Linda Clark-Borre

The Disastrous Disappearance of Hull House

02/19/2012 12:04

There’s a hard lesson to be learned through the sudden closing of Chicago’s “crown jewel” social service agency, Jane Addams Hull House, which is – or was – more than 120 years old. We in California – heck, across the nation - need to pay close attention to this one.

First, a look at the noble mission of Hull House:  “Jane Addams Hull House Association improves social conditions for underserved people and communities by providing creative, innovative programs and advocating for related public policy reforms.”

That it did well for more than a century. With increasingly scarce resources, it ran a multitude of programs that served impoverished individuals and taught them how to break the cycle of poverty.  Paid staff and volunteers, many products of the environment they sought to change, dedicated their lives to the good work of the far-reaching agency. Thanks to them, kids grew up to do better in school, go to college, find jobs, and generally overcome the impact of their desolate and crime ridden circumstances.

Chicago physician and author Cory Franklin notes the common attitude regarding the sudden closure of Hull House – that it was too dependent on the state of Illinois, which doesn’t pay its bills, and that agency leaders didn’t change how things were done quickly enough to garner the funding sources to keep going. But that, he writes, is only part of the story. The link to his full article is below, but here are a few salient points as to how Dr. Franklin measures the extent of the Hull House failure:

It abandoned its true, historical mission, even though that mission is still critical to its community… (the initial) philosophy was to bring the wealthy and poor together — "to learn as much as to teach, to receive as much as to give" — and create a sense of community between the classes. As (founder Jane) Addams expressed it, "to accentuate the likenesses and ignore the differences which are found among the people whom the settlement constantly brings into juxtaposition."…

Tradesmen taught skills. College graduates and the wealthy led artistic and music programs. Social clubs showed immigrants how to assimilate. Hull House was renowned for lively discussions of religion, politics and the arts. People of widely different backgrounds and outlooks learned about each other and worked together for the goals of the progressive movement: child labor laws, unemployment compensation, women's suffrage and protection of immigrants and minorities.

This is community in the broadest, finest sense. Community is what we yearn for, and it’s precisely what we need to build a sustainable future together. “What government gives, it can take away.” Those of us in social service certainly know that well. Now contrast the world of a community, any true community, against the forces that try, but cannot dissolve it. What happened in Nazi Germany is but one example.

In  his article, Dr. Franklin also quotes former British Prime Minister John Profumo, who served with a London agency similar to Hull House that still thrives today:

"If you define poverty as about money, you're on the highway to nowhere. Poverty isn't about money. It's a whole way of life … If you define wealth in monetary terms, there's no hope for the future. It's only when you realize what you have to give that you become a real person," he said. "There's so much unrequited loneliness. Society has become so compartmentalized, so that although people occupy the same physical space, they never interact. The poor know nobody in the city and nobody in the city knows the poor."

The crux indeed is, has been, and always will be about community.  Who should care about this message, and about the reason Hull House disappeared? Anyone with special needs, economic or otherwise, those who are responsible for the future of little children, aging parents – or who plan to grow old one day themselves – are well advised to consider the reasons Hull House in Chicago closed. The next logical step is to take thoughtful measure of the  impact we each may have personally in building a more inclusive society, before it's too late to see progress in our lifetimes.