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Should Obama Library Put Community Benefits In Writing? S. Siders Disagree

By Sam Cholke | March 16, 2017 3:17pm | Updated on March 17, 2017 10:58am
 Michele Williams (center) said she trusts Obama, but has lived in Chicago long enough to want community benefits in writing before the presidential library starts construction.
Michele Williams (center) said she trusts Obama, but has lived in Chicago long enough to want community benefits in writing before the presidential library starts construction.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

WOODLAWN — Groups pushing for a binding community benefits agreement with Barack Obama’s foundation and library on Thursday came out in opposition to a new nonprofit that is forming to partner with the foundation.

The coalition of community groups came out against the still-unnamed nonprofit in large part because it consolidates power in the hands of already influential groups in the neighborhoods around the library — groups that have so far opposed a formal community benefits agreement.

“There is no need to create an organization to try to undermine the community,” said Jeanette Taylor of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

RELATED: Will Obama's Library Help The South Side? New Group Says That's Their Goal

KOCO, which pushed successfully for a memorandum of understanding with the city during the failed bid for the 2016 Olympics, has partnered with Southside Together Organized For Power, one of the main groups behind a successful push to get the University of Chicago to open a trauma center, and other groups to work on a list of benefits for the community they want the Obama Foundation to commit to in writing before building the former president’s library in Jackson Park.

Taylor said a coalition of community groups should be in charge of monitoring an agreement, which would be legally binding.

The foundation has so far been against a community benefits agreement. The foundation wants a new nonprofit to guide changes in the neighborhood that come from the presidential library.

"The Obama Presidential Center will invest in our community, creating new jobs, and making Jackson Park a world-class site for South Side residents and for visitors around the world," said an Obama Foundation official. "By bringing hundreds of thousands of people to Chicago’s South Side every year, the center will create the economic climate that will enable others to bring new development, jobs and opportunities to the area."

Torrey Barrett, chairman of the board of the Washington Park Consortium, and the Rev. Byron Brazier of Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn have been the driving forces behind the creation of a new nonprofit and helped secure a $250,000 grant from the Chicago Community Trust to help develop the organization.

The other organizations involved so far in the formation of a nonprofit include the Obama Foundation, the University of Chicago and South Shore Works.

Barrett and Brazier have both said publicly that a community benefits agreement is not necessary. Barrett said Thursday the nonprofit would not exclude people who disagree while forming the board.

“I think the selection process will be a fair one,” Barrett said.

Brazier said he personally does not plan to be involved in picking who sits on the board of the nonprofit. He said he wants the same outcomes as the groups pushing for an agreement, but doesn't feel it's necessary to get in writing.

Brazier said the idea of a formal agreement has not come up in discussions about the formation of a nonprofit. 

Joanna Trotter, a senior program officer at Chicago Community Trust, said officials are working on an unbiased application process for seats on the nonprofit board that would try to find the best people in community and economic development and affordable housing issues on the South Side.

Nevertheless, KOCO and its allies are working on a final version of a community benefits agreement to submit to the Obama Foundation and the city. It is expected to include protections for low-income homeowners and affordable housing in Woodlawn, South Shore and Washington Park; standards for hiring locally and providing training; and commitments to partner with neighborhood schools.

Because of the proposed protections for seniors, the idea for a community benefits agreement has gained traction in the high-rise buildings that house many seniors who live close to the proposed library site, like Island Terrace Apartments at 6430 S. Stony Island Ave.

“I don’t care who lives here, I don’t want to move,” said Michele Williams, president of the residents council at Island Terrace and a 16-year resident of the 240-unit building.

She said she trusts Obama to do the right thing, but said she and other seniors in the neighborhood have learned that big infrastructure projects in Chicago often result in broken promises to residents who have been displaced.

“I’m frustrated because I’ve watched these neighborhoods get torn down,” Williams said.

The question is expected to get a public debate Saturday as the Obama Foundation discusses details of the nonprofit rollout at a 8 a.m. meeting at the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, 969 E. 60th St.