Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Working Catholic: Public Housing by Bill Droel

St. Frances Cabrini, MSC (1850-1917), the first U.S. citizen to be canonized, is the patron of immigrants. William Green (1873-1952) was for 28 years president of American Federation of Labor (before the merger with CIO). A notorious public housing project in Chicago was named for these two.

             Ben Austen takes us inside that housing project in High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing (Harper Collins, 2018). The project started in 1943 with several row houses in an area once called Lower North Side, and previously called Little Italy. In 1958 the high-rises appeared; first 15, then eight more, then others—three were 19 stories, and then others up to 23 stories. Eventually the project came down; demolition completed in 2011.

Originally, Cabrini-Green, like other public housing, was meant to temporarily assist working families; to provide a way station between unemployment and upward mobility. It was also an effort to address slum conditions in the area and to create jobs in construction and administration. Cabrini-Green, a case study in unintended consequences of social policy, failed all three of its original goals.

Austen intersperses the chronology with the stories of select residents. He follows Dolores Wilson, a longtime resident who remains attached to her family and neighbors. There is Kelvin Cannon who, despite potential, soon affiliates with a gang and is convicted of crime. Willie J.R. Fleming likewise shows potential; moves away from Cabrini-Green; yet returns to its danger. He eventually displays organizing creativity, but neither he nor his followers have enough sustaining discipline and power. Annie Ricks comes to Cabrini-Green following a fire in her home. She makes a stand there for the sake of her eight children.

Austen refrains from moralizing. He is also light on analysis; certainly implying the wrongness of some decisions, but not targeting villains. Austen thus challenges readers to draw their own conclusions. His policy narrative is complex enough and his characters are complicated enough that fair-minded readers must put stereotypes aside. Yet, from the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 followed by riots in Chicago and elsewhere, it is obvious that Austen’s book and Cabrini-Green itself will not have a “happily ever after” conclusion.

Are there any heroes in Austen’s book? No super-heroes. But some Cabrini-Green residents manage as best they can, by participating in improvement efforts and especially by keeping their children in school and in some cases finding better opportunity for their families. High-Risers also mentions “friends of Cabrini-Green,” who exhibit constancy in assisting families and young adults there. For example, Brother Bill Tomes (and his handful of disciples) provide a small measure of good example to young people. Marion Stamps, who once lived in Cabrini-Green, is a savvy advocate. She is such a fixture that she can with credibility call-out gang members and politicians alike. The leaders at Holy Family Lutheran Church and at other churches never tire of providing services to residents and eventually, with LaSalle St. Church and others, develop alternative housing. Austen names two police officers who excel in dealing with young people at Cabrini-Green. Jesse White, who is still Illinois Secretary of State, assists many Cabrini-Green residents over the years. His Tumblers group, designed for Cabrini-Green youngsters, still performs at many parades and other events.

Austen includes Ed Marciniak (1918-2004) in his bibliography. Marciniak was involved in race relations and with public housing for decades. As early as 1951 he warned the housing authority not to build high-rises in the Lower North Side/Cabrini-Green area. Over the years Marciniak started a tutoring program for Cabrini-Green students, raised money for scholarships there and served on numerous committees and a few federal judicial panels dealing with Cabrini-Green.                                                                                                          

For the last 20 years of Marciniak’s life, I was honored to be his assistant. We spent many hours walking the rim of Chicago’s Loop, often including the area in and around Cabrini-Green. We talked with lots of people—sometimes by appointment, sometimes informally. Here, out of a list of about 20 conclusions, are three in abbreviated form.

1.) The government does a reasonably good job delivering assistance that is not means-tested, specifically Social Security and Medicare. In all other programs the delivery of social services needs to be mediated by smaller, closer institutions. Housing assistance requires partnerships of non-profit entities like churches and community development corporations along with government, plus community-minded, for-profit entrepreneurs, construction companies and management teams. A sufficient number of local institutions need to relate to those in assisted housing—good schools, stores, social service, youth agencies and more.

2.) There has to be a certain quantity of well-managed assisted housing in a target area so that families are not dumped into an otherwise downward scene. At the same time there has to be a limit on assisted housing units in a target area so that the new residents do not inundate the area with poverty. Again, the target area has to have as many local institutions as possible.

