Bertha Gilkey

Examples of how the American spirit is alive and well are not limited to the public schools and the communities they serve.  Kettering Foundation President David Mathews includes in his book, Politics for People (Mathews 1999, 138–39) a story about one person named Bertha Gilkey who embodies this spirit.

Bertha Gilkey is the leader of a tenants’ project in St. Louis and lives in Cochran Gardens, a public housing project which today is noted for flower-lined paths, clean buildings, play equipment, and social cohesion.  She lived in this very same housing project when it was filled with drugs, crime, prostitution, garbage and urine in the halls, broken windows, and graffiti.  While the Gardens may not still be perfect, the changes she helped make were dramatic and profound. Improvements began with a simple but powerful first step.

At the outset, one of the major problems in the project was vandalism of the laundry room.  When the machines were destroyed, the tenants demanded that the project’s management install new ones.  Even when pressured by rent strikes, the management was increasingly resistant to throw good money after bad.  Then one day, the tenants added a new tactic to their strategy. This strategy set in motion a transformation of the Gardens.

The first goal for Bertha Gilkey and her neighbors was to have a locked and painted door for the laundry.  The tenants raised funds in the project to buy a lock and a few cans of paint.  It wasn’t much, but it demonstrated that the tenants could do something on their own.  Next came a campaign to get everyone to paint their hallways.

On the heels of these small but encouraging achievements, the tenants then approached the building management. This time they came with more than needs and demands.  They came with capacities and even accomplishments. They had something to offer.  In time, the often-troubled tenant-management relationship changed for the better.  As the tenants took responsibility for themselves, they ceased to be wards of the manager.  Tenants became the planners rather than the planned for.  They became citizens of their neighborhood.

The story of Bertha Gilkey demonstrates once again that when citizens claim responsibility, whether it is for their local public housing project or their schools, they develop a sense that they are the solution rather than bystanders or victims.  By holding themselves responsible, they rediscover their ability to step up to the plate and make a difference.

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