By AARON GETTINGER
The Obama Foundation and the University of Illinois at Chicago hosted a program called the Chicago Community Conversation at the newly renamed Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum, 725 Roosevelt Rd., on Tuesday, June 19. It was a day to reflect on what Foundation Vice President for Civic Engagement Michael Strautmanis called “our shared history,” of civic movements and engagements, and to respond to contemporary issues affecting neighborhoods citywide.
More than 300 grassroots leaders from across Chicago took part in two sessions and an afternoon of workshops focused on issues ranging from “youth as game changers” to nonprofit fundraising to the central importance of mentorships in urban communities. The Conversation coincided with Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day the last enslaved people in Texas, at the bottom of the Confederacy, were freed after the Civil War.
“What does it mean to be free on this anniversary in a city where almost 8,000 human beings are locked in cages at the Cook County Jail, and what does it mean to be free on this anniversary in a nation where families are being torn apart at the border?” asked Lisa Lee, a UIC art and art history professor and executive director of the planned National Public Housing Museum to be housed in the former Jane Addams Homes in Little Italy, 1322 W. Taylor St.
“We don’t need anniversaries to remind us of events we cannot forget: events that have caused so many people so much pain and grief and still incite rage,” Lee said. “We say ‘her name’ and ‘his name,’ and we come together on this day like on all other days to do what Chicagoans have always done in the face of great injustice. We’ve organized, because none of us are free until all of us are free.”
She described a “beloved community” formed as “a result of vernacular culture, informed conversation and safe spaces where people who are black and brown can commiserate and experience joy and pleasure — a space to teach and build and learn from one another.”
Noted bluesman Billy Branch discussed the development of the blues, “the cultural bedrock of America’s music,” in Chicago by Southern blacks who participated in the Great Migration. “The same blues that evolved from field hollers of the slaves [bluesmen] brought to Chicago where, due to necessity, musicians began to amplify their instruments to be heard over the industrial city noises,” he said, describing the Windy City’s unique electric style that changed music “on a global scale.”
Branch called the blues an expression of “the basic raw emotions of the human condition. You say, ‘I got the blues.’ You don’t say, ‘I got the jazz. I got the hip hop.’ Everybody gets the blues all over the planet!” Branch said this universality enables the genre “that expresses the common human emotions, accentuating the commonalities of our human condition” to be a unifier across cultures.
Robert Winn, a UIC physician and researcher, discussed links between structural violence and community wealth, saying that the job “of a scientist who’s also immersed in social justice” is getting the benefit for some to the benefit of all. He focused much of his talk on infant mortality disparities between black and white mothers which, he said after recalling Juneteenth, was less disparate during slavery than in the present.
“What has affected your grandmother adversely affects your mom and then adversely affects you, including your health,” Winn said. He added that life expectancy in Chicago four stops south on the ‘L’ from the Loop is 16 years lower, which he called a lasting effect of redlining. “The structures that we put in place socially can have tremendous effects on our health outcomes.” Race itself does not effect health outcomes, but the social contours of race effect it.
“Our challenge is to do good, not for some, but for all, for science is something that we all need to care about,” Winn said to applause.
“To see what I have seen this morning, the activist and organizers here in Chicago who are firmly rooted in that idea that change does not come from Washington. It does not come from Springfield, and it does not come from City Hall,” said Foundation CEO David Simas. “Change comes from you, people who’ve seen their agency, understand their narratives, understand the coalitions and the power and the strategy and the systems and then move from individual agency to collective action, that’s the real change.”