November 26, 2019; Block Club Chicago

Sometimes, when doing good works, a nonprofit finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. This seems to be the case with Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) in Chicago. This well-established job training program for low-income Chicago residents was evicted from the Austin College and Career Academy on Chicago’s west side, where it had leased space for evening job training programs in manufacturing. According to JARC, the purpose of this program was to bring job training and supportive services “to disadvantaged job seekers in a low-income community of color.”

So why would Chicago Public Schools (CPS) throw them out? This is where the rubber meets the road. CPS is requiring a background check on every person (including trainees) in their program, with strict limitations for any criminal convictions in specific areas, including sexual and drug convictions. JARC is crying foul and discrimination against people of color, particularly in the community of Austin where this program is located.

According to JARC, many—in fact, most—of their trainees have had some interactions with law enforcement. They point to the statistics for the community of Austin which experiences the highest conviction rate in the city, with 131 convictions per 1,000 residents. Following this background check mandate would eliminate most of the Austin neighborhood population, which has been a target of over-policing and overincarceration.

“For us, this is absolutely a matter of racial equity,” said Guy Loudon, JARC’s president.

Chicago Public Schools, emerging from a scathing exposé last year by the Chicago Tribune that showed over 500 CPS students were sexually abused by CPS employees or other adults at CPS facilities, is not about to take chances. In order to better protect its students and its reputation as a safe haven, CPS instituted its background check policy.

“The safety of our students is the district’s highest priority and we will not allow organizations who refuse to follow our safety protocols and processes to operate in our school buildings,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said. JARC offered, in a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, to sign on to background checks if they would remove the drug charge conviction components, since they affect such a large swath of the population they serve. At this writing, there has been no response from the mayor’s office.

Again, Chicago Public Schools and Jane Addams Resource Corporation both have the best interests of their clients as their focus. Each sees the other as asking for something that will affect their ability to deliver on their missions. For JARC, background checks would continue a racist, inequitable situation; in the case of CPS, not doing them could possibly put vulnerable students in danger.

CPS holds the power of eviction, and for now, JARC is conducting its program outside of Austin, with plans to eventually move into a closed Austin school that’s been designated to be a community center. Whether the background check mandate applies to properties that no longer serve CPS students remains a question.

One hopes that there’s a way to turn this into a win-win for a community that needs strong work/training programs and schools looking out for the kids they serve.—Carole Levine