Wanda White-Gills of Teamwork Englewood Credit: John Booz

Jean Carter-Hill, an Englewood resident for 37 years, has seen scores of nonprofit groups, intent on turning around the poverty-stricken community, come and go. Their plans never got off the ground.

“We had organizations come from outside the area telling us what they wanted us to do,” says Carter-Hill. “People lost patience. There was internal fighting. Everybody wanted to be in charge.”

But a new group that initially got off to a rocky start has made Carter-Hill take notice.

Two years ago, Teamwork Englewood looked as though it might tank like all its predecessors. But, after leadership changes last summer, the group made headway by convening meetings among neighborhood residents, social agencies, businesses, schools, churches and other organizations. And rather than telling the community what they planned to do, Teamwork Englewood instead asked groups what should be done to improve the neighborhood.

“They came in with the right attitude. They listen to what people say and make sure you know that what you say is important to them,” says Carter-Hill.

And Teamwork Englewood has something other organizations didn’t—money.

Indeed, the newcomer is part of a citywide renewal plan called the New Communities Project. Funded by a $12.5 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the project involves 16 communities where residents and local institutions identify neighborhood needs and issues and craft strategies to address them. The project is also supported by an additional $5 million from the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (known as LISC), a national non-profit group that helps community development corporations.

“Now, if we want something done, there is a way to do it,” says community resident Emily Dunn.

In May, Teamwork Englewood and other New Communities organizations presented their five-year improvement plans to Mayor Richard M. Daley and local and national funders. The group’s 10 goals include creating jobs, improving community safety, rebuilding businesses and jump-starting the housing market.

Its education strategy includes setting up in-school mental health clinics and family counseling services, establishing a teen mentoring program and bringing more student teachers and social service workers into schools.

“Teamwork Englewood has big dreams and big plans,” says Sean Harden, a program officer at LISC. “But because it has included so many stakeholders, it has the ability to grow legs and do something.”

‘You have to get your hands dirty’

But big plans mean big hurdles, and successfully turning around a blighted neighborhood won’t be easy.

“They are putting forth a gallant effort,” says James Breashears, principal of Robeson High. “But they seem to have quite a few things going on and it’s hard for any organization, even a well-funded one, to do multiple tasks.”

If Teamwork Englewood achieves its goals, observers say the credit will belong to its executive director, Wanda White-Gills.

“She’s a people person. She treats everyone with respect,” says Dunn. “You have to get your hands dirty to do this kind of work. That’s what Wanda is doing.”

White-Gills, who served under three mayors as a deputy commissioner for economic development, was responsible for community development block grant programs and community improvements. She was also an advisor to former Vice President Al Gore on the federal Empowerment Zone program, which tries to attract private investment to needy neighborhoods.

“She was good about setting the stage to be a mediator,” says Harden. “She goes in saying ‘I’m just a support. I am a mortar in between the bricks.’ The people who are already doing the work in the community are not threatened. This has allowed her to be embraced.”

Setting sights on education

In December 2004 and April 2005, Teamwork Englewood held two roundtable meetings with principals, giving them a forum to discuss challenges at their schools. Principals and other representatives from 10 of 17 schools attended. Two issues emerged: student discipline and mental health.

Holmes Principal Dorothy Naughton says many students do not get their basic needs met outside of school, and as a result, don’t understand that education is important.

Claudy Chapman, an assistant principal at Walter Reed, agrees. “So many of our kids bring to school issues that originate in the home or the community—like [problems with] gangs and violence,” he says.

To help students and families cope, Teamwork Englewood is working with the University of Illinois at Chicago to have graduate students from mental health and social work programs placed in Englewood schools for clinical internships this fall. UIC is doing similar work on the West Side.

The group also hopes to have UIC, as well as Kennedy-King College, become partners to help improve achievement for incoming freshmen at area high schools, including students who remain at Englewood High after it stops accepting freshmen this fall. The partnership will include mentoring and tutoring.

“We will begin with Englewood High, but our ultimate goal is to serve every school in Englewood,” says Michael Toney, a director in the urban health program at UIC, which will assess needs by talking with principals and counselors at every school.

However while Kennedy-King Interim President Clyde El-Amin is on Teamwork Englewood’s board of directors, the school has not yet made a firm commitment.

“We’d have to find students who are willing,” says El-Amin, explaining that the student population at his school is very transient.

White-Gills is undeterred. “We recognize that the college’s student population is transient and that many of them are older, working and raising families and won’t have this kind of time. So, we will look at the younger students from the community and try to recruit them first.”

In January, community activists asked the organization to step in and help them get an audience with Schools Chief Arne Duncan concerning the closing of Englewood High next year.

The activists presented Duncan with ideas to benefit Englewood’s remaining students as well as other students in the neighborhood. The ideas included “boot camps” for freshmen with skills that are below grade-level and setting up freshmen mentoring by local churches.

‘This time will be different’

First formed in 2003, Teamwork Englewood was sponsored by Pullman Bank, LISC and local churches. But its beginning was not auspicious.

For one, residents were leery of Pullman Bank’s involvement, suspecting the bank formed the group to set the stage for gentrifying the neighborhood.

And many in the community felt that Teamwork Englewood’s board of directors—which included representatives from Pullman Bank, St. Bernard Hospital and the Greater Englewood Parish United Methodist Church—was not inclusive enough.

“The stakeholders need to live in the community. This was a problem that LISC and Pullman Bank were not sensitive to,” says community leader Hal Baskin.

To address the concerns, LISC hired White-Gills and a community organizer in 2004. And it expanded its board of directors to include residents, local businesses and agencies, legislative officials, the Chicago Police Department and Kennedy-King College. This summer, it will expand again to include seniors and youth from the neighborhood.

Even with the changes, people were uneasy and distrustful.

“Have you ever had to pull teeth?” says Dunn, with a chuckle. “If you haven’t, let me tell you, it’s not easy. At the beginning, people would not show up at the meetings.”

White-Gills acknowledges the early skepticism. “A lot of people have gotten resources in the name of Englewood that people in the community couldn’t see or touch. People were suspicious,” she says. “They needed an honest broker.”

Dunn says eventually, through word-of-mouth, people started showing up.

“I’m 72 years old and I’ve lived here almost 30 years,” she says. “They are bringing organizations to the table. People sat through a lot of tedious planning, but they are investing the time.”

Over 18 months, 500 people attended at least one or more meetings, according to data collected by Teamwork Englewood.

Again, Dunn and others credit White-Gills’ dynamic personality for bringing people together.

Still, the real test for Teamwork Englewood is to get people involved at the grassroots level and to forge partnerships with colleges and social service agencies who will commit to Englewood and its schools.

“There are a lot of people from the community involved, but it is still not enough to represent the 80,000 residents who live in Englewood and West Englewood,” says Dunn. “The problem we are having now is getting the residents in the trenches involved. You can’t get them out of these little houses, but we’re trying.”

However, Harden is confident it will happen. “There will be nay-sayers, but there is enough that has been put forth for folks to say, ‘Let’s ride this out and see.’ In some people’s minds, they think that maybe this time it will be different.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or e-mail williams@catalyst-chicago.org.

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