When Park National Bank of Oak Park was seized by federal regulators on Oct. 30, 2009, the cell phones belonging to an informal network of social justice activists in that community, Austin and surrounding neighborhoods began ringing “off the hook.”
Jackie Leavy remembered the nature of the phone calls: “Oh my God! Park National is closing. What are we going to do about it?”
If anyone had an answer, she would. In 40 years of community organizing on Chicago’s West Side, Leavy has earned a reputation for being determined, tireless, opinionated and compassionate.
Terry Finnegan, an Oak Park resident who left Park National Bank about a year before it was taken over in order to start his own business, works with Leavy in the ad hoc organization-the Coalition to Save Community Banking (CSCB).
“She called me at home and immediately cajoled me into joining her fledging operation,” Finnegan recalled. “Her dogged determination and coalition-building efforts are nothing short of amazing to watch up close.”
As the executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group (NCBG) from 1988 through 2007, Leavy and her team won their share of campaigns. They influenced the City of Chicago to fix sidewalks, repave alleys and improve commercial intersections. Their most famous win came in 1992, having forced the city and the Chicago Transit Authority to rebuild the Green Line instead of shutting it down.
“It was a wonderful campaign,” Leavy recalled. “We got Oak Park and River Forest involved with inner-city neighborhood groups. We got Southsiders and Westsiders in Chicago working together. My goodness, that was a moral victory in itself!”
Many who have worked with Leavy want to lionize her. Cathy Palmer from the Global Network Community Development Corp. described Leavy’s style as all her own.
“There is no other in all the world like Jackie Leavy,” Palmer said. “I met Jackie when we formed the Coalition to Save Community Banking. We have bonded and formed a great relationship. She’s my hero.”
Leavy herself deflects such adulation. Instead, she goes by her “you are what you eat” motto-in other words, who she is today is largely influenced by the relationships and experiences she’s shared with others throughout her life.
Born in 1949, she grew up on Chicago’s Southwest Side in a fairly mainstream, white, middle-class family. The neighborhood was stable-her father was a businessman who worked for Swift Inc. his whole life, and her mother was a homemaker. Her parents were definitely not social justice activists. In fact, when the neighborhood began to change demographically, her father was the first person on the block to sell his house and move out of the city.
Although Leavy’s parents would never be labeled as progressive, they did pass on character traits that would influence her community-organizing style. Her father believed that “his handshake was his bond.” From her mom, it was a belief to “trust in people’s better angels.” Leavy’s first glimmer of social consciousness was being pulled from her Chicago neighborhood and Calumet High School.
“My parents were products of their time and were terrified of the neighborhood integrating,” she said. “Racial tension could be cut with a knife.”
The year was 1964
Race riots flared at Calumet High School. Redlining, block-busting and panic-pedaling were the order of the day, exploited by fear-mongering real estate agents and politicians. Her neighbors-one’s she knew, liked and trusted-began talking about arming themselves if those “other people” came into the neighborhood.
“For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why the adults couldn’t be adults,” she said, “…why somebody wasn’t sitting us down and asking how we can keep the peace and get along.”
After one year living in Oak Lawn, Leavy’s father was transferred to the Washington D.C. area. There, she went to high school in an affluent suburb in Prince Georges County, Md. Living in three distinctively different socioeconomic settings during her four years in high school forced her to develop adaptive skills and “the gift of gab.”
But while attending the Prince Georges high school, the incipient social activist got another awareness-expanding experience-she visited Central and South America. Leavy saw real poverty for the first time and how the “rest of the world” viewed America.
Leavy had a third consciousness-raising experience on April 4, 1968. As a music major at Millikin University in downstate Decatur, she didn’t hear about Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination until late in the day because, “I was locked up in a piano practice room.” Leavy recalled how the news challenged what she had learned from her Methodist Church, and from her parents.
“There were evil people doing evil things,” she said. “At the same time my whole upbringing-judge not lest you be judged-kicks in. I’m always reluctant to judge other people. You never really know why other people do things.”
At the beginning of the following semester, she registered as a political science major. The future community organizer, like her parents, was a product of her times. Leavy was inspired by the idealism of the Kennedy-era, got involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, protested racial discrimination in Cairo, Ill., and spent a semester studying at the United Nations.
As a next logical step, Leavy entered a Ph.D. program in political science at the University of Chicago. After two years of studies that seemed disconnected from reality, Leavy dropped out of graduate school. She then went to work for a series of community organizations until, in 1988, when she became executive director of the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a citywide coalition of grassroots community and economic development groups across Chicago.
Walking in their shoes
In the process, she learned much from many people. From followers of Saul Alinsky – arguably the godfather of community organizing in Chicago – she learned to focus on issues that are concrete, winnable and that appeal to people’s self-interest.
From her mentors, Gale Cincotta and Shel Trapp, she learned to respect and enlists ordinary people, or “Joe and Jane Six-Pack” as Trapp referred to them.
“I was now walking in someone else’s shoes,” Leavy recalled. “Whenever I get discouraged, I think about some of these people. It’s always an uphill battle to try to change the established patterns of power and bring about a little bit of justice.”
One of the power structures Leavy and NCBG took on was the city machine of recently-retired Mayor Richard M. Daley. Her organization, she recalled, never demonized the mayor. The group did consistently criticize Mayor Daley for distributing the city’s resources unevenly and unfairly-mainly focusing on the financial and tourist sectors at the expense of neighborhoods.
“It’s all about fairness, transparency and including people in decision-making,” Leavy insists.
She’s brought her nearly 40 years of experience to her present work with the Coalition to Save Community Banking.
The ad hoc organization’s mission is to hold U.S. Bank-Park National’s new owner-accountable for carrying on the legacy of the Oak Park institution; in particular, to do more small business and non-profit lending on the West Side, as one example.
Still, Leavy insists she’s not grown cynical after four decades of trying to change the system.
“If more people became engaged, if more of us were doing the kinds of things that have been shown to be effective, just imagine,” she said. “You always have to hang your hopes on the possible.”