Tom Robb - Transcript

Transcription of Tom Robb
Interviewee: Tom Robb
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Date: March 22, 2013
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Transcriber: Nancy Holmstrand
Total Time: 21:32 minutes

Copyright © 2013 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: So this is Dorothy Nygren of the Edgewater Historical Society. I’m interviewing Tom Robb in his lovely home and today’s date is March 22, 2013. So, first of all, Tom I’d like to thank of for your efforts on behalf of the Edgewater community and all you’ve done and to congratulate you on being chosen one of the 2013 Living Treasures in Edgewater. We’re very much appreciative of all your efforts. I’d like to start the interview by asking you how you came to Edgewater.

TR: I married in. My wife who’s been here in this house for 43 years. And I married. I sold my house and moved here. That was 29 years ago.

DN: Twenty nine years – so you’ve lived in the Edgewater Community for quite a long time.

TR : Yeah.

DN: Now, how did your interest in community activities and your involvement begin?

TR Well, I was… I’ve been involved in not for profit and services to the poor for most of my career and as it happens we became involved with refugees and there’s a number of refugees here and I was working with them. And we made some changes and the Edgewater Community Council had a job position open doing CAPS organizing and I was able to go to work with them and since then I’ve been here.

DN: Could you talk a little about your involvement in CAPS and what…how that contributed to the community?

TR: Well the CAPS program… first of all Edgewater was one of the pilot projects of CAPS so the earliest times some of the early members of the Edgewater Community people that are still around were a part of the formation of the community alternative the Chicago alternative policing strategy, CAPS and um some members of your board of the historical society actually were very activist members going out and standing on the streets making sure people knew they were present watching. As things evolved a few programs, Edgewater and a couple of others, were funded by the city to help maintain an active function of CAPS by assisting in servicing the needs of the community, coordinating efforts by the different block clubs and other efforts, and that was what I was able to work into. So we had a number of police 2 different districts – 24 and 20. I sat on their two those twos police boards and we… uh CAPS board. I was saying, it’s just informal. I don’t know that we had anything to say other than a lot of good discussion and open discussions and attended the beat meetings all around and became quite engaged in all of the policing activities of the area.

DN: Why do you think that CAPS was an important initiative to respond to the needs of the community?

TR: Well first of all, the best people to know what’s going on in a community are the people who live in it and the officers. We hear a lot of goods and bads about officers but their job is to go through as many times as they can and take care of business. But they don’t know what’s going on and often uh are misdirected and by having the CAPS program with the regular beat meetings the officers are facing the community. They’re discussing it. Activists are able get up and make their point. Whether their point is valid or not is a question that’s still gotta be discussed by people … The ..uh these meetings the beat meetings are not decision makers but they’re material. They’re material to the idea of what is the policing activity happening and from that come the dog walkers and the walkers for a safer community and the people out in the street more uh really turning it into the people who live here looking after their space and communicating it to the police.

DN: Great; then from CAPS you went on to some involvement with Care For Real. Could we discuss why Care For Real is an important initiative within Edgewater?

TR: Oh I’d love to. I’d very, very… I think as a member of this community we should all be proud of Care For Real. Forty three years ago, during the time when there were difficulties on Winthrop and Kenmore and a lot of buildings were burning and other things happening Care For Real was formed by ECRA. At that time it was called the Edgewater Clerical Rabbinical Association. Now it’s the Edgewater Community Religious Association because in addition to Christians and Jews, we also have Buddhists and Muslims and Sikhs that are active regular participants in ECRA activities. Once a month, and they basically formed Care For Real and placed it with the Edgewater Community Council at that time um… and the council had all the legal aspects and the congregations kept it going… there were goods and bad times I’m sure. I only got in about 2004, so, at that time when I entered into the activity, we were taking care of about 400 people a month and operating on a shoestring. Of course there were two part time employees and otherwise that was it – a lot of volunteers.

But now, Care For Real takes care of over 5000 people a month, has 80 to 90 volunteers that are active, along with the ones that just pass thru once in a while.

