Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Open Streets Is Back, but New York Ups the Ante

Remember Sunday Parkways, that experiment last fall that closed down Chicago boulevards to cars and opened them up to thousands of cyclists, pedestrians and skaters? It's back. Renamed Open Streets, it will take place this year on Saturday, August 1, across 7.5 miles of wide-open roads through five communities: Logan Square, Humboldt Park, East Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Little Village.

Like last year, neighborhood groups and others will sponsor activities along the route, from exercise stations to dance and music performances. I rode one of last year's two Sunday-morning events and it was a blast, so much fun that complete strangers spent a lot of time greeting each other and talking.

Still, I had to grumble this morning when I read in the New York Times that that other city will shut down 6.9 miles of Manhattan for THREE Saturday-morning events and sponsor DOZENS of additional "Weekend Walks" in the boroughs. This is the same city that has put benches and chairs and bike paths on a traffic-free Broadway, changing completely the atmosphere (literally) on that once-chaotic street.

So let's get out there and have fun on August 1 in Chicago, and then figure out what it takes to catch up to other cities (Quito, Ecuador; Bogotá, Colombia; Guadalajara, Mexico; Portland, Oregon) that are making us look bad.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Remembering Wanda White Gills

News came through today that Wanda White Gills, a longtime contributor to the improvement of Chicago communities, has passed away after a long battle with cancer.

I had the pleasure of working with Wanda back in the 1980s when she was with the Community Workshop on Economic Development, and was thrilled to work with her again in 2004 and 2005 in Englewood, where she brought 600 different people into a remarkable series of meetings that resulted in Teamwork Englewood's 2005 quality-of-life plan.

Pierre Clark, who participated in that process, passed along the sad news:
"Wanda White Gills was the best facilitator and collaborative consensus builder I've worked with in 30 years in community development, bar none. I will miss her and I know she will be missed as a friend, colleague, guiding light and visionary.

"Wanda was Economic Development Director to three Chicago mayors, Executive Director of the Community Workshop On Economic Development, President of the Women's Self-Employment Project, Director of Teamwork Englewood NCP, Founding Board Member Of The Annenberg Challenge Grant process, architect of the Chicago Empowerment Zone process, third in command at the CHA during the early Transformation days, wife to Professor Doug Gills of UIC, mom to Scott and RD, grandmom, and a great friend and colleague of many of us in community development and community empowerment circles . . . (she) made her transition on Wednesday, June 25, after a long battle with cancer.

"Her homegoing ceremony will be Friday, July 3, 2009, at 1 p.m. at Progressive Community Center, 56 East 48th Street, (Wabash and 48th Street), Chicago, Illinois 60653."
What I remember quite vividly was the atmosphere in the big room at 815 W. 63rd Street, at Teamwork Englewood's office, when Wanda White Gills was working her magic. Englewood leaders and residents had been through plenty of planning processes before that one, and most of those plans had resulted in nothing much, but Wanda got people talking, let the angry ones speak their minds, treated every person and every idea with respect, left time before and after each meeting for people to talk to each other, and always urged everyone to come back to the next meeting and bring their friends and neighbors. And they did, month after month, until a splintered community had come together around common goals and created a sense of hope and spirit that hadn't exist before.

That's what Wanda White Gills was capable of. It's a rare and special talent. I know I am one of many who admired very much her contributions to our city.

Photo is from March 19, 2005 Englewood Youth and Young Adult Summit, during the report-back session when youth told a panel of adult leaders their concerns and hopes for the community.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Residuals in motion

One worthwhile area of reporting might be the thinking behind the switch of the cycling and swimming venues between Douglas and Washington Parks. Seems a neighborhood like North Lawndale (Douglas Pk.) could have used pools more than a velodrome. And wha's this talk about "moving" pools to other parks after 2016. How does one "move" a swimming pool?

Photo of swimmer at Crane Tech Prep High School during Spring Into Sports, by Eric Young Smith.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pilsen's Big Sound, Strong Culture

On a Tuesday afternoon, the blair of trumpets and strumming of guitars flood the halls of Cooper Elementary School in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. It's time for mariachi class led by Victor and Jose Yahvi Pichardo, a father-son team with a wealth of Mexican music experience (Victor's Band, Los Sones de Mexico, was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2008). The class is held twice a week and any student is welcome to join. These young students have a deep commitment to the music they play--and whether or not they are of Mexican decent, they are preserving their neighborhood's culture by learning the mariachi tradition. This program is supported by LISC Chicago's Elev8 program. Produced by Tu Multimedia.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Umoja University Trains School Leaders as Community Change Agents

Twelve years ago, less than 10 percent of graduates from North Lawndale's Manley High School went on to college. Last Friday, the Chicago Tribune reported that "all but a few" of Manley's 142 graduating seniors had been accepted to college.