3.) Poverty, we also concluded, is not simply about income. An older type of poverty assumed upwardly mobility was possible because a sufficient number of factory jobs in assembly or manufacturing were available. That is no longer the case, as Austen repeatedly mentions. The new poverty includes lack of useful social connections, a lack of proficiency in the requirements of the knowledge-sectors, a loss of marriage and family life as a buffer in one’s daily struggle and more. To impose the expectations of the old immigrant story onto the new urban (and more recently suburban) poverty only leads to blaming people when supposed remedies fail. On the other hand, urban pessimists are wrong to presume that the new poverty is an unbeatable inter-generational sentence and that therefore “those people” deserve to fend for themselves without any assistance.

Marciniak’s book on Cabrini-Green is Reclaiming the Inner City (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5.50). Droel edits NCL’s print newsletter on faith and work.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Working Catholic: Union Reform by Bill Droel

Subsidiarity is a Catholic social principle that celebrates the multiplicity of small institutions that buffer a person from the mega-forces of big business and big government; institutions like the family, the parish, an ethnic club or the precinct. Brian Dijkema, writing in National Affairs (Winter/18), correctly and refreshingly includes labor unions among those mediating institutions that help families navigate in our wider society and global economy. I say “refreshingly” because in recent times several social policy thinkers who acknowledge the crucial role of civil society are cool toward unions. They are pro-family, pro-church and pro-soccer league, but they don’t want the countervailing efforts of unions.

Dijkema, who is with Cardus (, a Christian think tank in Hamilton, is aware that the “social institutions that define a rich human life” are in decline, leaving us with a more-or-less random collection of “atomized individuals.”  Dijkema thus offers general suggestions for the renewal of local institutions, which in this essay he applies to unions.  

Organized labor should embrace the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and its companion, the principle of solidarity. Dijkema does not mean that union leaders should be Catholics. He means that Catholic tradition (and other religious traditions) has resources that can help unions attract and retain a younger generation. Dijkema seems to assume that today’s churches are carriers of these social resources—an assumption those of us involved with parish life question at times. In any case, he is correct that unions and churches can be mutually beneficial. If that is, they approach each other with clarity; not merely in a utilitarian way to get more people at a union rally or to sell more tables at a church banquet.
Dijkema details a contrast between the dominant approach of unions today and an approach that uses solidarity and subsidiarity. In the dominant approach, unions pour money into electoral campaigns. Instead they need to use money and energy “to recapture the imagination of local communities.” In the dominant approach union leaders think power comes through elected officials whereas power can emerge from deliberate encounters between and among grass-roots leaders. Unions, Dijkema says, turn too eagerly to government entities to set wages (a national minimum wage or a local living wage) instead of fighting for a union’s proper function of collective bargaining. Many of today’s unions, Dijkema charges, want “a big play” in the arena of government and/or corporate partnership, a win that will give the union new life. But short cuts don’t last. Unions, like churches, cannot grow “without the requisite work of building the many small, social relationships that act as the strongest binding agents for voluntary associations.” That requisite work means hundreds of one-to-one conversations among a mix of like-minded people, precisely the dynamic of subsidiarity and solidarity.

Dijkema makes some worthwhile suggestions. For example, he thinks unions would benefit from articulating a philosophy or theology of work. Such a project would also, I would add, benefit churches as they seek to attract and retain young families.

However, Dijkema’s either-or tone detracts from his message. Why should a union choose between a national campaign on wages and proposals to “address the challenges faced by young families”? Why, as Dijkema implies, is every campaign that involves government a distraction? If unions and other fair-minded groups do not oppose the misnamed right to work laws, for example, there will only be fewer intermediate groups and more atomized individuals. What if unions did not participate in Fight for $15 campaigns? What mechanism would there then be for teaching young adults about immigration, labor history and more? 

