A Fenwick alumna’s post-Mother’s Day reflection on how being a good neighbor means loving your neighbor as yourself.
By Quiwana Reed Bell ’96
I was born the snowy winter of 1979 in Maywood, Illinois, to Jacqueline and Ronald Reed. My father, Ronnie, was born and raised a tough bi-racial kid from the west side of Chicago, near Pulaski and Roosevelt. My father never knew his mother.
My mother, Jackie, was born and raised in 1950 Natchez, Mississippi — a famous plantation town near the ports where slave-produced cotton and sugar cane was once exported. She is the oldest of seven children and grew up on family-owned land that also included homes for her grandparents (both paternal and maternal), aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors, who were like family. Her father, Oliver, was a handyman and janitor with a stuttering problem and a heart of gold; and her mother, Josephine, was a stern yet dignified seamstress who also worked for more than 20 years at the pecan factory. Her family of nine lived in a two-bedroom/one-bathroom house. They went to church on Sundays. They socialized and cared for each other. They didn’t have much but never felt poor. They were a community. And they were happy.
My mother left Mississippi after high school, after having a child out of wedlock with a man who was unwilling to marry. She came to Chicago in the summer of 1969 to visit her Aunt Mavis, her dad’s older sister. She lived on 13th and Pulaski in a brick two-flat building on the west side of Chicago. Aunt Mavis had 10 children of her own with her entrepreneur husband Ed, who ran an auto mechanic shop. Although they owned the entire building, they lived in only one of the units which had two bedrooms, one bathroom and a back sun porch. Ten kids, two parents and now visiting cousin Jackie from Mississippi all in one unit. The block was lively. People sat on their stoops in the evenings for entertainment. The kids would play loudly up and down the streets. Neighbors knew each other; supported each other; fought and gossiped about each other. It was a family. A community. And they were happy.
During her summer-time visit, Jackie met Ronnie, who was a friend of her cousin Roger. They quickly fell in love and married only three months after meeting on February 14, 1970. Jackie never returned to Mississippi to live. In Mississippi still was her infant son, Derek. He had stayed with her family while she traveled to Chicago. This was not a big deal. The family was seen as a unit. Jackie’s son Derek was not her property, but a member of a larger family unit where everyone contributes, supports and belongs.
Sharing brings happiness
This was a sentiment taught to my mother very early on in her childhood. She was born in segregated Mississippi where black people were still forced to live separately. This separation, however, was not all bad. Black communities had viable businesses — bakeries, dentist offices and insurance companies. It was a community where people looked out for one another. I would often hear stories of how if one person on the block killed a cow, then everyone on the block would have meat. Similarly, during my summers that I spent in Natchez, MS, I would often hear my grandmother say, “Go run this pot of greens that I picked and cooked over to Ms. ‘So and So’s house.” It was natural to share. It was natural to help others. It brought happiness. My mom never felt poor. She didn’t have a lot of fear and anxiety. Her family lived in peace. Even amid all the stuff going on in the world — they were shielded in “their community.”
Black folks have always had to be communal with each other in America in order to survive:
- We had to help each other as we were packed like cargo at the bottom of slave ships.
- We had to help each other as we sang songs together in the long days in the hot cotton fields in Mississippi.
- We had to help each other as we navigated our way through lynching and rape and beatings.
- We had to support each other in demonstrations and boycotts fighting for equal rights.
- We had to support each other through redlining/housing and employment discrimination.
Today we still have to support each other through families being ripped apart as a result of mass incarceration, disinvestment of neighborhood schools and economic opportunity, and the resulting crime that plagues our communities.
Jackie and Ronnie had three more children together: Ron Jr., Morris (Fenwick Class of 1992), and me. They left the West side of Chicago in 1978 and moved to Maywood. Ronnie found work as an engineer on the railroad and later as a CTA bus driver. Jackie completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois – Chicago in social work. She worked for several agencies, including Lutheran Family Services and Bethel New Life. She was even awarded Illinois Social Worker of year in 1986 by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. In 1990, on full scholarship she received her Master’s Degree from the prestigious School of Social Services Administration at the University of Chicago.
Give your gift
Working at social service agencies like Bethel New Life, Lutheran Family Services and Westside Holistic Family Center taught my mom an important lesson: People are empowered when they are allowed to identify and give their gift away to benefit the whole. Too many times in social services, well-intending providers victimize people. When the social program is over, many people are in worst shape than before.
Growing up in Mississippi, there was no welfare for my mother’s family to depend on. People had to depend on each other. In Chicago she noticed that, although people seemed to have “more,” they felt more deprived and hopeless than the people down south. She also recognized that people are happier when they are allowed to give whatever little bit they do have, back to help somebody else. This is also what builds strong, sustainable communities.