Much of the credit for this achievement goes to the Umoja Student Development Corporation. Umoja provides pathways for students to learn about college and careers and builds the relationships with them needed to help them move forward after graduation. (I wrote about one of them here back in 2003.) Students working with Umoja not only develop postsecondary plans; they follow through. Umoja contacted 139 of last year's Manley grads and found 68 percent of them had enrolled as college freshmen: 64 percent of that group are going back for a second year.

In the last few years, Umoja has been expanding its efforts beyond Manley, to south and southwest side schools like Gage Park, Carver, Dyett and ACE Tech Charter. This summer, teachers and school leadership teams who want to learn more about how Umoja has "changed the way the school does business" (as the Tribune put it), are invited to sign up for four days of workshops and planning known as Umoja University. The workshops will be held at Dominican University from July 27-31. Interested individual teachers are invited to sign up for one or more morning workshops; school teams are encouraged to sign up for the full five days, and will have dedicated time in the afternoons to develop plans for their own school aided by Umoja facilitators.

Why am I telling you about this on a community development blog? Because one of the best ways to strengthen a community is to increase the education level of its members. According to the Trib article, less than 10 percent of adults in North Lawndale currently hold a bachelor's degree. Umoja has been working diligently to plant the seeds that will increase that number down the road, and I think they have something to share with teachers and principals who share that goal.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Welcome to Our Neighborhoods!

How do you convey the excitement and hard work that goes into making neighborhoods stronger?

We've tried a lot of different ways over the seven years of the New Communities Program, and probably the closest we've come is in the new video below by Sarahmaria Gomez and Alex Fledderjohn of TuMultimedia.

This is the first half of a longer piece they created as a "thank you" tribute to Jonathan Fanton, the president of the MacArthur Foundation. It captures the voices of neighborhood residents talking about:
  • a community garden on Maypole Avenue in East Garfield Park;
  • the South Chicago Art Center;
  • a mural in North Lawndale;
  • the La Estancia development in Humboldt Park;
  • a mariachi band at Cooper School in Pilsen;
  • the Oakwood Shores mixed-income development in Quad Communities;
  • the West Haven Giants baseball team;
  • the Little Village Boxing Gym; and
  • the foreclosure prevention efforts in Chicago Lawn.
All that in five minutes! I think the reason it works so well is because the work it represents is so genuine and real.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Channing Reddit, Social Justice Class of 09, One of Eight to Win Roosevelt Scholarship

Yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times reported that eight students from The School of Social Justice, one of four small schools within Little Village Lawndale High School, had been awarded full four-year scholarships worth $80,000 to Roosevelt University. Channing Reddit, singing a duet in the photo above as part of a play honoring Black History Month, was among them. Channing, an accomplished singer and pianist, told me he plans to major in music education. He has already spent a fair amount of time at Roosevelt, from orientation when he first arrived as a freshman to a writing course he took on campus last summer, staying overnight.

As an 8th-grader at Mason Elementary in North Lawndale, Channing originally thought he would apply to Curie High School. Having sung and played piano in church since he was very young, he liked Curie's music program and strong academic reputation. But when he heard there was a new high school opening nearby, he was so intrigued he changed his mind. “It was brand-new. I wanted to be in the history of the school as one of the first graduates,” he said.

Channing's 8th-grade dream came true last Friday night. When he and his classmates crossed the stage, they made history as members of the first graduating class of Little Village Lawndale High School. Hunger striker Manuelita Garcia, who helped push the Chicago Board of Education to make good on their promise to build a new high school in Little Village, spoke during their commencement ceremony.

Students coming to Little Village Lawndale choose which of the four small schools they wish to attend: Social Justice, MAS (Multicultural Arts School), Infinity Math & Science Academy, or World Language Academy. Soon after Channing chose Social Justice, he discovered that Roosevelt University had pledged to award scholarships covering tuition, room and board to any student in Social Justice's first two graduating classes with at least a 3.0 GPA and an ACT score of 20. “From the very beginning I knew I was going to do that." Always an honors student, ”I knew it would be easy for me to meet the requirement," he said. He graduated with a 4.0 and earned the 20 after just one retake.

Though Channing says it was easy for him, statistics say it's generally pretty tough for young African-American men like him to make it through both high school and college. Recent research shows that for every 100 African American boys who start ninth grade in Chicago's public high schools, only about 11 will hold a bachelor's degree ten years later.

Not only has Channing made huge strides in beating those odds, he's helped his peers along the way. He has a circle of friends who, like him, are African American young men on track to graduate from high school, some of whom joined him for lunch or stopped by his table while I interviewed him earlier this year. “I'm always helping all of them when they need help with their work.”