Dijkema concludes with a quotation from Pope Benedict XVI (aka Joseph Ratzinger) on a pure remnant church. Dijkema then proposes “a smaller, simpler and less socially prominent labor movement.” Whatever Benedict XVI’s context, sectarian Catholicism is a contradiction in terms. Advocating for a small church is Catholic heresy. A baptized Catholic, for example, cannot casually become non-Catholic. The entrance doors are wide open, especially during Lent. Given the state of unions in the U.S., it is hard to understand how a smaller labor movement would in any way make for a richer society.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a newsletter on faith and work.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


 William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament, headed the movement to end slavery in the British Empire.  He succeeded.   Slave trade was abolished in 1810 and slaves in the empire were emancipated in 1833.
Wilberforce was an excellent orator and a Methodist man of faith. He used the Bible to elicit compassion and justice for those enslaved. The world still suffers the legacy of the evil from slavery; slavery defines the United States.  Rascism is so common that it is hardly recognized, but William Wilberforce is considered an icon in the struggle for human equality.

The movie, The Long Shadow, produced and narrated by Frances Causey, suggests that the Abolition Movement in England was a reason for the American colonies breaking away from the British Empire.  In 1772, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, publicly opposed slavery as well as Adam Smith – father of free trade capitalism.  Faith groups such as the Quakers, Unitarians and the Moravians opposed slavery as well.  Former slaver and friend of William Wilberforce, Capton John Newton, was against slavery from his experience of the horror on his ships and his subsequent conversion.  Newton became an Anglican priest and wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. 

The fear of losing slavery, which was the basis of the colonial economy and source of wealth for the ambitious revolutionaries, was an incentive for military action to separate from the British Empire.
I was surprised when I asked a woman from Kenya who was educated in the United Kingdom what she thought of Wilberforce.  She commented, “Oh, he was just another colonialist.”  She had a pointWilberforce was instrumental in setting up a colony in Sierra Leone, and insisted that missionaries be allowed in India to preach the Christian Gospel.  His efforts in Haiti undermined England’s colonial rival France.    

The Christian Gospel of Wilberforce’s understanding lacked the broad vision of analysis that ferrets out causes.  The move from mercantilism to free trade capitalism was not the answer for poverty stricken workers, black and white, who had no voice in changing the colonial system.

In the 1960’s the Black Panthers considered African Americans as an internal colony of the U.S.  Donald Trump and the Republicans with their policy of re-segregation are re-establishing that internal colony.

The 1886 Haymarket hero Samuel Fielden explained in his autobiography which he wrote from Chicago’s Cook County Jail that as a young worker in England he sympathized with U.S. slaves.  He emigrated to the U.S. and visited the southern U.S. after the civil war and the emancipation. He saw the situation of black workers as being no better than the lives of slaves.  “…the Negro was held in as absolute bondage as he was before the war.”
Our current situation of racism, income inequality, world poverty and violation of the earth’s resources demonstrates that Wilberforce, immersed in Evangelism and the culture of the British Empire, provided only a beginning in seeking justice for the modern industrial world.  The collapse of the industrial world that we now experience and the ‘end of work’ requires Amazing Grace for new creativity to save the planet and achieve justice for all.  


Amazing Grace, William Wilberforce and the heroic campaign to end slavery, Eric Metaxas.

The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs, ed. Phillip S. Foner.

Black against Empire, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.

The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin.

Movie: The Long Shadow, Frances Causey, film maker and investigative reporter

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Working Catholic: Workplace Behavior by Bill Droel

In response to recent disclosures of predatory behavior in several workplaces, human resource departments around the country are redistributing employee handbooks. Likewise, managers are everywhere huddling with employees to review proper deportment.

Rule books and company policies are important. They represent an advance over the arbitrary decisions of a boss, even a benevolent boss. Rule books provide a basis for equal treatment. They are often written after some employee input, either through a personnel committee or a union and thus these personnel policies carry a degree of assumed consent. It is, admittedly, difficult to deal with specific personnel incidents like persistent tardiness, suspicions of addiction, internet surfing, gossiping and harassment. Likewise, written company policies add a layer of procedural wrangling or maybe nitpicking to each incident. Nonetheless, those policies benefit the company, its brand, its managers, its lawyers, its insurance policy and importantly, its employees. To operate any business today on a case-by-case basis is asking for additional trouble. 

Let’s be clear, however. To have a refined and fully-accepted employee handbook is not the same as having an ethical workforce and ethical managers. A rule book cannot dispose workers to see the sacred on the job; it cannot help a worker imagine her job as a vocation. A rule book does not establish decorum in the office. It is incapable of fostering compassion. And please be aware, a rule book cannot give any manager or any employee his or her dignity.

