The South Side of Chicago isn’t typically a place where major companies look to open corporate offices. Most of the city’s Fortune 500 firms are located downtown — with views of the Chicago River or Lake Michigan — or in the nearby suburbs.
Then there’s Discover, the credit card and financial services company based in a suburb 30 miles away, which unveiled plans Thursday to turn a 100,000-square-foot warehouse in the predominantly Black community of Chatham into its newest customer care center.
Discover says the project, which is set to open in the latter half of this year, will provide up to 1,000 full-time call center jobs that pay at least $17 an hour and offer competitive benefits to local residents in support of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West community improvement initiative.
Lightfoot’s program seeks to usher public and private investment into 10 of the Windy City’s most neglected neighborhoods, giving their largely Black and Latino residents greater access to career opportunities and an improved quality of life.
Discover CEO Roger Hochschild said the police killing of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis was a wake up call that his company had a role to play in ending institutional racism.
“There’s a critical need for all companies to step up and bring jobs directly to communities that need them the most,” Hochschild told CNN Business.
Hochschild said his company chose to open an office in Chatham, a roughly 95% Black, working-to-middle class community with one of the lowest per-capita crime rates in the nation, to send a message to the rest of the corporate world.
“No one says, ‘We’re not going to put our center in a place with people of color,’ but what they do say is, ‘Well let’s look at the quality of schools, the percentage of people who are college educated,'” Hochschild said. “All of that creates a bias towards the politically connected, well-off communities and that becomes self sustaining.”
The lack of economic opportunities in Chicago’s south and west side neighborhoods has fueled a cycle of gun violence that has plagued some areas for decades, according to Christopher Robert Reed, author of “The Rise of Chicago’s Black Metropolis.”
Reed, a professor emeritus at Roosevelt University, says the current state of affairs in the city’s high-crime areas like West Garfield Park and Washington Park wasn’t always the status quo. Chicago was one of the cities of choice for Black Americans fleeing the horrors of the Jim Crow South during the early to mid-20th century, a period commonly referred to as the Great Migration.
From 1915-1918 alone, Reed said more than 50,000 African Americans moved to the Windy City. At the time, most Black Chicagoans were barred from living in White neighborhoods, attending White colleges or even working in White-owned grocery stores, but many found quality jobs working in factories for major companies like US Steel.
“The big steel companies, the little steel companies, the foundries were all places where you didn’t have to have a strong educational background to work there,” Reed told CNN Business.
With the factories providing an economic base, Reed said some Black Americans — or their children — later found work as school teachers, lawyers, physicians and business managers in their own communities. “That old South Side was a mix of upper, lower, middle class,” he said.
The downward spiral for some Black communities in Chicago started in the late 1960s, Reed said, when post-WWII globalization led to de-industrialization in inner cities across the United States. With fewer factories to work in and limited opportunities elsewhere due to White racism, crime began to pick up in the 1970s and 80s.
The repercussions of Chicago’s racist legacy are still playing out today.
It’s a history Discover’s regional operations director Juatise Gathings knows all too well. The 30-year-old who grew up in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, says her mother moved the family to Phoenix when Gathings was a high school sophomore. Now she’s returning home to lead Discover’s Chatham customer care center team.
“My mom wanted to put us in an environment where we had opportunities,” Gathings told CNN Business. “I can’t stress enough how excited I am to be returning back home. I really want to make sure this is a model location … providing liveable wages for people who are capable of doing a good job.”