Caring for the City of Chicago

June 26, 2018

Dr. Noah TolyAs part of his role as director of Wheaton’s Center for Urban Engagement (CUE), Professor of Urban Studies and Politics & International Relations Dr. Noah Toly ’99, M.A. ’12 spearheads programs including Wheaton in Chicago and Wheaton's Aequitas Program in Urban Leadership. In January 2018, after 20 years of residence in Chicago's North Side neighborhood of Uptown, CUE programs and staff, along with partner departments and programs at the College, moved to Woodlawn, on the city’s South Side. There they will partner with local ministries and civic organizations including Sunshine Gospel Ministries. This fall, students participating the Urban Track of Wheaton Passage and in Wheaton in Chicago will move into the Woodlawn neighborhood for the first time. Here, Dr. Toly shares his expertise on cities and urban engagement as a leading urban affairs scholar and director of CUE.

Why should Christians care about cities and urban studies?

Today, most people live in cities. Everyone lives in the shadow of cities.

Since approximately 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population has lived in urban areas. That number is projected to increase to about 70 percent over the next two decades. That demographic shift alone means that most of the world’s most pressing challenges—from food security and migration to conflict and climate change—will have an urban face.

At the same time, the influence of cities may be greater now than at any time in the past 400 years. Their populations, economic vitality, and ecological footprints extend their reach—either unintentional or intentional—far beyond their boundaries.

Partly because of this influence, many now see cities as solutions just waiting to be unleashed on our most important social and environmental problems. Their sheer size, capabilities to shape affairs even beyond their borders, and ability to marshal vast troves of data about human life in community tempt many to see cities as devices to be manipulated as easily as the phones in our pockets. While in the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars, public intellectuals, and others tended to see cities as problems to be solved, many now see cities as solutions to be harnessed.

So this moment presents Christians with great opportunities and great challenges. On the one hand, there is an opportunity to shape human flourishing and see the gospel proclaimed in the world’s increasingly populated and influential urban areas. On the other hand, while it is very good that we no longer view cities as problems to be solved, we can too easily slip from accurate recognition of their promise into idolatrous trust. And we can be tempted to ignore the very real social dysfunctions and injustices that have accompanied or been exacerbated by their recent surge in influence.

What platforms does Wheaton’s Center for Urban Engagement (CUE) provide for students to understand these dynamics?

The Center for Urban Engagement (CUE) offers undergraduate students at Wheaton College three main paths of engagement with the realities of our urban world. First, we provide academic credentials in the study of cities and urban life through our major and minor in Urban Studies. Second, we just launched the Aequitas Program in Urban Leadership, a highly selective, four-year, cohort-based program that prepares students for lives of faithful presence, courageous leadership, and transformative influence in the communities and institutions that shape our increasingly urban world. Third, we offer the Wheaton in Chicago program, a semester-long, residential, experiential program for students from any academic division of the College.

Why did the College relocate its Chicago facilities to the city’s Woodlawn neighborhood?

The late urban sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod described late 19th century Chicago as having “an elegant façade and a deeply shadowed backstage.” That metaphor, drawn from theater, is deeper than many first recognize and, I think, still applies in 21st century Chicago.

That Chicago has an elegant façade and deeply shadowed backstage does not simply mean that some parts of Chicago—Downtown, Lincoln Park, Wrigleyville, Hyde Park—get attention and others do not. It means that the unseen and little-known communities of Chicago play an integral role in the life of the city. Neighborhoods and employment sectors that get relatively little attention are as important to the functioning of the city as the stage crew and tech crew to the work of the theater.

But the analogy is deeper still. If you’ve been to the theater much, you know that the tech crew, the stage crew, and just about everyone working behind the scenes to promote the success of the performance is wearing black. No doubt Abu-Lughod had this in mind when she wrote of Chicago, where race has been the most important axis of injustice.

Moving to Woodlawn will put our students, faculty, and staff at the intersection of Chicago’s elegant façade and deeply shadowed backstage. Indeed, few places in the country can match the South Side of Chicago for the poignance and salience of racial injustice, an issue to which large swaths of evangelicalism have been painfully inattentive. Every day in our new neighborhood will be one in which we have to reckon with Chicago’s deepest social fault lines up close and wrestle with both the fresh wounds and old scars of white supremacy.

The College is collaborating with several community partners. Can you share a bit about how those partnerships came to be? 

We’re very grateful to say that some of these partners chose us. Our move to the South Side began when Sunshine Gospel Ministries (which includes Sunshine Enterprises and Sunshine Business Academy) invited us to join them in Woodlawn. In addition to Sunshine’s invitation, we’ve had longstanding relationships with several organizations in Woodlawn and neighboring communities. Before our move, students often commuted up to two hours each way from the North Side of the city in order to intern with key organizations in education, employment, and economic development, among other areas. Finally, we’ve been grateful for advice from senior leadership of neighborhood churches, from Living Hope Presbyterian Church to Apostolic Church of God. All of these organizations have been generous with their time, their understanding of the neighborhood, their networks, and their willingness both to give us reality checks and to hold us accountable to our highest aspirations and standards.

What’s next for CUE?

We’re currently completing a strategic plan for urban engagement at the College. While the plan is not yet final, it is shaping up to include a number of cross-departmental initiatives at the College, community engagement initiatives in Woodlawn, the South Side, and the rest of Chicago, and global initiatives that will position us to contribute to the conversation about the future of cities around the world. Stay tuned!