Workers, writes James Drane in Becoming a Good Doctor (Rowman Littlefield, 1988; $16.95), “shape the ethical narrative of their lives by the ways they do ordinary things over and over.” His book is directed to medical schools and hospital administrators, but as Drane says, its argument relates to all occupations and professions. “The whole medical ethics enterprise has been conceived in terms of logic, principles, patient rights and procedures,” he notes. Medical ethics, like other topics in medicine, is taught by using case studies. The result is “an abstract, analytical style.” This approach for doctors, nurses, technicians and many other workers results in licensing requirements, continuing education requirements, renewals, charting, written policies, patient consent forms, information-sharing regulations and lots more. All of this is necessary, perhaps. 

This dominant approach to education for and delivery of health care does not consider the worker’s personal virtue or character, Drane continues. “Attention to a young doctor’s personal traits or character is out of place” in medical education or in hiring. The dominant approach assumes that personal character—the product of doing ordinary things well, over and over—has no place. Putting character outside the bounds of hiring criteria and evaluation, Drane contends, contributes to the disease of agnosia. That is, health care workers might lose the ability to see the face of the person being treated or to respectfully appreciate the people they work with.  A hospital, to continue the medical example, might have a doctor or a nurse who has completely memorized the procedural handbook. That doctor or nurse might be nearly compulsive about observing all the required dos-and-don’ts. None of this, however, guarantees that such a doctor or nurse is any good; that such a doctor or nurse treats patients and families holistically or respects the inherent dignity of each colleague. 

There’s a reason that human resource departments, executives and others don’t traffic in virtue.  Modern business has no binding standard for conduct, except the law. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and others, tried to develop a modern approach to ethics that did not depend on revelation or religion. But, under the weight of too many particulars, the objective rationale behind the modern approach to business and public ethics is easily ignored, even explicitly dismissed. The situation in recent years is worse, as a post-modern approach to public life has gained fashion. It harbors an ironic contempt for objectivity itself.

Kellyanne Conway, a senior Counselor to the President and, by the way, a Catholic, says “There are alternative facts.” This is a stunning example of post-modern relativism. If she is correct, there is no ethics.

U.S. Catholic bishops, to offer a current situation, do not err in restating or re-framing canons pertaining to deviant personnel. They go in the right direction by requiring their employees to judiciously report deviance. But as intelligent bishops should know, even the most comprehensive personnel guidelines will not sufficiently influence an employee who is short on virtue. 

Entertainment executives, to mention a second current example, are not wasting time by requiring all employees to read company personnel guidelines. This pertains even to the biggest stars in the industry, maybe especially the stars. But intelligent executives should know that it takes more than a guidebook to have a culture of respect in the studio or the newsroom. 

How can virtue be acquired? To be continued…

Monday, January 22, 2018


The current attack on truth by the Trump administration seems unprecedented, but upon review it was and is a tactic used by dictators and ‘dictators-in-the-making.’  The gospel story in John, Ch.18:38 relates that the Roman governor Pilate asked, “What is truth?” then attempted to erase it with a calculated execution with plausible deniability.
 Children are most adept at distinguishing the true from the false.  Truth is distilled from fact in the form of make believe or fairy tales.  Kids understand.
It is more difficult for adults to define truth when they are fixed on questions pertaining to truth: 

What are the causes? – these are the realists;
What is the really real? – these are the idealists;               
Why me and not nothing? – the existentialists;
What works? - the pragmatists.

Answers must be certain to protect individual and group identity.  There is no compromise with groups with different questions and different versions of truth.


George Orwell went beyond such questions with his ‘make believe’ tale for adults with imagination– Animal Farm.  In Orwell’s story the animals take over the farm of the oppressive capitalist, Mr. Jones.  In time, after an impressive beginning the animals are more exploited than ever by the animal dictator Napoleon – a pig. 


Napoleon secures his power through a public relations campaign based on lies through his spokesperson – Squealer.  Animal Farm defines truth by pointing out what it is not – Fake News.



The Christmas story defines truth in presenting an image of what it isFriends and ‘compañeros,’ Pastor Joe Ellwanger and his wife Joyce, write in their Christmas letter:
The Truth of Christmas is worth celebrating year-round with lives full of radical love and courageous work for justice.  After all, the Son of God became a human being in the poverty of a cow stall.  It is clear all human life matters.

