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Social Justice in Southside Chicago

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dwight Vick
January 29, 2018

American history is fraught with thousands of examples of community groups that brought national attention to their causes and community needs. These groups force us, as public and nonprofit managers, to recognize the unfilled needs we are committed to resolve.

Chicago’s Southside communities are steeped in African American history. Known as the Black Metropolis, its neighborhoods fostered economic, political, religious and social organizations. Some of them are over one century old. These groups helped settle African Americans escaping Jim Crow South, obtain an education, gain economic stability and have a voice at the ballot box, and obtain the ability to freely worship as one wished. Many of these communities—Woodlawn, Oakland, Bronzeville, Kenwood—are threatened by outside forces such as increased housing demands, Chicago’s disinvestment in area schools, health care access, gentrification. Two community-based nonprofit groups, Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and Leading with Literacy, use different approaches to support the Southside’s long-history of social activism. These are only two of thousands of nonprofits to make a difference in our communities and nation.

Founded by religious leaders in the late 1960’s, KOCO is a grassroots organization dedicated to advancing democratic ideals that increase resources and services to low-income and working families living in Southside neighborhoods. In the past five years, KOCO collaborated with another community advocacy group, Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) to force University of Chicago Medical Center to open a level one trauma center. Too many Southside citizens died while in transit to the nearest such trauma center located in Northside hospitals. Their five-year efforts led to Medical Center’s opening the center. Not only did KOCO work to save lives but it is involved in local housing and educational efforts.

Chicago’s Southside experienced a massive outside migration like its in-migration patterns 100 years earlier. Homes and businesses closed. Property values decreased. This lack of investment led to decreased tax base. When President Obama announced his library would be in Southside Chicago communities, all available properties were sold within 48 hours and market values increased up to $100K within weeks. This forced many residents to move out of the communities where their families lived for decades. About 15 years ago, Chicago city government gave its mayor more control over its school system. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed at least 50 inner-city schools due to low-test scores. Almost all of them were in predominately African American and Latino communities. KOCO fights this effort.

Not only does KOCO provide a neighborhood food pantry, its front-and-center in the fight for city rent control laws. KOCO welcomes new neighbors but not at the expense of losing the community’s history. The group has joined forces with other local groups demanding a community benefits agreement from President Obama and his presidential center that will hire local citizens, contract with local businesses and help preserve local history. But its greatest, most recent accomplishment is its world-renown fight to force a school district that slated a closed school to be reopened as a charter one to be reverted to a public, open-enrollment educational institution. Fifteen KOCO members and its allies, after working with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for seven years to keep area schools open, felt as if all options were exhausted and went on a 34-day hunger strike. Using direct tactics to tackle hunger, housing and educational disparity, KOCO has been involved in these community for over a half-century.

Another organization, equally committed to educational justice, uses polar-opposite tactics to meet community needs — Leading with Literacy (LWL) is equally committed to educational and social justice. Its director, Reverend Michael Neal, does it one book and one child at a time. It started with his volunteering to read to one kindergarten class at Jackie Robinson Elementary School, a Southside kindergarten through third grade public institution. Five years later, the nonprofit organization is in 10 elementary schools with 30 all-male readers reaching hundreds of kids weekly. When Mayor Emmanuel closed 50 schools, he forced kids to go to schools across neighborhood, and often gang, lines. Going to the library can be a life-threatening experience. Pastor Mike, as he is popularly known, and the army of readers accomplish several goals: The children see a male role model make reading cool; the kids get books to take home; they stand on the corner of some of Chicago’s most violent streets and pass out books to anyone who requests them; and area teachers and principals encourage LWL’s involvement in their schools. All things being equal, his program improves reading test scores. LWL’s goal is to have every child living in Bronzeville communities to read on grade-level by third grade. By guaranteeing a child’s ability to read, the child is more successful in school. As an adult, the child is more likely to earn higher wages, own a successful business and mentor others.

These nonprofit and social justice groups are a cornerstone of American society. Historically, they spoke for and speak now for the forgotten, the disenfranchised, the voiceless. Their work, sometimes disruptive, sometimes quiet, but always present throughout American history remain constant until the forgotten are recognized, the disenfranchised vote and the voiceless are heard by the American governments they support with their taxes and their hearts. KOCO and LWL carry that national legacy in their local communities.

Author: Dwight Vick is a long-term ASPA member. His email address is [email protected].

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