Last month, Cunningham Township Supervisor Danielle Chynoweth accepted a Social Justice Award from the McKinley Foundation. They are bestowed each year to student and community individuals and groups who are invested in making a difference in their communities and beyond. If there’s anything that gives an indication of where Chynoweth’s priorities lie, it is her acceptance speech.

I only have one minute, but
she sleeps just down the street, in a storage unit,
and she calls one day to tell me how lonely she is.
I only have one minute, but
there are two kids with round faces
who worked making tacos, but never got paid,
so now they are sleeping in Carle Park
with their dog to keep them warm.
I only have one minute, but
Dos hermanos visited our office.
First ICE took their mother,
and just now, their father,
right out of Urbana,
so they are trying to get to school every day,
while looking for a place to live.
I only have one minute, but
she worked her whole life as a secretary,
and when her mom died, she lost their home.
So for the past 7 months she has been sleeping in her car,
her legs swollen up like two balloons.
I only have a minute, but
she has been asking for 7 years for a place to live to get away from him,
pulled a knife on her a hundred times,
she tells us, with staples in her stomach,
as we gather her things from his apartment.
“Every time I was told the wait lists were full.”
Someone threw his sleeping bag in the garbage in the Urbana parking deck.
Someone destroyed the “palate palace” where they took refuge under the railroad.
Someone pushed the tent city off the Catholic Worker land.
Someone made it illegal to ask for money, but only if you’re homeless.
I only have one minute, but
I wanted to say
to you
That we should not accept
unacceptable problems
just because we inherited them.
I only have …. 5 4 3 2 1.
I am honored to receive this award and to have a minute of your time to speak with you. THANK YOU!

Many of us are passionate about an issues, willing to donate money, even to volunteer our time for worthy causes. But to truly devote your existence to the work of serving the community, and those that are vulnerable, to operate at that level of determination, to do the work day in and day out; there are few who are willing to take that on. As Cunningham Township Supervisor, Chynoweth spends her days securing housing for those living in poverty and uncertainty in our community. This is what she does now, but her more than 20 year career in social justice and political work includes co-founding the Independent Media Center and CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, as well as helping to start The People's Agenda.

Honestly, I was exhausted reading her list of endeavors and experiences, and it sort of made me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life. But it seems that this passion for serving the underserved has been engrained for a long time.

“I have parents who are social justice Catholics. Since I was a very small child we had people stay at our house who were refugees from concentration camps in Laos or people facing political persecution in Haiti...I felt like my calling in my life is to use the tools and privilege at my disposal to address systemic injustices.”

Chynoweth’s most recent position as township supervisor, and also as a new appointee to the Housing Authority board, allows her to do just that, and to do it locally where she feels like she can truly see tangible results. The Cunningham Township encompasses the same boundaries as the the City of Urbana, and is responsible for issuing General Welfare assistance benefits, as well as providing grants to non-profits serving low income residents. But in listening to Chynoweth describe a typical day, it’s much more than that. It’s dealing with real people, at a personal level, and often at one of their worst moments.

Chynoweth credits her staff, interns, and volunteers for the work that happens in the township office each day, where “the phone rings off the hook, and people walk in nonstop, and they’re in really devastating situations.” The people that come to the township for help are often homeless or on the verge of homelessness. They are immediately given a bus pass. It’s Chynoweth’s belief that “to ask for something you need to get something. And when you ask people for a lot of information and details about their lives, income, and family, part of developing the relationship is giving them something.” She says receiving the pass “really changes the game. It’s something super tangible that makes an amazing difference in their lives.” The next step is setting up an appointment with a case manager, to figure out what the office can do to get that person in housing. Sometimes that means putting them up in a hotel briefly, if there are no other options. Then it’s looking into rent assistance, or finding a place in an emergency shelter or domestic violence shelter. Housing is really the key. Without that it’s hard to do anything else, including finding and keeping a job.

According to Chynoweth, “of the approximately 150 homeless individuals that we have served since November 2017, two thirds of the adults have been women, and half have been children. The crisis of women with children living in their cars and living in really bad situations is really unseen in this community. There are 600 homeless children in Champaign County, and that’s just people who have reached out for help. What moms tell us is that they’re terrified that if they tell anyone their homeless that their babies will be taken away.”

Chynoweth takes on the hardest cases, often folks who have multiple evictions, felony convictions, and are trying to care for children as well. While she and her staff are there to provide assistance, the clients do also do the work. “I can count on two fingers people who have not done their fair share of the work since I started in May of last year. We consider the people in our office economic refugees in a system that’s really broken, and the level of would be hard to find a middle class person that hustles as hard as our clients do. They are working so hard, and if they’re not it almost always due to a mental health crisis.” Her clients face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to getting and staying on their feet; even getting to her office is difficult. She described what a recent client, who arrived 30 minutes late, had to go through just to get to her appointment. “She couldn’t call out from the hotel, which I confirmed. She had to call the operator to call me, the operator didn’t answer. She was out of minutes on her phone. A friend was going to pick her up, but ran out of gas. The friend begged for money, got gas, picked her up, and brought her to me.”

After spending more than two decades fighting injustice, Chynoweth has avoided burnout and remains dedicated to her work. As she puts it, “I think that democracy is a practice. It’s like your muscles don’t function if you’re not constantly flexing and working them...and so I feel like the thing I’ve tried to cultivate over time is a practice of participation and trying to help other people cultivate that as well.” It can be difficult to know where to begin. There’s so much need, so much to be angry about, so many broken systems, so many “-isms”, and we’re becoming more hyper-aware of it in this era of Trump. It’s easy to become complacent and do nothing, because you can’t do everything. Chynoweth pushes back on this notion. “It’s really important for folks to realize that there has been mass injustice across the globe for a long time, and just because it’s in your face right now doesn’t mean it’s new. This is a paradigm shift moment. And what I’ve learned is that I’m just a piece in the puzzle, and I am a limited human being, which I didn’t think for a long time.”

Chynoweth encourages a willingness to learn and to use our resources to to act. “What’s really important is that we understand our privilege (white folks and middle class folks) and understand that we have a role to play...Seize the opportunity to develop your political awareness and develop your practice of doing democracy. Show up, pay attention, and participate. And make sure you don’t knock poor people and people of color out of the way while you do it.”

In addition to finding housing for the homeless, working to change local policy, and effecting social change, Danielle Chynoweth is mom to Ezra, seen above.

Photo provided by Danielle Chynoweth.