(Photography by Jason Smith)

Public equity

Sociologist Michael Bennett, AM'72, PhD'88, invests his time in urban development.

A few years ago one of sociologist Michael Bennett’s DePaul University colleagues called to ask for help on a project. Bennett, AM’72, PhD’88, already had plenty to do. “My work is like a Pez candy machine,” he told his would-be collaborator. “Once one thing is completed, there’s always something right there that pops right up.”

About 15 minutes later the colleague showed up at Bennett’s office “with a report on what he wanted to ask me to do,” he says, adding with a boisterous laugh, “and a little Pez machine.”

An associate professor and faculty fellow at DePaul’s Egan Urban Center, Bennett’s most recent project examined urban policies in the dire fiscal conditions of the past few years, a follow-up to his 2007 book, coedited with Robert P. Giloth, Economic Development in American Cities: The Pursuit of an Equity Agenda (SUNY Press).

Bennett cites the late Chicago mayor Harold Washington’s governing philosophy as an inspiration for his academic and civic work. “How do we build housing in the neighborhoods at the same time we’re trying to provide support to commercial developments in the Loop?” he says, echoing Washington.

Bennett will be recognized for his efforts toward that end as the alumni recipient of the University’s 2013 Diversity Leadership Award. Kim Ransom of the Office for Civic Engagement will receive the staff honor at the January 17 Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

In an interview with the Magazine, adapted below, Bennett discusses his career and the current projects in his occupational Pez dispenser.

Economic roller coaster

I grew up in a small town called Sandusky, Ohio—45,000 when I was growing up—but it had three nodes of the economy: agriculture, manufacturing, and the Cedar Point amusement park. I watched it go from three strong nodes to one—Cedar Point. The manufacturing’s gone, basically. The agriculture, as you can imagine, is gone. And I really witnessed what that did to the town and the people in it.

An interest develops

[As an undergraduate at Kent State in the 1960s] I started working in the antipoverty program—the Community Action Council of Portage County. Once I got into that, I started thinking about my hometown and trying to think about, how do you establish entities, organizations that can initiate and sustain successful community-development activities for lower-income people? So we formed a number of community-development corporations, little CDCs, as we were called. That’s how I really got engaged in this kind of work.

Equity agenda, revisited

Our discussions were around how most cities were in a cut mode—cut welfare, cut housing, cut social services to the low income. And Washington had retrenched. There was no major urban agenda, either in the Bush era or, sad to say, in the Obama era.

Father figures

There’s a group called Fathers, Families, and Healthy Communities. It has a focus on low-income African American noncustodial fathers. The objective is, without marriage in the picture, to get fathers more involved with their families and communities. Many of these fathers had been painted as being deadbeat dads, but the real fact was, they weren’t deadbeats, they were just dead broke. The process is to network with organizations that already serve these fathers to provide a comprehensive package of wraparound services, mainly aimed at providing economic sufficiency—job training, counseling, entrepreneurship opportunities. As men matriculate through the training, they’re more likely to sustain employment if they have these other supportive services. That’s the idea. I’m the principal investigator. What we’re doing is gathering quantitative and qualitative data from all these moving parts.

40 acres and a school

At the corner of 95th and Cottage Grove, there’s 40 acres that Trinity United Church of Christ is developing into a multiuse planned community, so I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time working on that. We have a school—the title of the project was 40 Acres and a School—and now the plan is for multifamily housing, senior housing, commercial entities, urban food production, both with a garden and with a food center that focuses on nutrition, and a major health-oriented and physical-education facility. We have a limited liability corporation that owns the land and is managing the development process. I serve on the executive committee of the limited liability corporation and now I’m coordinating the family-housing component. Pez, Pez.