Humboldt’s Gift Gets Cut Adrift

Ed Finkel
October 1, 1998

Perhaps no one has done more for the youth of Chicago’s gritty Humboldt Park community over the past two decades than Nancy Abbate. Even the people who fired her agree with that.

She founded the Youth Service Project Inc. in 1975 on a $5,000 grant, and built it into a $2 million-a-year, 50-employee powerhouse that has been credited with everything from a saving a local library to steering youths away from drugs and gangs and into jobs. A Chicago Tribune feature story called her “Humboldt’s Gift.”

Now she’s has been forced out by her board of directors after a successful union organizing drive by her employees. He ouster raises questions that are uncomfortably pertinent for many youth agencies: Do agencies eventually outgrow their founders? Can the scary step of replacing a dynamic founding director be healthy in the long run? How can a mid-sized youth agency that’s dependent on directionary grants survive with a unionized workforce?

For YSP, the immediate question is: Can it maintain its funding and community support without its well-connected and admired found?

“Not to take anything away from Nancy, because she got that place [YSP] to where it was,” says board vice president Pat Bedolla. “But when we saw a union was brought on, that sent a message. The board as a whole just felt it was time for a change.”

“Nancy Abbate is the most focused, competent, quality community leader with whom I have ever worked,” says Mary Davidson, a Rutgers University professor who worked with Abate on Chicago’s school desegregation monitoring in the 1980s and early 1990s. “She’s tough. She’s got vision and she’s got standards. When women are tough and they’ve got vision …sometimes people don’t like them.

Building Success

Abbate demonstrated vision nearly three decades ago, when she was studying philosophy and theology at Mundelein College. In 1969 she was hired to run a shoestring teen center in the basement of St. Philomena Church in Humboldt Park. She soon started a drop-in “rap” center, worked with youth affairs for the fledgling United Neighbors in Action, and in 1975 launched YSP with the help of a grant from Illinois Dangerous Drugs Commission.

Humboldt needed YSP. It was a rough, inner-city neighborhood that only recently has seen gentrification begin to nibble around its edges. The main drag, North Avenue, houses a strip of stores, but few appear flush; open-air drug markets flourish in places. The latest available census data (from 1990) shows a median household income of $20,038 and a poverty rate of 33.5 percent. The neighborhood is mostly Hispanic and African-American.

The community takes its name from the one-square-mile park in the midst, which itself is named after the German naturalist and writer Alexander von Humboldt, who advanced ecological science by, among other things, calculating the currents of the world’s oceans.

YSP has helped to change the current of Humboldt Park, serving an estimated 3,000 teens a year in nine programs. Although it occupies two second-floor storefronts on North Avenue, its programs are run in schools, churches, libraries and homes – demonstrating YSP’s extensive community partnerships. The programs cover teen parenting, substance abuse, youth counseling, anti-gang efforts, reading and English skills, community organizing, job readiness training, summer activities and after-school employment. Aside from employees, YSP has about 100 volunteers.

Finkel, Ed. "Humboldt’s Gift Gets Cut Adrift." Youth Today, October 1998, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.