Truth is here; we just need to recognize it and distinguish it from Squealer’s lies.

Artwork by Monique, 3rd grader.

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Working Catholic: Genuine Change by Bill Droel

Will the buds of social improvement flower? There are promising signs. People are speaking out for respectful behavior in workplaces. Others are adamant about equal treatment under the law. Some desire better attention to mental health and addiction; still others are sensitive to food and product safety. To turn these and other initial bursts of interest into meaningful social change means avoiding pseudo-change; those activities that feel like social change but only approximate genuine politics.

Discussion groups, for example, are not change agents. Consciousness-raising is not politics. Oh yes, our society benefits from book clubs. Roundtable discussion groups that meet over drinks and a topic are important. These and other modes of intellectual sharing assist those who advance the common good.

It sometimes happens, however, that participants in a discussion group assume that they are thereby tackling a social problem. A parish group, for example, forms around shared concern over opioid addictions.  They read and discuss Dreamland, a terrific book by Sam Quinones (Bloomsbury, 2016). They subsequently invite the entire congregation to a couple of presentations, including a well-attended one with the local sheriff. The parish group accumulates a referral list for families dealing with addiction. All of this is good, noble and necessary. It is not yet social change. An opening must be found into the pain treatment industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the nursing home industry, the criminal justice system, the social service bureaucracy and the like.

The parish group itself does not have to be a change agent; in fact, it probably should not be. But the group can perhaps find ways that its members can get inside the problem from within their workplace, their college, their professional association or their union. Plus, the small parish group can perhaps coalesce with other church groups in their denomination or across denominational and religious lines and then join even bigger circles of influence.

A key to social change behavior is the understanding that outsiders must get to the inside. This journey requires sophistication and some tradeoffs, including serious attention to core principles.

Here is one example of outsiders getting to the inside. Globalization has many unfortunate side-effects. But globalization by definition is huge and seemingly amorphous. Sweatshops in Bangladesh are a bi-product of globalization. But there’s nothing one can do about them. But wait. Some students have found a clever way to break into the seemingly impenetrable harshness of the global economy. First students at one school and then students at the next school went to their college bookstore. They asked the store manager to name the factory that produces the school’s sweaters, shirts, jackets and the like. They simultaneously pushed the college administrators to require that bookstore vendors have humane labor codes. The students, who communicate with those at other schools through United Students Against Sweatshops (, got their school to sign-on with an apparel monitoring organization, Worker Rights Consortium ( Guess what? Some major apparel retailers and clothing brands met with student representatives. The companies now expect their overseas sub-contractors to observe humane working conditions.

Is the problem of sweatshops solved? Not yet. Some apparel lines want to do their own monitoring of the overseas suppliers; the student groups want independent monitoring. So, the students have to get further inside some apparel companies. In doing so, the students have to consider their principles: Is half a loaf acceptable or do we push for three-quarters of a loaf? Is the credibility of the students enough or would a celebrity endorser help? Maybe a bigger presence on social media is the answer? What else is involved in social change? To be continued…

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Monday, January 8, 2018


 Fifty years ago the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the legendary “Ice Bowl” at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.  I remember watching the game on T.V. at the Dominican Priory in River Forest, IL.  I was delighted when Bart Star, on a quarterback sneak, followed lineman Jerry Kramer across the goal for the winning score.  A couple of the brothers from New Mexico were rooting for the Cowboys.  I had no idea what was going on in Milwaukee. 

Change the Game

In August Mayor Maier blocked our march

by issuing a proclamation.  Chief Brier

was quick to jail us.  Then our numbers surged.

The aldermen complained, you wreck our rep-

utation as a place that’s fair.  Their fair.   


In fall their strategy turned cold.  They dup-

licated a weak Wisconsin statute

exempting owner- occupied and small

 buildings, exactly what Milwaukee had.

We marched for something stronger, fair for all.

Year’s end.  Cameras turn toward Green Bay,

the Packers minus twenty cold, last play –

a sneak, they win-fans ecstatic!

We huddle, keep our line tight, our eyes on the goal.

A poem by Margaret Rozga which appears in her book of poems about the fair housing marches in Milwaukee fifty years ago.  The book is titled:  200 Nights and one day, Benu Press, P.O. Box 5330 Hopkins, Minnesota 55343