A version of this article was originally published in New Ground 75, March — April, 2001.
Cornel West at Preston Bradley Hall
by Bob Roman
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) held its annual meeting on the evening of Thursday, February 1, in the Chicago Cultural Center’s ornate Preston Bradley Hall. The only real item of business for the meeting was the ratification of the committee nominated candidates for the CCH Board of Directors. None the less, a couple hundred people attended the meeting. They came to hear DSA National Honorary Chair Cornel West.
As usual, Cornel West’s affiliation with DSA was not mentioned. Rather, much was made of his promotion to full professor, “a title held by only 14 of Harvard’s 2,200 faculty members”. It certainly is an honor Dr. West deserves, but it also leaves one wondering if the Harvard faculty couldn’t benefit from a good union.
Cornel West was introduced by another DSA member, Congressman Danny Davis. Congressman Davis is also no slouch as speaker. I’ve heard him speak for over a quarter of an hour while saying nothing more than a half dozen variations on it’s nice to be here yet still have the audience in the palm of his hand throughout. This time he was as artful as ever and rather more substantive — as he is on occasions that genuinely engage his interest.
Despite a reputation as “intellectually aggressive and highly cerebral”, Cornel West is not exactly a linear speaker. In a speaker less skillful, this trait can lead to a presentation resembling a vacuous monologue. But Cornel West develops his thoughts, and his segues, between topics and through the range of culture, popular to classical; they are done with an elegance that resembles a verbal ballet. If one is as tired as I was and as easily distracted by the hallucinatory architectural decoration of the Cultural Center, it’s easy to come round suddenly and find the speech somewhere entirely other: disconcerting, perhaps, except to a veteran rider of the Chicago Transit Authority.
None the less, the speech was about capitalism. The speech was not simply an indictment of capitalism’s manifest injustice; it was a discussion of how the modes of domination in our society result in our being less than fully human. Interwoven were themes of mortality, which may sound as if the speech was morbid. It was not. For example, in praising committed activists, those “long distance runners”, he described them as people “so maladjusted to injustice they take time out of their short lives to be a part of the struggle”. Mortality, yes; morbidity, no.
Yet it was not until the end of the speech that Dr. West named the enemy, capitalism. He did it in passing; blink and you missed it. Perhaps this should not be a surprise in view of his recent book, The Future of Progressivism. This is a style of discourse owing much to the original new left of the early 1960s. It was an attempt to find a way of communicating in an “American” way, without labels or ideological conceptualizations. In the 21st Century, it seems we are mostly new leftists even as the SDS fades from memory.
This was the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ 20th anniversary. It’s hard to imagine Chicago without the Coalition. The organization has made a substantial difference in state of the very poor in Chicago. While many non-profits pay lip service to the labor movement, CCH has been there for the movement. The meeting celebrated the occasion by presenting Les Brown, the founder of much of the Homeless movement in Illinois, with an award. CCH Executive Director John Donahue observed that Les Brown was extraordinary in working his way down the staff hierarchy.
The meeting also previewed a draft cut of an infomercial being produced about the CCH. The draft includes a brief shot of AFSCME Council 31 Director Henry Bayer pitching a living wage. The video is being produced with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation and the Weibolt Foundation.
This illustrates the dilemma of the CCH and many other community groups. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless wants desperately to think of itself as the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, and many of its projects and activities reflect that aspiration. Yet with a staff of 27, neither in financing nor in membership is the CCH an organization of the homeless. It depends on money from corporations and the well to do.
All things considered, the CCH balances this contradiction extraordinarily well, better than many other community groups. But if we are to get beyond leftism as an act of charity, NGO dependence on corporate foundation financing will need to change. As if the labor movement didn’t have enough to do already, it’s time for organized labor to become a source of financing for strategically selected community groups and to become participants on their boards.