Sweet Home Chicago

“Sweet Home Chicago” has a particular resonance. When Robert Johnson first penned the phrase in the early 1930s, Chicago was a hoped-for refuge away from the racism and poverty inherent to the Mississippi Delta. It was a place to build a new tomorrow. 

In her Pulitzer Prize –winning book on the great migration northwards, The Warmth of Other Suns, journalist Isabel Wilkerson says that the migration from the South to Chicago involved "six million black Southerners [moving] out of the terror of Jim Crow to an uncertain existence in the North and Midwest."

The significance of Austin Polytechnical Academy is that it is a contemporary attempt to get back up from under the problems that have faced the minority communities of Chicago and workers in general over the past forty years. It attempts to place students at the top rather than the bottom of the global economy and to ensure that the community as a whole is able to make its own destiny rather than being at the mercy of the icy winds of economic change.

It is hard for an Australian to appreciate the change and mobility that was required of the American workforce over the past four decades. Industrial cities the size of Australia’s capital cities were closed down. Workers who had lived for many decades with secure job tenure were made redundant. Skills that were once valued became useless. Furthermore there was little assistance from the State to help individuals and families make the transition into new work, new regions of the country and into new communities.

At the nub of the changes were African American and minority workers. Often they were the last hired and first fired in many industrial contexts. Education and training was lacking and so it was extremely difficult to make the transition to new jobs and new skills. The public school system failed African American and minority populations with literacy and numeracy levels well below national standards.

The city of Chicago had seen the rise of a black middle and upper class. Despite all the problems of racial segregation and prejudice it produced several leaders including Harold Washington the first African American Mayor of Chicago, leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Carol Moseley Braun and, of course, the first black President of the United States,  Barrak Obama. These leaders did not come from no-where. Over the twentieth century African Americans in Chicago climbed the ladder of prosperity and made enormous contributions to American culture, economy and society.  Leaders stood on the shoulders of others who had come befoe them. People who h done the hard yards of organising, developing and overcoming the problems of life in a segregated city and country.

But the maelstrom of deindustrialisation took all by surprise. At the heart of the maelstrom was the Center for Labor and Community Research  (CLCR). Situated on the West Side of Chicago it struggled to analyse the problems that were occurring around it and for three decades it worked on different responses to the crisis. Because it was centred in the midst of the crisis CLCR developed a unique practical orientation that was about trying different approaches to counter the job and skill losses associated with deindustrialisation. In the early 1990s in response to company closures it organised amongst workers to secure company buy-outs or to transfer ownership of retiring manufacturers to others who would continue to stay in business rather than close down.  CLCR was no university funded theoretical palace. It’s activities were centred in labour and community life and it had to earn its funding by gaining the support of city departments, foundations, unions and employers themselves. If it was not effective in its own activities, then it too would become redundant.

CLCR knew even in its early days that the Chicago community had to create new jobs, new industries and new tomorrows. Furthermore Chicago was going through what many other cities in the USA were also going through. Together with a range of different actors it began to search globally for paradigms and models that could be enacted in Chicago. CLCR’s Director Dan Swinney came to Australia in the 1990s and again in the 2000s. The work of securing worker buy-outs of factories that were going to close made CLCR very attuned to the cooperatives of Spain in Mondragon and the high quality manufacturing region of Italy at Emiliga Romagna. This led in turn to the formation of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council in 2005. The Renaissance Council was a leadership group that would spearhead the changes that needed to be made in the organisation of the Chicago manufacturing economy to enable new industries to flourish.

In 2001 CLCR prepared a major study of manufacturing workforce development in the City of Chicago. The report found that there were not skill gaps but skill chasms, and not only that, because there was no capacity to develop the existing workforce, existing manufacturing jobs were also at risk of becoming redundant. So in the midst of deindustrialisation when tens of thousands of jobs had been lost, CLCR found that existing job opportunities could not be filled. Local manufacturers overwhelmingly said they could not find workers with the skills they needed at the same time as thousands were out of work including 86,200 disconnected young persons aged between 16 and 21. Today in the United States, there are 13 million people unemployed, yet 3 million jobs—typically higher skilled and higher paid—unfilled.

The findings of this report fuelled the CLCR stalwart’s determination. The next set of questions they began to ask was: how can those who had been made redundant or who were disconnected from the workforce be made job ready? CLCR began to adopt the concept of skill standards – namely the compilation of skills, or behaviours, required to adequately perform a particular specified job for multiple employers. It distinguished between knowledge and competency. As they argued “Think of fans that have a great deal of theoretical knowledge of basketball but don’t possess the skill or competency to play in the NBA. The gold standard of manufacturing skill standards is a procedure that tests both knowledge and competency. From the student point of view the most valuable credentials are portable, that is multiple employers recognise them. .. The challenge is to be sure that standards developed by a broad group still are specific enough to assure that those meeting the standard can really do the job.”

CLCR further defined the benchmark that it wanted to see in training and work education. The training had to have strong ties to the client manufacturing community, it had to teach to competency standards, it had to follow students as quality control and self-monitoring and the training organisation had to be flexible in its own right.

Out of these standards the Austin Polytechnical Academy was born. CLCR came up with its own significant formula: “Advanced Manufacturing plus World Class Education equals Sustainable Communities”.

In its 2008 report on the formation of the Austin Polytechnical Academy, CLCR noted “Austin represented a distinct departure from the traditional school reform movement. Generally the school reform movement can be divided into four trends: * those whose focus is principally on the quality of jobs- wages, benefits and conditions of work- for educators and administrators within the system in one way or another; * those who seek greater community and parental involvement and control of the educational system; * those preparing students for the best jobs and careers they think are possible in the current declining society; * those with a deep and legitimate critique of economic and social trends in our society and who want to insure that the next generation includes critical thinkers , effective advocates for change at all levels, and those who will refuse to become passive cogs in the wheel of society. Each has their strengths .. and all are required, but not sufficient. What they have in common is that none go far enough in promoting or being linked to an economic development strategy that addresses the root causes of persistent poverty today. They lack an effective connection between education and a positive vision of economic development for our communities”.

Here writ large is the major problem of educational reform in Aboriginal communities in Australia today and despite the differences in context, it is important and necessary for Aboriginal leaders to absorb the Austin model within a schema of economic development. This is what is so badly needed in Aboriginal regions across Australia. For unless a clear economic strategy is articulated then education and training will not lead to an improvement in the lives of all but only some and only some in certain contexts. In addition the deep thinking behind the Austin model is essential for Aboriginal leaders and communities to understand. In doing this they will also be learning what much of Australia must understand and that is that the resources that are in the ground in our country are finite. We must be investing in the capacity for new industries and new tomorrows if our communities are going to be sustainable into the future.