Harris School holds grand opening for Keller Center; Gates, Duncan talk public policy in Chicago

Harris School Dean Katherine Baicker (left) and former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (right) listen as artist Theaster Gates talks during the program in “A Conversation on Inequality and Opportunity in America.” (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

While the building itself opened over the winter, the Harris School of Public Policy dedicated its new Keller Center on May 3 with a day of forums, receptions and a ceremony attended by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The Keller Center, 1307 E. 60th St., meets LEED Platinum and Living Building Challenge Petal certifications and is built around a four-story atrium clad in wood from emerald ash borer-damaged trees removed from parks on the South and West sides.

Artist Theaster Gates worked with architects from Farr Associates to mill and set the wood. The Keller Center also contains a rainwater capture system that diverts 525,208 gallons from Chicago’s sewer system every year, a solar energy system that provides 11% of the building’s annual energy use, a lighting system designed to match the body’s circadian rhythms and glass with an ultraviolet coating intended to prevent bird collisions.

Gates and former U.S. Department of Education Secretary and Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan gave the first talk of the opening session on “Inequality and Opportunity in America.” Harris School dean Katherine Baicker moderated.

Duncan discussed his work as managing partner of Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Destiny), a gun violence reduction nonprofit that has grown from serving 30 men in Roseland in 2016 to helping nearly 500 today. “Our men are the solutions. They are not the problem,” Duncan said. “We have to walk with them. We have to learn from them — partner with them — but they’re going to lead Chicago to a much safer place.”

Gates said his trajectory began to differ from his West Side peers in fifth grade, when his class at the North Side school where he was bused began to talk about college. “By the time we got to high school, (his neighborhood friends’) lives seemed faster than mine, more interesting,” he said. “And then there was a shift when it felt like opportunities started to dip for them, and they kept growing for me,” which distressed Gates because “there was nothing that was different between me and my homies. They were often smarter than me … but the opportunity gap started to increase as our educational opportunities started to shift.”

Duncan said the “one-size-fits-all” education mentality does not work and called pre-K “the best investment we can make.” He said that children who start kindergarten 12 to 18 months late are those who often drop out of school, “the dirty secret of education.” Secondly, he urged that the hours children spend in school every day vary to their individual benefit.

“The takeaway is actually relatively easy: this is a simple conversation with young people and their parents,” Duncan said, acknowledging that the challenge is resources: “But we either make those investments early — which for me are sort of peanuts — or we lock people up on the back end,” noting that a bed at the county jail costs $60,000 annually.

Asked how their work differs in different neighborhoods, Duncan called Chicago “a tale of 15 to 20 cities.” Between “gorgeous” Hyde Park, where he grew up, and “booming” downtown, where he has an office, “our guys are living in war zones” in other neighborhoods.

“Somehow, we in a room like this have been far too comfortable, far too accepting, of that disparity,” he said. “And until we start to not be OK with that, you’ll continue to see these massive disparities in educational outcomes, in income, in death, in violence,” noting demographic outcomes’ ineradicable links to race in Chicago.

Gates urged a new social framework “between people who have absolutely no reason to get to know each other.” When a housing policy-concerned developer “and the brother who needs a job would get to know each other, become friends, become allies … we would start to see another kind of transformation that is not just policy-based,” he said.

Duncan said a community effort to build a playground in a formerly violent area coincided with 15 months without a shooting. CRED thinks it is solving an economic problem, not one of violence, Duncan said. Four dozen employers hire the men transitioned through different talent pools into the “legal economy.” With the city’s declining (though still high) crime rate, getting at active shooters — the number of whom “isn’t that many,” Duncan said — would effect a “precipitous drop in violence.”

Asked what advice they would give to Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, Gates encouraged her to listen to her advisory committees’ recommendations, saying, “I felt really heartened that she was immediately not just setting her own agenda but was really asking people who have a deep knowledge of how the city works where the challenges are.”

Lightfoot has never held elected office before. “To the extent that we can take a mayor who has not had the same experience of running cities, what can we give her as a collective will and a collective consciousness to make sure that she does well?” Gates asked. “Her success is going to be dependent on us.”

Duncan said the city needs a specific goal in violence reduction, noting that Chicago has not experienced under 400 homicides in a year since 1965, with corresponding strategies “with those most likely to shoot and be shot” beyond arrests.

“We’ve got to give guys a reason to put down their guns and do something different,” Duncan said.