How to Care about Politics in Chicago Without Losing Your Soul (and Mind)

By Meghan Courtney, Graduate Student Processor

It’s difficult to avoid being preachy when I explain why you should care about Faith Rich.

Odds are good you’ve never heard of her. She was one of those political operatives who had connections across the city but never grabbed the spotlight for herself. From the 1930s to 1989, she devoted her efforts to organized labor, educational reforms, and housing equality. Above all, she gave her time to the Chicago NAACP. Through her involvement with the Westside Branch, Rich served as Chairman of the Education Committee and worked to eliminate racial segregation in Chicago Public Schools. She hoped to use political means to eliminate discrimination in education, in employment, and in social relations.

But politics in Chicago have a way of staying the same.

Rich fought against biased school closings that disproportionately affected African American students. She studied the proposals of the Chicago Housing Authority and read Urban Renewal plans by the boxful, knowing the proposed plans would create even deeper inequalities in housing. She supported the Guaranteed Job Opportunity Senate Bill 777, which would have provided guaranteed environmental jobs to workers unable to find employment, much like the Civilian Conservation Corps during the New Deal. Rich wrote to Congress, served in her local PTA, and organized colleagues to support her work. As early as 1950, she studied hiring patterns in Illinois firms to identify bias and possible solutions for systemic discrimination.

Through her own research, Rich correctly predicted how the city’s social policies would alter the lives of Chicagoans years down the road. She approached her topics as a social scientist, without undue sentimentality. But as much as her work over nearly 60 years as a community activist illuminates the issues in twentieth century Chicago, it also reminds us that those issues are left unsolved.

You shouldn’t know about Faith Rich because she was the most influential woman in the city, or because she changed the way we function as a society, because those things aren’t true. You certainly shouldn’t know about her because she wanted attention – she did not. You should care because she spent her time doing the difficult, emotionally taxing, slow moving work towards an elusive goal of equality. That work is continued by people like Rich, who believe in their goals no matter how many times they face the same problems in Chicago. The Chicago Reader published a brief article on Rich in 1987, citing her hope as a driving force in her life. That hope is apparent in the Faith Rich Papers.