Friday I woke up to the news that Hull House is closing. After the initial shock, I experienced surprising feelings of loss and denial. It has been hard to hold back tears, like the death of a close friend or family member. What is really strange is that I have never had any direct experience with Hull House whatsoever. When Greg was in Chicago I persuaded him to wander over to the original Hull House site and visit the museum, which was closed the day he arrived. He still did it, and took photos of the structure that represents a profoundly important part of U.S. history, and up until Friday continued to represent opportunity, equality and social reform. I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the legacy and spirit created by Hull House founders, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr.
I will go out on a limb and suggest that most people in the U.S. today (outside of Chicago) probably have never heard of Jane Addams. Honk if you know Jane Addams. Prove me wrong. Addams was one of the greatest civic and political leaders of her time, and should be the base upon which high school curriculum on the progressive era should be built.
Curriculum on Jane Addams is often limited to higher education programs in social work, human services-type programs, community development, women’s studies, and nonprofit studies. In an undergraduate course I taught on leadership and change not a single student had ever heard of Addams. In graduate courses, the only students who know of Addams seem to be those enrolled in social work programs. Once when consulting with a faculty member who taught and wrote on leadership I discovered that he had never heard of Addams. How can this be?
Jane Addams was the sixth U.S. recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, behind two presidents. She founded not just the Hull House, but lead the settlement house movement in the U.S. In so doing, she founded modern social work and modern juvenile justice. She held public office, albeit appointed, some years before women had the legal right to vote. She lead the way in reforming U.S. labor law, sanitation standards, public health, after school programs, and nutrition standards. She lead the way in dismantling political corruption, in Chicago mind you. A hundred years later, the results of her work in the U.S. alone can still be seen, and undoubtedly affect the way everyone in the U.S. has experienced life. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for her international work campaigning for peace.
Addams was a remarkable leader and achieved such lasting accomplishments because of her egalitarian and pacifist nature. Long before Kurt Lewin advanced the notion that people who are in the midst of problems are in the best position to solve them, Addams moved into the Hull House settlement in the middle of the Chicago tenements to become a part of the neighborhood. She did not sweep into the poor communities once a week to dispense charity or advice and morality, then sweep back out to a comfortable home in the evenings. To the contrary, Addams was next door neighbors with the immigrant families who often worked excessive hours in unsafe conditions in the stockyards or factories, who were not paid enough to feed their families three healthy meals every day (nor even one or two in many cases), even when all able-bodied family members (of any age) worked, who lived in overcrowded rooming houses with no running water, and who may have been unable to read in any language.
Addams did have privilege of education and wealth that enabled her to make her lifestyle, community and professional choices. It was her choice to lead from within that made her so effective, and so remarkable even by today’s standards of leadership. Addams used her privilege to become friends and neighbors with poverty, poor sanitation and health, poor nutrition, crime and violence, low educational performance, unemployment and unsafe and unjust working conditions, and discrimination. She learned from her friends in the neighborhood and opened the Hull House, her home, as a public gathering place for neighbors to care for one another, and to organize to change the conditions that jeopardized the very lives of the neighborhood children and their families.
Addams, in her egalitarian and democratic approach, was successful in demonstrating that changes in power structures, laws, and enforcement mechanisms could improve communities in a way that benefits everyone. As, arguably, the most effective leader in the progressive movement she produced clear evidence that the government sector indeed should be pro-active in ameliorating social problems, despite the longstanding individualist liberal tradition of the U.S. She both developed the direct service programs that were immediately needed, and lobbied to change the rules that affected living conditions that required them. She helped public sector decision makers realize that government agencies could and should intervene in social maladies.
In many ways this part of its history was the key to both the success and tragic demise of Hull House. Since the 1960s especially, the government sector has taken pro-active responsibility in resolving social ailments, often by contracting out to private voluntary agencies such as the Hull House. Since the 1980s, however, government funds available for social service programs have not always been reliable. In an article by the Chicago Tribune, a Hull House board member acknowledged they relied too heavily on government grants, while unable to raise individual funds rapidly enough. In 2001 Hull House revenues rang up in the neighborhood of $40 million to service their 60,000 participants. By 2010 they had just $23 million to do the same work. That represents a 43 percent drop in revenues during a ten year period when the demand for their services was on the rise, quite swiftly since about 2007. No amount of reductions, restructuring, or reinventing can keep an organization in business when the need and resources are running so frantically in opposite directions, no matter how critical the mission and the work is to an individual or to a whole community. Other organizations are stepping in as best able, though it is unlikely that the other organizations in the community have the combined capacity to fill the gap completely for the 60,000 participating families.
The closure of the Hull House leaves me asking, whose responsibility is it to provide the resources and services so that our marginalized neighbors can access opportunities to live and work to their full potential? It is not clear how plentiful government resources ever were relative to the need to provide resources to solve social problems or to help individuals identify and solve their problems for themselves. It is clear that a smaller government means ever fewer resources are available to support important human development projects and programs.
Like Addams, individuals acting voluntarily can play a catalytic role, an entrepreneurial role, and even a motivational and maintenance role in helping ensure government leaders pay attention and respond to the needs of citizens. Unfortunately, individuals are sometimes either unwilling or unable to pool sufficient resources to help meet the needs of everyone who has a stake.
Is the fate of the Hull House a canary in the mine whose death signals imminent danger for others in similar environments, or a spotted owl whose decline anticipates the impending end to whole species of agencies and services? Regardless, the closing of Hull House is a signal that we need the spirit of Jane Addams to be alive and well, now as much as we ever have in the U.S. Let’s revive the spirit and legacy of Jane Addams. What a different world it would be today if children across the U.S. grew up believing, “I want to be like Jane Addams.” Egalitarian, empowered, pacifist, tenacious, respectful, an altruistic, pragmatic and visionary leader from within.