Oftentimes in low-income communities, people are fed the narrative that they live in a bad or undesirable neighborhood — even though most of these communities sit on very valuable real estate. In 1990, at the height of some of the most violent days in Chicago, my mom came up with the organizing strategy “Every Block a Village” (EBV) and sought to understand what it takes to create a village-like atmosphere on a block-by-block basis in the Austin community on the west side of Chicago. This premise comes from the African Proverb: “It takes a Village to Raise a Child.”
“It takes a Village to Raise a Child.”African Proverb
Grassroots rooted in Mississippi
While outside university researchers and sociologists were busy studying violence-reduction strategies from across the country, compiling “data” and studying the issue, my mom decided not to focus on the deficiencies but rather to focus on what assets existed in the community and how to leverage those assets to bring about sustainable change. Understanding that the solutions and the resources largely already existed on these blocks, my mom sought to organize networks of resident support, block-by-block. In the summer of 1990, she started the Westside Health Authority, under the premise that the community was the “authority” on what was and how to create a healthy community.
With a team of three volunteer organizers, she went house to house on 68 blocks and established the EBV network. Each block identified a “citizen leader” to address the concerns and solutions for the block and represented the block in council and strategy meetings with other resident leaders. This strategy took off like wild fire. Residents were so engaged and inspired by the wins they saw on their individual blocks that they started to believe that they could do even bigger things together — like building a new health clinic to serve their own neighborhood so they could stop traveling to health clinics farther away.
They were successful. In 2004, resident leaders saw the erection of the Austin Wellness Center, which was a brand new, state-of-the-art health and wellness center built on the grounds of a vacant parking lot on Chicago and Cicero Avenues. This $7.4 million center was built with 85% minority contractors and was seeded from monies raised by those same neighbors that were organized under EBV.
In 2016, the EBV model morphed into the Good Neighbor Campaign, which is different from other violence-prevention models. The Good Neighbor Campaign seeks to connect like-minded residents in civic-engagement strategies that allow them to be able to use their gifts and skill sets to make a difference in an environment they can immediately effect — namely, their own blocks. Unlike many other social-service initiatives, the mission of the Good Neighbor Campaign is not to provide programs and services to deficient community members, but to seek out and identify the gifts and talents that already exist on our blocks and to support and leverage those gifts/talents/skill-sets to allow others to support each other.
Since launching in October 2016, the Good Neighbor Campaign has connected with more than 600 residents from 31 blocks. Volunteers/organizers have provided support on eight troubled blocks, including:
- assisting residents with establishing block clubs;
- sponsoring an eight-team baseball league for 9- to 13-year-olds in conjunction with the 15th District Police at Columbus Park;
- holding more than 30 block canvassing/interventions response to violence and or potential violence and to stave off retaliation;
- providing reward incentives for the capture of shooters;
- providing weekly service, education and recreational activities for youth, seniors citizens and men in the community;
- providing coordination of resources for residents in need in the community;
- assisting residents in securing troubled vacant property;
- improving the narrative of the community with art projects and cultural events that evoke community pride;
- publishing weekly Good Neighbor News. Austin residents communicate with one another through established social media pages and a text-alert system, allowing for a coordination of support and service opportunities.
Our mom retired from Westside Health Authority in 2011, leaving my brother/CEO Morris, and myself to manage operations. Today WHA employs 38 full-time staff and nearly 150 part-time/contractors in fostering health and wellness activities in the Austin community serving more than 20,000 people annually. Although retired, she now serves as a Good Neighbor volunteer and team lead for the Good Neighbor Women’s Group.
What she has planted in me and my brother is a legacy of service built out of love. Together, we are all better. The greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself; in that is where you find lasting peace and true fulfillment.
Good Neighbor Meetings are held the second Tuesday of each month at 6 p.m. at 5437 W. Division Street, Chicago 60651. (773) 378-1878
About the Author
Quiwana Reed Bell is chief operating officer of Westside Health Authority. Under her leadership, WHA become an organization that serves more than 25,000 residents annually through grassroots community organizing, youth development, and re-entry and employment services for the residents of Chicago and Cook County. With her vision WHA has grown to also serve as an economic development engine in the Austin community with commercial and residential real estate development projects that have provided restoration to long-time blighted areas while securing millions in contracts to local contractors over the past nine years. In 2011, Quiwana and Morris Reed were integral in negotiating a community-benefits agreement with US Bank and secured over $2 million in support of community restoration projects in the areas of East and West Garfield Park, Austin, North Lawndale and Maywood.