We have we have clothing closets. Everything that it took in the old days to handle. The people who were being burned out of apartments and left on the street – the people in the greatest need. This combined efforts of the worshipping communities inspired the whole community and the whole community now participates. Care For Real can be rather proud that. I used to be able to say, without any government support other than USDA food Care For Real has been able to maintain and go through this spurt of growth. There is… now from here… and they’re a couple of efforts to have a few more dollars coming in from other sources, and the state and city contributes somewhat, but, and I don’t want to minimize that, but the fact is, this is a grass roots and I like that image. When people talk about grassroots they are often people who are sitting around board rooms, in …with neckties and tailored suits. And considering what a grassroots concept is, they haven’t met Edgewater yet and Edgewater is grassroots and everything about it. Care For Real came out of the earth, out of the membership and the people who participate here and Care For Real has gone onwards in a uh… It has blossomed to such a degree that I know that one of my great achievements was to watch us go from 1400 square feet taking care of all these people with long lines of 50 to 60 people in front every morning to now a large 4500 square feet housed in a beautiful building and taking care of even more people. Now these people come from Edgewater. They don’t come from outside. There are 600 pantries in the city of Chicago. Care For Real doesn’t need to take care of everybody, but it does take care of the ones here and that group has grown and grown and grown.

DN: Right. Can we talk a bit about your feelings about the African immigrant population and how Edgewater has addressed their needs?

TR: Oh of course. Edgewater is a great immigrant community right off the top and they come from everywhere, I was intimately engaged in the issues of the Sudanese Lost Boys. In this room is where the Chicago Association of the Lost Boys was born, but in addition to that… they are openly… Nobody says, “Oh, I don’t want you in this room.” They came here, many of the people. The Lost Boys came here 18 or 19 yrs of age and they’d been separated from families since they were six… and walked thousands of miles, half of them died to get through the process and live in a camp for years and years and finally got here and we had to teach them what cooking was, how to look after an apartment. That was a big challenge. Our apartment buildings were really patient and many of them were extremely kind because they didn’t know what to do, these guys. They just they didn’t know how to turn on the gas or turn off the gas. They didn’t know… you know, we’d get them a computer and they’d call and say,”It doesn’t work,” and we’d go over and say, “You’ve got to put it in the plug in the wall here.” So there’s many many things…

Now these guys are graduating from college and having really making a contribution starting schools back in Sudan. So there’s some lovely stories. But that group also around us are those from Somalia and from Nigeria and from all over many of the 50 countries of Africa. And they contribute constantly to our needs here. They are a part of our worshipping communities. They are a part of how trade goes on. There are stores that are run to benefit them and by them and I’d say they contribute a great deal. This is a very diverse community

DN: Let’s talk about that a little bit. Do you feel there’s anything special about Edgewater as compared to other communities?

TR: Oh, I have heard tell that there have been groups of other countries come, like Sweden, who come here to in order to understand how we can get along so well in such broad diversity. This was reported to me by the recently retired alderwoman but I think that when you consider we have a huge Muslim community and many of our Muslims don’t speak Arabic – you know they come from Europe, eastern Europe. They come from the eastern… the Pacific Islands. They come from everywhere and that contribution has enhanced the lives of all of us. For one thing we learn to look at them as people and not just as bugs in the rug, so to speak. These are the people who live next door and they live around us and they take care of us. We smell their cooking and we wonder what it is we … We see the changes going on and I think one of the most exciting things about diversity is it reduces us from really believing that our particular gene pool is the only one valid (chuckles)… and we start to understand and I’m a religious person. I start to understand that the greatness of God is so huge to include everyone and it helps me to understand the whole picture.

DN: Aside from personal understanding diversity contributing to personal understanding Chicago has been called a city of neighborhoods and usually the neighborhoods represent one ethnic or racial type…

TR: Not in Edgewater.

DN: Edgewater is different but Edgewater has not only been able to survive but to thrive in that diversity, in the face of economic problems and other things. Do you have any thought about why that is? Why that is for example, as compared to Uptown or West Rogers Park or other neighborhoods?

