“Richard Townsell [is] a radical social activist with sound business sense. ...His vision is realistic to the most conservative of marketers and business investors. He has credibility because he shows results….He doesn’t lose people’s money.”
Richard Townsell was born into poverty in a basement apartment on the West Side of Chicago. His mother was a single parent who had moved to the city in 1956, leaving behind a sharecropper’s existence in Tennessee. In 1968, the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spawned violence that left much of the neighborhood burned to the ground; Townsell, his two brothers, and his mother moved to public housing. Then, when Townsell was in seventh grade, his mother suffered a disabling stroke. A few years later, he first walked into a local church and requested permission to use the weight machine in the foyer. The pastor told him that if he wanted to lift weights, he had to attend services. Townsell says he “grudgingly agreed.”
Townsell was deeply moved by that church, and inspired by King. Three decades later, in 1997, as director of LCDC, Townsell organized North Lawndale citizens to successfully lobby the city of Chicago for $9 million in improvements to their streets, sidewalks, gutters, sewers, and schools. Under Townsell’s leadership, LCDC has subsequently restored 19 single-family homes and 22 condominium apartment buildings for low- and moderate-income households, and 115 affordable rental apartments for low- and very low-income residents. The organization also has developed a $3.4 million multi-service center, which in turn has created 50 new jobs and now provides subsidized care to 217 children.
To Townsell, the very purpose of his church, “one started 25 years ago by 11 teenagers and four adults, is to be a church for people at the margins, for everyday people. It was in this church that I learned about God’s heart for the poor, the fatherless, the widow and the alien. It was in this church that I learned that justice is God’s intention. This was the ‘good news’ for me.”
LCDC has also provided educational enrichment to over 600 youths through three programs. The first is the Lawndale College Opportunity Program, which boasts an 85 percent matriculation rate of its graduates to four-year colleges. The second is the Tech Center, which has provided 450 youths with computer training and Internet access since opening in 2000. Third is Young Legacies, an after-school academic enrichment and computer-training program for kindergarten to seventh-graders, which began in 2002.
LCDC also has forged successful collaborations with other organizations. It is a founding member, for example, of United Power, which includes 300 Chicago-area churches, mosques, synagogues, labor unions, hospitals, business, and civic groups. The coalition procured 125 city-owned lots and subsidies for an affordable home-ownership program; construction of the first ten homes began last year.
“Justice,” says Townsell, “is God’s intention.”
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