Shimer College

September 03, 2014

100 Years of History in my House

At Benton House, I find myself part of an experiment of democracy that embodies the ideas of “social democracy.” The organizational structure is not totally unlike Shimer itself, and I find the overlaps to be compelling.

As many of you have probably heard, if you’ve talked to me even once, I live and work at a place called the Benton House. The Benton House is a settlement house located near Halsted and Aberdeen, and I have worked there for over a year. It has been there since 1907, and as far as we know, it is the only real settlement house left in the United States.

At Benton House, I find myself part of an experiment of democracy that embodies the ideas of “social democracy” that Jane Addams of the Hull House often spoke of. The organizational structure is not totally unlike Shimer itself, and I find the overlaps to be compelling.

I should probably start by explaining what a settlement house is, because I’m not entirely convinced you’ll find a good explanation by using your search engine. It’s taken a good while working and living there to really understand it myself. The go-to example of a particular settlement house is the Hull House, the recently expired community center founded by Jane Addams. The settlement house movement, which saw its height in the 1890’s through the 1920’s (approximately), was basically the beginning of community centers as we know them today. They were meant (and continue) to serve a neighborhood in a wide array of social contexts. They provided education and play spaces for children, support for immigrants, and investigated poor conditions in industry and waste management. But what made them “settlement” houses is often misunderstood. The idea of “settling” was meant to suggest individuals from the upper-class settling into lower-class neighborhoods. Jane Addams saw this as an important opportunity for wealthy, idealistic people to understand the lives of those in poverty, and she saw this understanding as integral to democracy. It is in this sense of the “settlement house” that Benton House is the last that remains. There are many places, in this city alone, that either have the word “settlement” in their names or descriptions, or both. However, after much networking and research, I can safely say that we are very likely to be the last remaining settlement house that is operated resident staff in North America (including Canada).

The Benton House currently operates with a series of committees, and everything we do we attempt to do with complete transparency and democracy. Shimer’s similar approach in operating as a non-profit is part of what attracted me to it. Jane Addams often spoke of the tendency think of democracy only in terms of our government; yet continue to neglect those ideals in the workplace and in our social lives. It isn’t easy, but Benton House is dedicated to trying to uphold democratic values in our day-to day operations.

I feel fortunate to be a part of these two very unique institutions at the same time. I feel that Benton House prepared me for Shimer, and that Shimer is preparing me to improve the work I do at Benton House, thereby improving Benton House itself. If any of this interests you, anyone is more than welcome to come see the buildings, hang out, volunteer, talk about ideas you might have for using the space, or just talk about the history. Or we can talk about Battlestar Galactica. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a public building, and as we like to say, “Your community, your space.”

 

By Ambria Taylor

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