Presidential Centers, CBAs, and Community

—by Julian DeShazier


One of the most important developments in several decades is the Obama Presidential Center coming to the Southeast side of Chicago. The Obama Foundation’s ambitious plans to be “more than a library” should, for good reason, generate excitement among residents, business owners, and civic/city leaders. It should also, for good reason, generate caution these same people: “development” often means “displacement.” What is the line between developing a community so that its residents feel invested in/loved vs. developing so much that the economic impact pushes out residents (gentrification) vs. development that happens so slowly that residents are unchanged and neither is the community? This question, and the answers to it offered by different constituencies, deserve our fullest attention as a congregation.

People are worried that developments like this and the golf course designed by Tiger Woods will mean the demise of the essential character of neighborhoods like Woodlawn, Jackson Park, and South Shore. A group of respected community leaders have gathered together to form the “Obama CBA Coalition.”

A “CBA” is a Community Benefits Agreement – a binding document that would force the Obama Foundation to:

  • require that jobs be set aside for people in communities around the Obama presidential center
  • protect low-income housing and home owners
  • support and create Black businesses
  • strengthen neighborhood schools

That is directly from their site, which you can/should view here:

The Obama Foundation doesn’t want to sign one of these documents. Barack Obama has himself said the reason is because a CBA wouldn’t be inclusive enough of all community interests and that CBAs aren’t suitable for nonprofits.

The community is becoming more frustrated by these types of responses and the general tone at which the Obama Foundation is using, as in doing things “for” the community and not “with” them. Despite this, it is clear that the CBA folks want the presidential center here and are quite excited at the potential.

The Obama Foundation has laid out its own assessment of potential economic development, which you can find several ways after clicking this link:


On April 8, we will host a congregational meeting to discuss (and potentially vote on) becoming allies with the folks asking for a CBA. We’ve been asked to join by the CBA coalition because they see this as a moral issue. An “ally” is someone who isn’t a member of the coalition or organizer within their campaign but agrees that the Obama Foundation should sign their version of a CBA. We would be using our church’s (and pastor’s) power to empower this cause. Keep reading and you’ll understand why our church board is taking this request seriously and giving this decision to the entire congregation to make collectively.

It may be that you are completely against it and trust the Obama Foundation to do right by the people.

It may be that you are all for a CBA, because that’s the only way to ensure accountability.

It may be that you aren’t really sure about a CBA because you aren’t a lawyer BUT you do think the Obama Foundation should do a better job at working with the folks being most affected by the changes, and you think a system of checks and balances is a good thing.

The overwhelming majority of people – inside and out of the church – are in that 3rd category, and both the CBA folks and Obama Foundation are needing to do a better job of talking to each other, with other community stakeholders at the table. If an institution with great power, nonprofit or not, is not working WITH the community, this is not “community” but another form of colonialism…it is unethical and (depending on your definition) “immoral.” Violent. Our concern, as believers in the God Who Freed the Israelites from Slavery, is in Justice, equitable and mutual relations between people, and love. Jesus made clear many times that “legality” should not be the concern, but when love and mutual interest are enforceable legally, by all means we should consider this deeply. Passionately. Prayerfully.

And by doing due diligence. So below are some articles that may help you discern, when/if  we vote on April 8…before then hopefully several community stakeholders will come and speak to us as well.


“Community Benefits Agreements in the Political Economy of Urban Development” —

“Five CBAs that Worked” —

“Obama Center’s Hope Has Rocky Start” —

“Washington Post Op-Ed” —

“Do Community Benefits Agreements Benefit Communities?” —

“No CBA but a Diversity Consultant Might Do” —

“Lynda Lopez and Natalie Moore Discuss Gentrification on “Chicago Tonight”

1 Thessalonians 5:14-22 —

Leviticus 25:35-38 —

Galatians 5:14 — For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”