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How ICA Works: 4a

Empathetic "presence"

ICA embodies an empathetic “presence” among those it serves


When I first encountered ICA, known then as the Ecumenical Institute, it was a life-changing event. A major reason for this was the way staff interacted with those they served. They lived in Fifth City — a “ghetto” area of Chicago where several blocks had been burned to the ground during the riots of 1968. Manifestations of poverty were everywhere: gangs, crime, drugs, and despair. Yet staff immersed themselves in the same severe environment as Fifth City residents. This was in sharp contrast to others, known as “limousine social workers,” that made short forays to “help” people but then abandoned the scene at the end of each workday. Institute staff lived among Fifth City residents 24/7 and experienced the same trials and tribulations. ICA thereby rendered an entirely different kind of demonstrative empathy through its work.


These staff members, of course, remained outsiders. Everyone, Fifth City residents and staff, were aware that they had the flexibility to leave whenever they might choose to do so, but their ongoing decision to stay, especially after the riots, conveyed deep commitment and integrity both of which are irreplaceable elements in building trust. This was the powerful “presence” I experienced when I first met the ICA. Living in Fifth City was a symbolic act but it was a genuine one. Today we would say they walked their talk.


This kind of “presence” occasions an aura that is at times difficult to rationally explain but is fully recognizable when experienced. “Presence” means that people intuitively grasp the vision of an organization simply by the way it goes about its business.


This is the power of the ICA GreenRise Building. All of the varied pieces — homeless and marginalized people regularly passing through the doors of the largest nonprofit service center in the mid-west, the second largest installation of renewable solar power on a building in all of Chicago, a major hub of supporting activities for community-based sustainability initiatives, the home of an intentional community of people living a life style of voluntary simplicity — add up to a true manifestation of “building a just and equitable society in harmony with Planet Earth.” Chicagoans are aware of this as they enter 4750 N. Sheridan, look around, hear the story, and sense something totally different from anything else they have experienced in the city.


While the particulars may change in different circumstances, this type of “presence” is an indispensible characteristic of both ICA branded work and ICA inspired activities.


In the annex is a story about the ‘Community Empowerment Program’ in Ethiopia. Facilitators working with subsistence farmers forewent the four-wheel drive vehicles that were standard fare for other more conventional development programs. Instead, they traveled for hours in the rain and dust of open lorries, rode mules and walked for miles over tough terrain to reach designated villages, and slept in flea-infested homes of peasant farmers for weeks at a time. These actions of “shared austerity” by young government professionals gained the illusive respect of villagers. This is “presence” built on proactive and decisional empathy.


Such “presence” is also unassuming. Several years ago, ICA staff played a major role in producing a video, narrated by Oprah Winfrey, about the triumphs and struggles of Fifth City. It eloquently tells the story of Fifth City residents becoming active agents of their own development. Some viewers have been surprised that ICA staff members are nowhere to be seen. In a very real sense, however, their absence illustrates their “presence.”


Resources for continuing the conversation:

  • “Facilitation by Mule” in ‘Initiatives,’ John Burbidge, ed., Summer 1995 Vol. 11 #3 (see annex).

"Fifth City: A Decisional City" video (1983)