At Woodstock Institute, Dory Rand fights to protect poor families

As president of the Woodstock Institute, Dory Rand helps find solutions to problems plaguing struggling communities. | Credit: Adrian G. Uribarri

Dory Rand sits in a conference room in downtown Chicago, 17 stories above East Madison Street. In front of her is a dry-erase board with a mockup of a new Web-site design, highlighting foreclosure filings and other data. Behind her are reams of books and binders.

Most of her work revolves around policy papers and financial trends, but she says she doesn't think of her research as theoretical.

"It's applied research," she says. "The bottom line is, we're trying to increase opportunities for lower-wealth persons to safely borrow, save and invest."

In boom times, the work is hard enough, but Rand took over the Woodstock Institute, a Chicago research and advocacy nonprofit, in the middle of last year, as an economic downturn tightened its grip on the state and a mortgage crisis devastated the lives of homeowners across Illinois.

The way she sees it, her work is to challenge the legal loopholes and special interests that led to an economic debacle in the United States.

"The free market did not properly regulate itself," she says. "We have to make policies based on the real world, not based on some idea of how human beings should make decisions — not blame them for being bad consumers."

That philosophy is at the core of Rand's work. If it grates with the ideals of personal responsibility and individual freedom, so be it, she says: Sometimes, people need the law to look after them.

In 2005, for example, the Woodstock Institute helped legislators forge the Payday Loan Reform Act, which tightened regulations on some high-cost loans primarily used by low-income borrowers.

More recently, its collaboration with a cutting-edge public-records Web site, EveryBlock, earned accolades from researchers in Berkeley, Calif., who partly credited the Institute's work with helping officials cast attention on the foreclosure crisis.

Another of the Institute's initiatives has been to lobby against predatory lending in the state, a cause that has won some hearts recently as the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis has vindicated consumer advocates who fought for tougher banking regulations.

"It's unfortunate that it's taken this much of an economic meltdown to make us realize the gaps in economic regulation and consumer protection," Rand says. "A lot of us saw that there was no way that these loans were going to be sustainable." But regulators "didn't want to hear it as long as Wall Street was making money."

Rand, 52, brings a lawyer's perspective to her work. Before she joined the Institute last year, she was the supervising attorney of the community-investment unit at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago. Previously, she worked with domestic-violence survivors at the Legal Assistance Foundation, another advocacy agency in the city.

They were roles that helped her bring a ground-level understanding of poverty to the Institute, established in 1973, as the program arm of the Sylvia and Aaron Scheinfeld Foundation, to help find solutions to social-justice issues. She succeeded Malcolm Bush, who resigned in February 2008 after a 15-year term to become a research fellow at the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall, a research center that focuses on children and families.

Rand says her work allows her to advocate for families that remind her of her own, as a child in the former steel town of Massillon, Ohio. Her disabled mother benefited from government-assistance programs, she says, and her father and brother could attend college thanks to G.I. bills.

"I've always been interested in social- and economic-justice issues," she says, "always had a strong personal belief in equal rights and women's rights. I've also seen the benefits that government policy can have in lifting people out of poverty."

It helps that she can take the long view on reform. Rand, who completed a 70.3-mile triathlon in Wisconsin this summer, approaches her work with the patient yet tenacious view of a long-distance runner, a strategy she needs when the Institute's advocacy hits roadblocks.

For example, when the Woodstock Institute lobbied for the Payday Loan Reform Act, it also found that lenders successfully sought a loophole regarding installment loans — a loophole Rand says the Institute is still working to close.

The Institute is also working to end other lending practices such as auto-title loans, which allow borrowers to list their cars as collateral.

"The car may be the difference between having a job and not having a job," Rand says. "If they have to commute by car to work, and they lose their car, they lose their job."

Meanwhile, Rand focuses on new challenges brought on by the downturn.

"There's a lot of doom and gloom about our recession and the crisis," she says. "This is an opportunity to turn that frustration and anger into a voice for change."

Staff Writer Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 12, or adrian at chitowndailynews dot org.