TR: I think there is history in this, some of which I did not see, I only heard so I’m not reporting it firsthand. My wife was a part of the earliest formation of local school councils years and years ago at Hayt. Now I know the Edgewater Community Council was an activist organization at that time and they were teaching schools and people how to have these councils and work with the education department so the schools kind of grew up as extremely diverse and well accepted as diversity and the kids grew up together. My granddaughter goes to Peirce and she tells us there’s the brown kids and the tan kids and the pink kids like me and the black kids like so and so and we all… And she’s now differentiating the kids based on curly hair, skin color, all kinds of features, not pejoratively, but as wonderful description and she envies them their look. Uh, that’s pretty cool for a seven year old. And so we’re I think that’s part of what goes on here. I think our education programs the schools and the schools have struggled through so many things but they’ve really succeeded. The children I… I’ve brought from Iraq and from Africa, various places, and from Bosnia and Iran and Syria and… and other middle eastern countries and from Burma and brought them over into Swift School where they were absorbed, enhanced. Their mothers learned how to participate in their kids education and the dance went on. And its just a most wonderful example. I wish there was a way to capture it and send it around.

DN: That’s a very powerful message, isn’t it? Very powerful. I’d like to ask you two more questions, if you have a thought. What do you feel is your most important personal achievement so far because there’s more to be done, right?

TR: Well, I would say, in Edgewater, it was the development, and I don’t want to say initiation, but the development of even stronger bonds with the community, and the congregations of the faithful, of all the different kinds in addressing the growing need of the poor that… that our efforts to be open, our efforts to participate, to go out and be in the houses of worship with people and to to help them understand how they can refer their own people for help. And how all of that worked together and you know, that’s what made it possible to go from 400 to 5000 without public… without a blink, without a blink. I mean, we got all the resources from within ourselves here, from the efforts made in Edgewater. We have some grants from the community trust because of what Edgewater had done, not because we needed them, but because they saw us as a place to contribute to…

DN: To do the good work?

TR: Yeah, so those… And those… that’s I think the beauty is, and if you don’t mind, I just would say, have a little theological bent of my own, do you mind?

DN: This is your story. You tell it.

TR : In my early studies in the seminary I was really taken with the Old Testament and how, in that framework of what a wonderful story it was that almost every time we learned about God it was in response to a need. And so I have an old old paper I wrote (chuckles) that perhaps god is a verb and that the need that comes around us. And how we participate in it is us being a part of the work of God is [as] the actual god-ing. And perhaps God is a gerund and we could go on with that idea. But the idea that so many people here in this community can actually activate themselves to do something. Two hundred fifty bags of clothes are contributed to Care For Real every week. That’s a lot of stuff and it goes out every week to the people.

DN: So the cycle of giving and receiving…is replicated.

TR: The cycle of participation is constant. It’s all the food when we first started when I was there we got all of our food from the Food Depository. Now we get about a quarter of it from the Food Depository. The rest we get from Dominicks, Whole Foods, the Trader Joes, here and there and the next place &ndash European Imports – all kinds of places that make contributions. When they have food they have to move, they call us – we go get it. And so I would say that was my… in my recent years…and certainly in my work in Edgewater, that’s an achievement I’m very very pleased to share with you.

DN: And you have a right to be so proud of it because it really answers a fundamental human need and a very cohesive community…

TR: um humh

DN: Sharing effort

TR: Everybody’s in it – yeah.

DN: I’d like to wrap up the interview with asking if you have any advice for young people?

TR: Well, the first the first thing is, and I’m just going to say Care For Real has always had the kids coming and doing the service learning hours. And then we have the interns from the universities doing their social work internships. And then there we have all kinds of participation. What I… what I think is most exciting is to watch their brains unlock and become open to the achievements, the hard work. They’re working and carrying boxes and all that stuff and they start to see the faces of the people. They have Christmas and all of those gifts come raining in from all over here and they get to participate in helping, pass it out and work with these families and just see how that works. To see families go through a process.The families that came here from, for example, Burma. They’d been living in Burmese, in Thailand, in a mountainside, in a UN camp, for over twenty years. Most of the people who came &ndsah; with babies were born in that camp – you know the babies… (heh heh) They brought their babies and they were themselves had never been in Burma and they’re now here and among us and all around us.

I would say… the young people… just engage in the world around them, become… become a part of it. See what you can see. All of us have our needs, all of us have needs. That means all of them have their needs. That means all of us can work together to meet needs in life.

DN: And I can’t think of any better way to wrap up the interview, unless there are some other thoughts. (pause) Ok, so we’ll conclude the interview right now. Thank you so much, Tom for sharing.