This afternoon I did my last shift at Helens house and thus concluded the work that me and Dan began at the start of this semester. It was certainly a time for much reflection (a reflection which will be expanded upon in my final paper for this class). The most profound lesson that I take from this internship is the amazing breadth of knowledge and problem solving talents required of anyone who makes their career in city government. While not even close to the most glamorous or most well known form of government (I myself did not know of the office of Alderman until I took this internship) the office of Alderman nonetheless carries with it immense responsibilities. In her day to day work Helen could be tasked with anything from laying down speed bumps on roads, to having streetlamps installed on the streets of Uptown, to dealing with constituent complaints and grievances in regards to various civil services. All of this had to be done in conjunction with designing and debating policies that affected all citizens in our nations third largest city including CTA policy, educational rights for parents, and even policies pertaining to the prevention of rape and sexual assault. In all these and many other encounters have left me with a much deeper and more nuanced appreciation of city governance than I ever could have imagined, and have formed an experience that I will not easily forget.
I was only able to work at Helen’s house for one day this weekend due to Saturday being the day of the Undergraduate Engagement Symposium at the Lakeshore Campus. I must say that at the beginning of the symposium I was rather pessimistic about the amount of attention my poster would receive (the overwhelming majority of the projects being in the science departments). However I was pleasantly surprised to have quite a few people stop by and express an interest in the work I have been doing including a few who would be interested in obtaining Helen’s papers for storage in our archives. The day after the symposium I was fortunate enough to run into Helen and have a discussion of the overall project and what she plans to do next with it. Apparently the goal after me and Dan have done what we can with the papers is to digitize them for ease of access and possibly turn the physical copies over to Loyola for storage. I was also fortunate enough to delve into Helen’s photographs in my archiving turning up pictures of such figures as Harold Washington, Nelson Mandela, and Richard Daley. Needless to say it was quite interesting to see the many different and interesting figures that Helen was able to meet during her time as Alderman. This is my second to last blog posting for this semester and next week will consist of a summation and conclusion of the project. Until then.
The Supreme Court of the United States is often the object of much media attention and speculation particularly in the coming months as the courts largest cases often make their way up the docket and major laws and precedents are established. Of course one can watch this without gaining any sort of insight into just how long it may take and how many hoops need to be jumped through in order for this to take place. I was fortunate enough this weekend to receive the opportunity to see firsthand just how much work is involved in getting cases to the supreme court. In Helen’s basement I came across three boxes full of files and briefs on a case involving the Uptown Peoples Health Center. While the specifics of the case elude me the amount of paperwork and documentation contained in the boxes was truly staggering. It easily took me a much longer time to get through them and even more time to carry them around the basement. Needless to say the surprises keep coming as I continue my work.
The main body of Helen’s documents has been completed by both me and Dan as of this week. This certainly does not mean that our internship is over by any stretch of the imagination as the many files pertaining to Helen’s dissertation, her husbands activism on behalf of the disabled, as well as her sons various social justice endeavors still remains. This week I was fortunate enough to stumble upon more material in Helen’s file which gave me an indication of the messy profession that is an Alderman. The messiness of the job was made clear to me in coming across a correspondence pertaining to the presence of neo-Nazi gang influences within the 46th Ward in the late 1980’s. As anyone who has seen the film American History X can readily attest, such factions often bring with them incredible violence as a means of manifesting their irrational hatred towards others. The violence was not something I was able to come across but the irrationality and hatred were present in enough abundance to readily compensate for its absence. In just a single pamphlet mayor Harold Washington is accused of being a communist sympathizer in cohorts with an imagined “Jewish Conspiracy” to propagate nefarious actions upon the citizens of Chicago. One would think (as I certainly did) that such sentiments would only exist at the highest levels of government where members have the highest profile and most influence. That such unsavory ideas could be used against members of city government, leaves me with an entirely new appreciation of just how difficult a job they have.
The contents of Helen’s basement more and more bear the signature of me and Dan in our archiving work. This weekend alone marked a bit of a milestone as I was able to catalog our 100th box of documents. This weekend also continued to yield many very interesting discoveries in the inner workings of city government and government in general with the most interesting one by far being found in the Citizens for Helen Shiller file. In this file (which provides a record of donations, deposits, and other financial statements in regards to Helen’s many campaigns) I was awestruck by the amount of work and documentation required for a campaign to run. No less than three different banks were used for the campaign and at least five completely documented check books were also found in my digging. While certainly fascinating on a micro level in regards to the nitty gritty of a city government campaign the macro level analysis is something I found equally fascinating . What I mean by this is that these documents provide a vivid reminder of the current zeitgeist found in our national political discourse with the Citizens United decision serving as a catalyst for the vociferous debates that have taken place over the proper role of private donations in our electoral process. In a way this ties in very well with what I believe is the theme of this internship, with insights into the running of a city providing a powerful lens through which to view the great national political issues of the day.
The seventh week of my internship is at a close and progress has been exceptional. Dan and I still have a bit of a ways to go but with the pace we have established it would not surprise me at all if we are able to finish up our work earlier then our allotted time . Until then I am sorry to report that this week did not net too much in the way of new discoveries. The most interesting thing I was able to find in my digging was a rather stuffed box with documents pertaining to the business and day to day operations of the Chicago Parks District. It did provide me an interesting look at the many different rules, regulations and committees required to do even the most inconsequential things to playground surfaces and sporting fields. I was also able to catch a glimpse of preliminary plans for the new park space currently under construction in the Millennium Park area of downtown. A bit of comic relief was also in store as I was able to come across the irate letter of a hotel owner who had apparently been disrespected by one of the Alderman (the name and reason for his outrage was not immediately discernible). So in all, a rather commonplace week of work given life by the optimism on my part that our long and extensive project will soon be at an end.
Spring break has come and gone but my work with Helen’s documents continues. Great progress continues to be made as her estimate has us down to 34 boxes of files and photographs left for archiving. It therefore should not be long until me and Dan will be finished with the primary function of our job. I have continued to unearth many interesting things from Helen’s vast collection but the most interesting thing I was able to learn this week actually came from Helen herself. In a brief discussion with her I inquired about her involvement in educational parent organization in the city of Chicago. What followed was a detailed story of the many struggles with the curriculum of the Chicago public schools spanning multiple mayoral administrations and eras. I was able to learn from it not only the means of organization employed on the part of the parents of children to assert their right to determine their child’s education but also was given some much needed clarification on my (very hazy) knowledge of the post-Daley 1 mayoral administrations of Chicago. It was fascinating to be able to hear firsthand a history of urban politics completely separate from the many documents that I have had to go through and catalog during my internship. Such a conversation opened me up to a method of research (oral history) that I had not previously encountered at any point during my time at Loyola. I can only hope that more conversations and insightful bits of dialogue may come out of this internship before it comes to a close in just under two months’ time.