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Chicago Defender- The Power of Opportunity: Moving Chicago Forward

By Andrea L. Zopp

When the Chicago Transit Authority announced a major renovation of the Red Line South route, residents living in communities along the Dan Ryan Expressway were skeptical that African Americans would share in the prosperity. This skepticism was justified because for years, that was the norm in Chicago’s construction sector. In the past, very few African Americans had access to contracts and jobs on multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects, even when the improvements took place in our communities.

The Red Line project was different. For starters, there was cooperation among local, state and federal authorities, and community-based organizations. The Chicago Urban League was there, as we’ve been now for many, many years, building pathways to economic opportunity. We created a database of more than 3,000 qualified applicants for the Red Line South reconstruction project that enabled contractors to exceed hiring goals for minorities and women, and helped identify African American subcontractors who could do the work.

The Red Line South project created some 1,500 jobs and $82 million in contracts were awarded to disadvantaged businesses.
“These public projects hadn’t meant anything to the community,” said Congressman Bobby Rush at the October 17th project completion ceremony. “The Red Line changed that.”

Today, there’s talk of a “new normal” when it comes to minority opportunities on major infrastructure work in Chicago. That’s good news with another $4 billion in transit projects to come, including a $240 million expansion of the bus and rail hub at 95th Street. The Red Line South project deserves some credit. But what “changed that,” as Congressman Rush said, are people and organizations such as the Chicago Urban League that never let up on issues that impact the African American community.

For nearly a century, the Chicago Urban League has distinguished itself as a trusted thought leader and convener of partners with the capabilities and resources to advance issues that impact the communities we serve. We do this on a broad level with the knowledge that the more we provide opportunities to African Americans to enter the economic mainstream, the stronger the city of Chicago becomes. Every day we leverage the power of opportunity tackle the tough issues with the knowledge that making meaningful, lasting change takes time and commitment.

It is our track record of advocating for equality in the construction sector and connecting people to jobs and training that earned us the invitation to lead community engagement on hiring and contracting for the Red Line South reconstruction. We marched in the 1950s and ‘60s to demand access to good-paying construction jobs. In the 1980s and ‘90s, we pointed out the disparities in minority hiring and contracting, and recommended solutions.

In 2007, we convened educators, labor leaders, builders and elected officials to the table to open a dialogue and put an end to old rivalries and rhetoric. And in 2012, we spearheaded an initiative to pair minority contractors with larger, majority owned firms on major infrastructure projects. We see the big picture and the long term benefits.

We’re also leveraging the power of opportunity to change individual lives through our programming. Our recent track record includes one hundred percent of our urbanSCHOLARS participants who applied to college were accepted and received more than $200,000 in scholarships. Our housing programs provided counseling to enable hundreds of homeowners at risk of foreclosure to modify mortgage loans.

More than 1,500 individuals received employment search assistance and training, financial literacy education and employment coaching and job placement support. Of the 200 African American adolescents served in last year, 90 percent improved school attendance and engagement and 80 were placed in summer jobs. And of the African American men we served in our human capital development program, 95 percent improved their relationships with their children and their ability to support their families.

And last spring, we worked with partners like United, US Foods, AAR, and The Middleby Corporation and launched an innovative crowd funding campaign that supported a cultural exchange trip to China for 23 Chicago Public Schools students. Providing opportunity does bring about change.

“The Power of Opportunity: Moving Chicago Forward” is the theme of the Chicago Urban League’s 52nd annual Golden Fellowship Dinner. On November 9, we’ll be honoring two civil rights icons: the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. and actor Louis Gossett Jr., with the Edwin C. “Bill” Berry Award, named for our esteemed past president. The host will be comedian Damon Williams and entertainment will be provided by legendary R&B trio The O’Jays. I sure hope they perform their hit “Love Train.”

And, speaking of trains, change is like a train, a slow-moving one at that. To fight resistance that is deeply entrenched, we’ve got to get on board and ride it out through the rough spots. The only way to move this city forward is if we all stay on track. On November 9, we will thank those who have been on this journey with us and set the course for the advocacy, programming and collaborations to come. We hope you will join us.

Andrea L. Zopp is President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.