From its start in 1969, BPI has been at the front lines of social justice in the Chicago region. The organization was founded to fight for the public interest against all inequities and since has had many notable achievements, helping to improve the overall quality of life in the community. Today, BPI focuses on increasing the availability of affordable housing, transforming segregated public housing and revitalizing economically disadvantaged communities, improving Chicago’s public schools, and promoting open and honest government in Illinois. As a law and policy center, BPI deploys whatever strategy or combination of strategies an issue demands: legal and policy research and advocacy, organizing, litigation, and collaboration with non-profit, business, community and governmental organizations.
THE FOUNDING OF BPI
In 1969, as the war in Vietnam was rapidly escalating, Chicago was marked by stark inequities to which government was unresponsive and institutions indifferent. Gordon B. Sherman, a prominent Chicago businessman and president of the Midas Muffler Corporation, was determined to change the situation.
Believing that the business and professional community owed a special obligation to society, Gordon formed a plan. He would find 100 businessmen willing to contribute $1,000 each to create an organization that would fight for the public interest against all manner of inequity, including segregation in public housing, destruction of the environment and abuse of power in government. Gordon didn't find 100, but he did assemble a dedicated group who supported his vision, and Business and Professional People for the Public Interest was born in March 1969.
In its initial year, under the direction of its first Executive Director, hard-hitting attorney and social activist Marshall Patner, BPI gained notice for a number of initiatives, including a media campaign opposing the City's plan to create a new airport in Lake Michigan. Marshall conceived the campaign's provocative theme—"Don't Do It in the Lake"—which proved highly successful in helping to defeat the City's airport-in-the-lake plan.
THE EVOLUTION OF BPI AND NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENTS
In 1970, Alex Polikoff joined BPI as Executive Director, bringing with him a civil rights case he had pursued on a pro-bono basis as an ACLU volunteer, Gautreaux v. CHA. Gautreaux became one of the leading civil rights cases of our time, scoring a landmark U.S. Supreme Court victory in 1976, and improving the life opportunities of thousands of public housing families in Chicago and around the country.
Although known nationally for its housing work, an important hallmark of BPI throughout the years has been its versatility—both in the issues it takes on and the strategies it employs. BPI’s work has included landmark victories across wide-ranging issues:
- Halting the construction of a nuclear power plant in the Indiana Dunes (1971)
- Winning for Illinois consumers (from Commonwealth Edison) the largest utility refund in U.S. history—$400 million (1989)
- Securing adoption of a formal resolution supporting the creation of small schools—a proven education reform elsewhere—by the Chicago Public School Board (1995)
- Leading efforts to pass the Affordable Housing Planning and Appeal Act, requiring that every Illinois municipality has 10% of its housing stock affordable to working families or a clear plan to do so. (2003)
Over the years, BPI has also served as catalyst and incubator of other leading public interest organizations, including Project LEAP (Legal Elections in All Precincts), Friends of the Parks, Citizens Utility Board, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Small Schools Coalition, Safer Pest Control Project and the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project.
History has proved Gordon Sherman’s conviction that there is a vital and ongoing need for BPI’s unique brand of public interest advocacy. Today, with a staff of 15 and an annual budget of just over $1.7 million, BPI lawyers and policy specialists continue their efforts to develop the effective, innovative solutions that the Chicago region’s social justice issues demand.
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