Sunday, November 20, 2016
By: Michelle Byrne and Kathy Powers
As votes came in across the country on November 8th, we were keeping a close watch on a smaller piece of legislation to which we felt a personal connection- the West Side Expanded Mental Health Services Program Referendum. We awaited results in a bright room at St. Malachy’s church, filled with refreshements, celebratory cheers, and people we had come to know and love as we worked together on this campaign.
Under the guidance of several experienced community organizers from the Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Centers, a group of concerned and engaged neighbors began working together on The West Side Expanded Mental Health Services Program back in May. This collaborative effort included members of St. Agatha’s, St. Malachy, Precious Blood, Old St. Pat’s and several very enthusiastic college bound high school graduates of Providence St. Mel High School in East Garfield Park.
Due to large budget cuts and facility closures, many residents of North Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park and the Near West Side have gone without access to comprehensive mental health services for several years. Residents from these communities initiated the effort to get a referendum on the November 8th ballot, which would fund a new community mental health center for the West Side of Chicago. We built off the success of a similar campaign which led to the opening of The Kedzie Center on the north side, which now provides therapy and counseling for people of all ages.
In May, our group began meeting monthly to plan and support each other in our organizing efforts. The first step was to collect enough signatures from residents on the West Side to demonstrate to the Board of Elections that we had support for the initiative. We went out in pairs and groups to knock doors, attend community events, strike up conversations in dog parks, and speak at churches. With more than 10,000 signatures collected, we made it onto the ballot!
The next several weeks were spent educating voters on the West Side about why they should vote YES for expanded mental health services. We talked through the merits of this referendum as well as concerns neighbors had. We explained to those resisting tax increases that these services would eventually save money by enabling those struggling with mental health challenges to lead healthy lives instead of being on the streets, locked up, or in the emergency room. Most meaningfully, we listened to personal stories from residents about the struggles that they or their family and friends had with mental health and shared excitement over this new possibility for treatment and healing.
As we gathered on November 8th, we paused to celebrate our efforts. The referendum passed with 86% saying YES! But we had even more to celebrate than this exciting result. Over the past several months, we have deepened our understanding of kinship. Kinship is not done from afar, but rather in proximity. It is done in relationship. Throughout this campaign, we had the opportunity to share stories, successes, and struggles with our West Side neighbors in an effort to make our community a better place for all of us.
This campaign was done the shoe-leather way by an unlikely bunch—we had high school grad and retired folks; preachers, teachers, maintenance workers, and healthcare providers; parents and grandparents; people with many shades of skin; practicing Catholics and non-church-goers; experienced organizers and first-time activists; and, people hailing from all corners of Chicago. While this election season has highlighted the divisions in our country, we countered that by growing in true kinship with a diverse group dedicated toward a powerful goal.
Thank you to all the members who stopped after masses to ask questions, sign the petition sheets and take information to pass on to friends and family. Thank you for voting to raise your own taxes to support this endeavor! The work continues as the community begins designing a center to meet our neighbors’ needs. We invite you to join us in this, or other powerful efforts in our city at this crucial moment. Kinship happens around tables, in conversations, in laughter, and in working toward common goals. It happens when we open ourselves to the experiences of others that are quite different than our own. We are humbled and grateful for the opportunity to do that during this difficult election season and look forward to the future West Side Mental Health Center!