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When it comes to community development, we're all working in the same room

Gary Comer with some children of the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood

SSA magazine

It started because Gary Comer visited his old school in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing  neighborhood, a community that had fallen on hard times.

Comer, founder of the Land’s End clothing company and a generous philanthropist, was dismayed to see the condition of Revere Elementary School, including new computers sitting unused because there wasn’t enough funding to get them installed.

The Comer Science and Education Foundation provided funds to help support the kids at Revere, then more.

Pretty soon, Comer was thinking about afterschool programs, so the kids could have a place to go when class let out to support their academic progress. The result was the Gary Comer Youth Center, where kids can get help with homework, go on college tours, learn how to create media, and much more.

Then the question became...

Then the question became: What about when the students graduate from elementary school?

SSA magazine

Today, across a quad from the youth center, Gary Comer College Prep High School, part of Chicago’s Noble Network of Charter Schools, is open.

Comer heard about research that shows how when parents have to frequently move due to a lack of good, affordable housing, the kids do more poorly in school. So the CSEF has built or provided rehab funding for nearly 100 affordable single-family homes in the community.

And on and on it goes.

SSA magazine

Comer passed away in 2006, but his family and the foundation worked with advisors and thought about what it was going to take, and they kept widening the vision and support.

Over the years they’ve added a garden and Green Teen program that grows healthy food and teaches entrepreneurism, a health clinic and social services at the youth center, advocacy to get the neighborhood’s first public library, plans for an early childhood development program. All told, CSEF has now spent more than $75 million in Grand Crossing,

There are a lot of lessons and ideas that can be drawn from the story of the Comer Foundation’s commitment to Greater Grand Crossing. I’d like to point a few that relate to how this comprehensive community initiative grew.

When Gary Comer first went to revisit Revere Elementary, he wasn’t planning on getting involved in comprehensive community development. In fact, I’m not even sure he knew that the field existed.

But, by helping young kids get a good education and a chance at a better life, the foundation was drawn into afterschool programs, high school education, housing, community gardening, health care and more.

A big room with a lot of doors

I think that’s a great illustration of a couple things:

SSA magazine

One is the simple logic of comprehensive community development. Gary Comer had the means, interest and generosity to explore what it takes to really have an impact on the lives of people living in a distressed community. Step by step, he and his colleagues kept adding new programs and areas of interest because it just made sense that, for young people to succeed, there are a lot of factors that need to be addressed outside of the classroom.

The other idea I think is interesting is how the CSEF got started in Grand Crossing — with education.

A lot of practitioners in comprehensive initiatives get involved through the field of community development and affordable housing. But people and organizations also start or join comprehensive community initiatives because they work on public health, or anti-violence campaigns, or economic development, or any number of other programs.

And that makes sense. Because comprehensive community development is like a big room with a lot of doors.

Since the logic of what it takes to help distressed communities, families and individuals leads to a comprehensive approach, each of those doors opens up into that same room. That means that there are a lot of people and organizations working on a similar mix of comprehensive programs, even though they began from a different place.

The more we recognize we’re in the same room and start working together, the more we can all achieve.

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The inspiration for this note was an article on Greater Grand Crossing and the Comer Foundation from SSA Magazine, the publication of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Here is a link to a PDF of this excellent article.

Posted in Chicago, Education & Early Learning, Thinking Out Loud

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