Channing added that Social Justice has made a big difference in his friends' likelihood of graduating. If they had gone to a different school, he said, it was unlikely they would all have made it with him. “Other schools seem like they don't care about their students that much. This one does.”

UPDATED 6/10: I received word from Katherine Hogan, English department chair at Social Justice, that of the original 85 students who entered as freshmen, 66 graduated last Friday night, and 50 of them have been accepted to postsecondary programs. Hogan says six more students are expected to graduate in August.

Full disclosure: I taught briefly at Social Justice High School back in 2006 and had the privilege of meeting Channing when he was in my advisory (homeroom). We had not kept in touch until I talked with him this spring about his postgraduate plans.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Are Volunteers Enough to Cover the 'Hoods?

Community Beat got some good press today from Mike Doyle at ChicagoSphere, the new blog-about-blogs at the Trib's just-launched Chicago Now web site. "Community Beat has covered topics you might not find on other community news sites or local blogs," Doyle said, calling it a "great effort." Well, thanks.

Doyle then offers a spirited defense of citizen journalism, which I had "rejected" as "unsustainable and unprofessional" in an email exchange with him. I didn't mean any offense. I just don't think volunteerism is an adequate replacement for professional news gathering, editing and distribution, and it certainly isn't happening on the scale needed to keep communities and cities (and nations) healthy.

Case in point: The CTA on Wednesday released its Screen 3 report on the Red Line Extension Alternatives Analysis Study, which has been analyzing options for high-capacity transit service south of 95th Street. Guess what? After much public input, the CTA recommends a rail extension that snakes west on I-57 and then south along the Union Pacific Railroad through Roseland and all the way to Altgeld Gardens at 130th Street.

You didn't see that in the newspapers? Neither did I. With their staffs gutted, there aren't enough reporters to send to meetings, and I guess those who are left don't have time to check the CTA web site, which is where I found a detailed presentation about the route selection. All I found when searching Google News was a short Sun-Times story saying that a meeting was taking place again tonight (but not telling the news), and a WBEZ piece that at least mentioned the preferred route.

We can't depend on volunteers to provide this type of information, though it would be nice. But community organizations can play a big role here: keeping track of what's happening and sharing it with their residents and neighbors. We've seen it working very well among different New Communities Program lead agencies (LSNA, GAGDC, NWSCDC, TRP) and there's no reason that many more can't get into the game.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More Audio Tours from Curie High Students

A couple of weeks ago, we presented four audio "tours" by seniors at Curie Metro High School, each providing a peek into special places that those students shared with their listeners. Here are five more. Tell us what you think.

The Cleanest Neighbor in the World
We spy on Ana Romero's neighbor, who never stops sweeping

King Plaza
Angela Griden provides a tour of Martin Luther King Plaza on the West Side.

Quidditch in Marquette Park
A full game of Harry Potter Quidditch, Chicago style, by Kathryn Kaye.

Whiz Kids Learning Center
Lamar Smith wants you to hear the laughter on 67th and California.

Environmental Justice
Come inside the Little Village Environmental Justice Center and see youth in action, by Xochitl Sandoval.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Running for the Health of It--19th Annual Alivio Y Salud Run for Health in Pilsen

“We’ve been training for months to run the 5K,” said Armando Rodriguez, an eighth grader at Orozco Community Academy in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. “Today our training is getting put to the test.”

On Saturday, no less than 1,000 athletes and spectators of all ages shrugged off the drizzly weather to participate in the 19th Annual Alivio Y Salud Run for Health in Pilsen. The 5K Run, 5K Kids Run and the 2 Mile Walk and Kids Dash drew a healthy crowd, most were family members of area-school children there to compete.

Robert Reznar, coach of Orzoco’s Running Club, began training 75 kids for this race in February. The club meets after school two times a week.

“I think for a lot of kids it’s a social thing, so there’s no tryout for the kids, said Reznar. “They can just come on out and have a good time with their friends and get a good workout.”

Reznar, who is also the health and fitness teacher at Orozco, says sports activities like the running club are essential to students well being. The school has a high incidence of student obesity, a problem he partially attributes to gang problems in the area. “The neighborhood is a little dangerous, so parents are reluctant to let their kids outside during the day to play," said Reznar. “We’re trying to use our programming to teach them how important it is to take care of their health at an early age.”

The months of training paid off, as five of Reznar’s students placed in the top 10 in their age divisions. Rodriguez won 10th place in his division.

“My favorite part about running is the challenge, [our coaches] challenge us a lot,” he said. “They make us sprint and run for 30 minutes, which I thought I couldn’t do. It was a great challenge for me and I overcame it.”