to D.C. for the hearing
“Democrats and Republicans looking at a single situation not only had a lot of questions going into the hearing, when they were done, they had a lot more questions. They were engaged. I think they heard us.”
Rob Baren
Chief of staff, State Sen. Don Harmon
Oak Parker who flew to D.C. for the hearing
“The fact that the committee asked for more information – that demonstrates genuine interest in what was presented.”
Don Harmon
Illinois state senator, D-39th
Assigned chief of staff to help coalition prepare
“If we hadn’t advocated for this hearing, the FBOP story would have been swept under the rug. Now, we have a chance to influence the debate over what kind of financial industry reforms and economic stimulus are really needed on Main Street.”
Jackie Leavy 
Oak Parker who flew to D.C. for the hearing
“We showed we had a tremendous collaborative group in terms of talent and cooperation.”
Bob Vondrasek
An organizer of the coalition
Oak Brook resident who rode on the bus
 “Our citizen leaders were so glad to be there to see Mr. Kelly testify. They’d never met anyone as rich as he is be as humble as he is. He wasn’t there to promote his business or himself. He was there just to promote justice.”
Jacqueline Reed
Founder, Westside Health Authority
Maywood resident who flew to D.C. for the hearing

Related stories:


The basics

What:

A hearing, before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on financial institutions and consumer credit, titled “The Condition of Financial Institutions: Examining the Failure and Seizure of an American Bank”

When:

Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010; from 10 a.m. to noon Eastern, and from 1 to 2 p.m.

Where:

Room 2128, Rayburn House Office Building, Capitol Hill

Why:

Persistent calls to the Chicago and the Washington offices of U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (including presentation of a petition with more than 1,000 signatures) by the Coalition to Save Community Banking, a grassroots group of Austin and Oak Park activists, demanding congressional review of Park National Bank’s takeover, in particular, and of the threat to community banking, in general

How:

Scheduling by the staff of Gutiérrez (D-4th)

Who testified:

Morning panel, four witnesses

Steve McCullough

, CEO, Bethel New Life

Mike Kelly

, chairman and CEO, FBOP Corp.

Richard Hartnack

, vice chairman, U.S. Bank

Jeff Austin III

, vice chairman, Austin Bank (of Texas)

Afternoon panel, three witnesses

David Miller

, director of investments, U.S. Department of the Treasury

Jennifer Kelly

, senior deputy comptroller for supervision of midsize and community banks, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency

Mitchell Glassman

, director in division of resolutions and receiverships, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

What’s next

In Washington:

Responses that were requested from witnesses must be filed by Feb. 22. All members of Congress also have until then to file, for the record, their written remarks. According to Gutiérrez’s press office, everything submitted will be reviewed by subcommittee members and made available for public review.

Locally:

The Coalition to Save Community Banking held its first strategy meeting since the hearing on Tuesday morning, as Wednesday Journal was going to press. Among the plans, according to coalition member Jackie Leavy:

“We will be following up with the U.S. Senate Banking Committee and with the House subcommittee members, who want written answers from the regulators and the Treasury department. We’re gaining traction, and we ain’t done yet!”

To join the Coalition to Save Community Banking

For other details about the group and its efforts, e-mail:

Jackie Leavy at wleavy8396@aim.com

Virgil Crawford at virgil_crawford@yahoo.com

Elce Redmond elce@sbcglobal.net

To help pay for the bus

The $5,300 needed to rent the bus was covered by an advance to the coalition.

Members are still passing the hat to cover that expense.

If you can make a donation toward it, send a check to:

Bethel New Life Inc. – CSCB Fund
c/o Mildred Wiley
Bethel New Life
4950 W. Thomas
Chicago, IL 60651

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