My guests today are grass-roots community activist, Howard Rieger, and his wife, filmmaker, journalist and fellow grass-roots community activist, Beverly Siegel.
Joan Brunwasser: Welcome to OpEdNews, Howard and Beverly. After a long and full career, you finally retired a few years back, Howard. Many of us Baby Boomers are facing that transition. Tell us, please, about how your retirement came about and what it's looked like so far.
Howard Rieger: I had always intended to take early retirement. At 40, I set my goal to do so at 60. In 2003, at 61, I let my lay leadership know at the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation, where I was President/CEO, that they had a year to search for my successor. Goal almost accomplished? Not quite. In the interim, early in 2004, I succumbed to a persistent ask that I take on the top professional position at Jewish Federations of North America. In 2009, at 67, I finally got to implement my plan, and I have never looked back!
Beverly Siegel: Let it be noted that in 2007, Howard's wife passed away, and in 2008, he met and married a lovely lady from his hometown of Chicago, who had lost her husband two years earlier. That's me.
JB: Nice! Along the way, someone gave you some good advice about "how" to retire. Can you share that with us?
HR: True. A few days before retirement, I went to Yeshiva University to thank a brilliant rabbi who had served as a scholar-in-residence at JFNA during my tenure. I told him what I was thinking of doing during retirement, and his advice was, "Don't answer the phone for a year...maybe two. After that, something will emerge." His words were prescient. Within two years, it became clear to me that my community-organizing expertise would be the perfect skill-set to address the signs of decline in our otherwise strong neighborhood in Chicago, West Rogers Park. And that's what I've been doing ever since. Over time, I've taken on other volunteer leadership roles in Pittsburgh, where we spend an equal amount of time. Giving back and making a difference. That makes retirement one of the most fulfilling times of my life, personally and professionally.
BS: Fortunately, the project that Howard took on when we moved back to Chicago was near and dear to my heart and exactly what I was hoping he'd choose: my neighborhood!
JB: Many of our readers know nothing about West Rogers Park. What's so special about it? And why was it in need of your help?
BS: In the 1950s and '60s, West Rogers Park was one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in the city. The housing stock boomed with new single-family homes and two- and three-flat apartment buildings, and the main commercial street, Devon Avenue, boasted shops for men, women and kids that rivaled elite downtown shopping areas. West Rogers Park became a magnet for Jewish families, and by the early 1960s, it was 75% Jewish. Change became noticeable in the '70s, as many of the kids who grew up there didn't come back after college; suburban shopping malls siphoned desirable shops off Devon and other city streets, and waves of south Asian and other immigrants transformed the neighborhood into one of the city's most diverse. The flux created uncertainty and instability, and it showed.
HR: When I first came back to West Rogers Park after 40 years of working and living elsewhere, I was struck by the dichotomy of a neighborhood in which homes were being remodeled and expanded, new homes built, millions of dollars invested in new synagogues and Jewish agencies, yet the public face of the neighborhood "showcased" all of the markers of a declining neighborhood; abandoned and defaced properties, a rundown branch of the public library, overgrown parks and empty storefronts were everywhere. After a year of networking with individuals and organizations to see why such neglect was allowed to happen, I found out that people had simply given up the hope that anything could change the situation and they never tried to do anything. I knew then that I had found my mission, to prove that they were wrong.
JB: Thanks for the background. It's helpful in getting a sense of what you found on the ground, so to speak. So, you found your mission. For those of us not well-versed in the mechanics of community organizing, it's a fascinating but mysterious process. How did you determine what to focus on as well as where and how to begin? Deconstruct the process for us, please.
HR: Once I saw the situation on the ground, I spent a year networking to find out what had been tried to address these problems. The short answer was: nothing meaningful. That led me to examine best practices elsewhere, always drawing upon my decades of experience in the community-organizing field, one based upon identifying needs and then coalescing the community to address those needs. I was fortunate to know of an outstanding Baltimore-based Jewish non-profit community-betterment organization whose executive director had been doing just that for over three decades, and when asked, had agreed to travel to Chicago for a two-day pro-bono consultation aimed at getting us on the right track. He worked with a group of community leaders whom I had identified, a group that launched Jewish Neighborhood Development Council of Chicago during the next year. That was the first vital step toward launching a series of advocacy efforts that over time, has changed the face of West Rogers Park.
JB: I admire the way you thoughtfully examined and analyzed and devised a strategy. So often it seems like efforts of this sort are 'one and done' and not well thought out, at least partly because they aren't part of a larger overall strategy. Would you like to comment on that? Then, tell us what came next!
HR: I was sensitive to the fact that even if we knew what we wanted to do, having expert input from the outside would increase our credibility. And the Baltimore consultant recommended that our next step should be to engage someone with a Chicago perspective to chart next steps. That led us to hire a former Commissioner of Housing for the City of Chicago who had become an independent consultant. His hands-on Chicago experience, enriched by his many national engagements, gave us the best of both worlds. He also brought a fresh perspective to our group. Chicago is a large city spread out over a huge geographic area. Our neighborhood is on the far North Side. He lived miles away on the South Side, a part of town with many more major challenges than we faced. While we tended to look at the downside of our neighborhood, he saw all of the strengths. At the end of eight months of working with us, he recommended that we establish a non-profit, and that led us to breathe new life into an organization created in the 1970s but which had stopped operating a few years earlier, the Jewish Community Council of West Rogers Park (JCCWRP). As good fortune would have it, one of the JCCWRP officers had maintained its corporate status and all we had to do was appoint a board and we could begin operations immediately. I agreed to become the volunteer president.