A couple of years ago, Discover CEO Roger Hochschild heard scholar Ibram X. Kendi speak in Evanston about how to be an antiracist. Then, last summer, with the loud calls for racial justice, the corporate executive thought about what his company could do.
“We decided what we could do is bring great jobs to a community on the South Side that has not had the opportunity,” Hochschild said.
The credit card company is opening a Chicago-based customer care center in the Chatham neighborhood, bringing 1,000 full-time jobs starting at $17 an hour. It’s going in a shuttered Target store near 87th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue that closed two years ago much to the chagrin of the community that worried about what would replace a big box vacancy.
Hochschild said locating in a Black community was deliberate, and it’s the first customer care center Discover has opened in 20 years.
“The traditional corporate site selection process has contributed to unequal opportunity in our society and, in fact, is implicitly racist,” Hochschild said. “Corporations don’t choose not to build in communities of color but instead they focus on the percent of people who are college graduates or the quality of local high school, which will naturally steer towards communities with higher property values.”
The customer care center is expected to receive up to 10 million customer service calls per year and will fully open later this year.
After Target announced it was closing two stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods on the South Side — the 87th and Cottage Grove location and another location at 119th and Marshfield — organizers held protests. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Chicago, convened community meetings. Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried to reverse the decision to no avail. Chatham residents worried about disinvestment.
Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative, said Discover is also providing volunteers from a company program, and she said the community space carved out in the center will be welcome.
“These new jobs could not have come at a more opportune time,” Fears said. “This current economic recession has caused many of our local Black women to lose their jobs, so we have a ready workforce of qualified community members ready to be hired.”
Discover said 80% of the jobs will go to people who live within a five-mile radius of the center — an area covering much of the South Side, stretching from Ashburn to South Shore and from Bronzeville to Riverdale.
The center’s new director is Juatise Gathings, a native of the Roseland community on the Far South Side. She said partnering with Black suppliers is part of being a good neighbor.
“With us entering in the community of Chatham, it’s going to be unique for us to build career development plans and pipelining for employees,” Gathings said. “It’s going to be important for us to expand people’s careers.”
City officials confirmed that Discover has a Class 7b tax incentive for the development. The incentive provides reduced tax assessments for 12 years and is intended to encourage projects in areas deemed in need of commercial development. Normally commercial property is assessed at 25% of its fair market value. With the Class 7b tax incentive, property is assessed at 10% of its fair market value for 10 years and then at 15% for two additional years.
Editor note: Roger Hochschild is a board member of Chicago Public Media.