By: Daniel I. Dorfman
In late July, when hundreds gathered on Winnetka’s Village Green, Gail Schechter said she was on “cloud nine” during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech there during the height of the civil rights movement.
But that was just one of many favorite moments over more than two decades for Schechter in her role as executive director of Open Communities, the Winnetka-based nonprofit which advocates for diverse communities in Chicago’s northern suburbs. Schechter was in a reflective mood in light of a Monday announcement she would be stepping down from her role to pursue other opportunities.
Schechter, who has been the only full-time director of the 43-year-old Open Communities, plans to step down in mid-January, after 22 years. One highlight in particular Schechter spoke of was the summer 2014 creation of “The Justice Project: The March Continues” – an initiative within Open Communities to make more than a dozen north suburban communities more inclusive.
“The organization is really stepping up,” Schechter said. “We are at a brand-new high with the Justice Project and our fabulous staff as we did a lot of expansion this year. It just seemed like after 22 years, this is the perfect time.”
Schechter, a Skokie native, was vague about what she will be pursuing in her next role, but plans to stay in the area.
“I’d love to do what I love the best, which is community organizing and community education,” Schechter said. “While at Open Communities, I helped develop some training sessions for residents and municipalities around advocacy for fair and affordable housing and generally building diverse communities, and generally I would love to do more of that.”
Schechter said Open Communities has formed a three-person search committee that will hire an executive search firm to bring in candidates for the position. Then the committee members will eventually hire Schechter’s replacement.
Schechter cites many accomplishments in her time at Open Communities, which underwent a name change in 2012 as it previously had been known as the Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs.
Schechter said the need for affordable housing is now more recognized in Park Ridge, Northbrook, Wilmette and Winnetka. Then there was the Winnetka rally last summer to commemorate the Martin Luther King 1965 speech and honor some of the people who have been involved in social justice work since the 1960s. At Winnetka’s Village Green, a monument was dedicated in 2007 in a collaboration between Winnetka students and Open Communities. After working with Pakistani Muslim and African cab drivers in Skokie when the village was looking to cut back taxi parking in 2007-2008, Schechter said the cab drivers were so taken by her efforts that they presented her with a copy of the Koran, which she said meant a lot to her.
One of the people she worked with on that endeavor was Skokie Trustee Randy Roberts.
“Gail has sincerity and her credibility based on her years of experience,” Roberts said. “She is someone who is not afraid to speak her mind and is a true advocate for the powerless. I greatly admire her and am glad that she is part of the Skokie community.”
While pleased with her work, Schechter said affordable housing options remain limited along the North Shore, but she believes there has been progress.
“It’s a daunting task. As Dr. King said, the arc of history bends slowly but it bends toward justice. I see that we are getting the momentum our way,” Schechter said. “The more organizing we are doing, the more our leaders are seeing that something should be done for affordable housing.”
One of the remaining items left on Schechter’s plate was the September announcement that Open Communities was among eight Illinois organizations to receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where a total of $2.6 million will be divided among localorganizations for fair housing advocacy through hiring volunteers who are trained to pose as renters or home buyers to test for discrimination on all protected classes in terms of race, national origin or gender.
Schechter said another part of the grant would allow for training sessions to teach people about fair housing.
As Schechter looks back on more than two decades of service, she is also pleased that she was able to bring people together from various points on the economic spectrum to form a common goal.
“That’s something that makes Open Communities unique,” Schechter said. “By working with those several populations and having them work together.”