09/14/2012 02:47 pm ET Updated Nov 14, 2012

Happy 152nd Birthday, Jane Addams

Earlier this month, we celebrated a day that's close to the heart of many social service agencies both here in Chicago and around the world -- Jane Addams's birthday. I like to think she'd have a lot to say about what the poor are going through today, just as she always did. More importantly, I like to think she'd be in the trenches, helping people and making our cities better, safer, and healthier, and that if anyone could get it done, it would be her.

She was truly a woman ahead of her time, someone who wouldn't accept that gender, ethnicity, and income should decide one's path. During her lifetime, women could not vote and there was no social safety net for the poor. Discrimination was openly accepted. Education was reserved for the upper crust. She was among the first to ask a key question -- if we don't do something about this, who will?

She spent her life answering that question. She built the famous Hull House, which was one of the first social service agencies to approach poverty in a holistic fashion. It offered schooling for children and adults, a feeding program, art classes, and workforce development amongst other services, believing that if they could give those in poor neighborhoods the opportunity to stabilize their lives, they would.

Recently, Hull House closed its doors, but her legacy lives on in Heartland Alliance, the Midwest's leading anti-poverty agency, where I work, and within other social service agencies throughout the city. In 1888, Jane Addams created our organization, then known as Traveler's and Immigrants Aid. She brought with her the wealth of experience that only a lifetime of passionate dedication can. She also brought with her the philosophy that no one solution will end poverty -- it takes a holistic approach that addresses the key factors that keep people trapped.

In her time, she perceived that the injustice of poverty stemmed from a social system that fundamentally ignored the poor. She believed that leaders simply ignored health, sanitation, and building codes, and that slums that were filled with danger, illness, and hopelessness were the result. In the 77 years since her death, much has changed, but poverty remains -- and at Heartland Alliance, we take the task of ending it very seriously, as she did.

We believe that housing, health care, jobs, and justice are the way out of poverty -- and we know that approaching these four areas in a holistic way is the path to stability for those we serve. We believe every working person can earn enough to support their family, that elderly people can live with dignity, that the disabled, sick, and mentally ill can get the help they need, and that children can live safe from violence and terror. It's work we've done for 125 years since the day Jane Addams opened our doors -- work that truly ends poverty. The millions we've served and the passion of the staff are proof that ordinary people can create an extraordinary world.

This September, as we remember Jane Addams and her extraordinary contribution to ending the suffering of those in poverty, let's remember that this isn't work that exists only in history books. It's work that's crucial now as we discuss how best to lift our nation out of this lasting recession, and it's work for which the need is still growing.

At Heartland Alliance, we honor this legacy every time we see that first glimmer of hope in the eyes of our participants after years of being forgotten. We remember it when we work for policy that will give them a chance to stabilize their lives, and we've remembered it as we've grown Heartland Alliance into an agency that serves nearly one million people each year -- each of which deserves a fair chance to reach a stable, prosperous life.

From those of us at Heartland Alliance, we wish you a happy birthday, Jane Addams. Thank you for giving us the chance to carry out your legacy and, more importantly, to end poverty once and for all.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that it has been 150 years since Jane Addams' birth, but this year actually marks 152 years since the date of her birth.