Schneiderhan’s (Sociology/Univ. of Toronto) biographical comparison of Jane Addams (1860-1935) and Barack Obama illustrates how little has changed regarding the difficulties of community building.
You wouldn’t think there would be many similarities between a wealthy Illinois woman and a young, mixed-race political activist, but their characters and the paths they followed bind them together. Both had traveled widely and could have enjoyed a comfortable life, but something drove them to the Chicago neighborhoods. Addams was educated only to a point, and she was independently wealthy but knew she had a calling to help the poor. Emulating Toynbee Hall social settlement in London’s East End, she learned the usefulness of living amid the poor and helping them as neighbors. Obama was lucky in securing a place at Hawaii’s most prestigious private school. His excellent education there and at Columbia and Harvard socialized him into the privileged world Addams knew. Both needed that education and socialization to mix with business and the elite to achieve their goals. Schneiderhan is wise to present these biographies back to back rather than point out commonalities one after another. He shows how these two illuminated the American dream even though race and gender loomed large to prevent them. They both saw communities where neighbors helped out in small ways, but neighbors often couldn’t help in securing jobs, education, child care, or a central gathering place. Addams’ Hull House led the way in the settlement movement, which directly addressed the problem. She fought against the stingy relief of charity organizations and helped neighbors help each other. Obama did likewise, convincing his community to speak up for themselves, getting voters registered, and, like Addams, believing in people.
Schneiderhan leaves it to us to continue the journey these two began. His work, like theirs, is inspiring.