News and analysis
February 02, 2012

What Would Founder Jane Addams Think of Hull House Demise?

Bettmann/Corbis /AP Images

The original Hull House served immigrants and the poor, teaching 19th-century skills like weaving.

With the closing last month of Chicago’s Hull House Association, an iconic, 123-year-old social-service group, many in the nonprofit world have asked themselves what the transition may mean for the future of charities.

Some are wondering as well how the organization’s founder, Jane Addams, would feel about the situation. In her work that led to the creation of Hull House, Ms. Addams is often considered the inspiration behind many of today’s social-service organizations.

At least one Chicago observer thinks Ms. Addams might understand the need to shut Hull House.

Ivan Medina, who oversees nonprofit management programs at the School of Social Work at Loyola University Chicago, teaches courses that cover Ms. Addams. He says that the Hull House Association, because of its heavy reliance on public support—as much as 85 percent of its revenue came from such sources—had essentially become an arm of government, unlike anything Ms. Addams might recognize today.

“She would have applauded the good they have done and mourned that people will be harmed by its closing,” he says.

But, he adds, she was not only in the business of serving current needs.

“Jane Addams was about social change. She challenged government. She organized strikes,” he says. “If you become an arm of government, you can’t protest government, its bad policies and unequal services. You can’t take the stands you need to take.”

Continuing Legacy

She would be upset, he says, by how the 300 employees were treated at the end. They had one week’s notice, and walked out without health insurance or severance pay. “She would be organizing them for protests,” he muses.

While they don’t have Jane Addams leading them except in spirit, he notes that some employees have been looking into filing complaints with the Department of Labor or taking other action. “In that regard, if in no other,” Mr. Medina says, “her legacy survives.”