By Krissy Clark
Special to the NNPA from the Marketplace Wealth and Poverty Desk
CHICAGO—On a recent morning, Shinnette Johnson welcomed a handful of people in to a conference room at the headquarters of , a non-profit based in downtown Chicago. After offering her guests coffee and donuts, she directed their attention to the front wall, where she had projected a giant map of the city.
“We’re going to talk about all the polka dots on the map,” Johnson told the attendees. And, then she launched in to the basic premise of the “Mobility Counseling” workshop she was leading that morning, which boiled down to a simple idea: that the polka dot you live in can directly affect your future success in life, and that you can profoundly change it, just by moving to a different polka dot.
Johnson’s workshop is sponsored by the Chicago Housing Authority, and of course the housing bureaucrats who work there don’t talk about “polka dots” on the map. They talk about “Traditional Areas” and “Opportunity Areas.” In Chicago, the definitions have changed over the last few years, but currently “Opportunity Areas” are neighborhoods with a poverty rate under 20 percent, low saturations of public housing, and “improving community economic characteristics.” In other cities, the definition can involve a wider set of criteria, including employment rates and school rankings.
But the bottom line, Johnson tells her audience at the workshop, is that these are areas that theoretically have “better schools, healthier environments, low crime, jobs close to home and racial integration.”
To qualify for Johnson’s workshops, you must be low-income, you must receive rental assistance from federal Section 8 housing vouchers, and you must have an interest in moving to a new neighborhood. That’s why Krystal Stribbling is there, sitting in the front row.
Stribbling explains that she has a 12-year-old son who she wants to be able to “go outside without nobody trying to induct him into a gang. He’s very smart in school,” she said. “And I want him to be the next president.”
The problem is that even though Stribbling knows she wants to move out of her current neighborhood, she isn’t sure where to go. And, that’s where mobility counselors such as Johnson come in.
“A lot of people are stuck within the four corners of their own neighborhoods,” Johnson said. “That’s all they know.”
If you don’t have a car, Johnson said, and all your family and friends have lived in the same place for generations, then even if you have the will to move, it can be hard to find the way.
“For example, Garfield Ridge. Who knows where Garfield Ridge is?” she asks her workshop attendees.
Johnson points to Garfield Ridge on the map—it’s near Midway airport—and starts singing its praises: low crime, high ranking schools. Now her audience is leaning in.
“In that area alone there’s 19,000 jobs,” said Johnson. “Hotels, motels, Holiday Inns, T.G.I. Fridays, the airport, Ford City Mall, all the car lots you can go to! So that’s opportunity for us and our families to grow and prosper, correct?”
The attendees nod in unison, and everybody’s taking notes.
Mobility programs got their start in Chicago in the 1970s, after a Supreme Court case known as Hills v. Gautreaux forced the city to address decades of housing policies that promoted racial segregation and concentrated poverty.
Since Chicago’s early experiments, mobility programs have spread to other cities. And the big question now is do they work? Can moving from one polka dot on the map to another really affect a life, down the road?
Seitia Harris and her family have one answer to that question.
Eight years ago, they moved from a public housing project in Chicago to a middle-class suburb a 40-minute drive away, where they didn’t know a soul. Harris was 35, single, and had just given birth to her fourth child, T’nya. In an interview she did back then, she explained her motivation for moving.
“I didn’t want another generation of my family being stuck,” she said. “I wanted them to strive for much more.”
Now, Harris and her family live in another Chicago suburb, and her daughter T’nya, is a second grader.
T’nya has had a very different childhood from the rest of her family. She knows her brother and sisters grew up in a poor neighborhood. She’s visited it a few times, and it has left an impression.
“They shoot there,” she said. “And boys’ pants go down. They sag.”
T’nya’s oldest sister, Neosha, was in middle school when her family moved. Now Neosha is about to graduate college with a double major in business and education.
This article originally appeared in our April 17, 2013 issue.