Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 3: 10.19.16
By Aaron Rose
principal: pedagogical moments
concepts: knowledge transfer, social responsibility
Moments of learning and teaching unfold in all aspects of work…By tapping into the existing, possibly latent talent within a community and putting it to use for the community, exchanges for transfer of knowledge reach across identities, roles, practices, disciplines, generations, and localities… Whether creating programs that capitalize upon existing talent or establishing workshops, training programs, and business accelerators, the ability to recognize moments for knowledge and skill sharing is a part of one’s social responsibility, effectively deepening the network of relationships within a community, its ecosystem, and the larger social economy.
The evening before the Salon, I headed over to Place Lab’s offices in the Arts Incubator, for a screening of the 1970 documentary Lord Thing. The space was packed—standing room only. More than 75 people, including people of all ages from the city’s South Side and West Side, showed up to see the film. Lord Thing, the work of Chicago documentarian DeWitt Beall, tells the history of a West Side gang in a multilayered dramatization featuring some original gang members. Started in 1958 by seven young men coming out of the St. Charles youth reformatory, by the mid-1960s the Vice Lords had 10,000 members and, influenced by the Black Power movement, called themselves “a nation,” made up of factions like the Comanche, Tomahawks, and Vikings.
Under the leadership of men that included co-founder and spokesman Bobby Gore, a faction of the Vice Lords redefined themselves as an organization dedicated to black empowerment. They became the Conservative Vice Lords and incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization.
CVL harnessed the energy of the community to foster social change. With a $275,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and funding for community development from Lawndale-based corporations, including Sears Roebuck and Co. and Western Electric, from West Side aldermen and the Chicago Police Department, they organized programs to clean streets and create recreational areas and public art. Their achievements included starting black-owned businesses, the Art and Soul collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art to promote black artists, employment programs, and Teen Town youth services.
Lord Thing is a modest masterwork of art and politics. Available on YouTube, with footage restored in 2013–14 by Chicago Film Archives, Lord Thing presents bleak scenes of poverty with an inescapable immediacy and intimacy. There is no distance between the viewer and the heart-wrenching scenes being viewed: dilapidated buildings give way to alleys and streets littered with trash. The tearful face of a frightened, overwhelmed little girl of three or four trying to cover her ears against some unknown external or internal distress is unforgettable, as are scenes of young boys running through alleyways under el tracks as a screeching train passes overhead. The narrator speaks of the “hell” that greeted African Americans who came north during the Great Migration, forced to live in slumlike conditions.
Early in Lord Thing, a youthful, charismatic Gore speaks before a group of CVL members. He speaks with the voice a prophet, using the analysis of Paolo Friere’s liberation pedagogy, about conditions in urban communities of color. “For everything that happens, there’s got to be a reason. The way we live, the food we eat, the amount of money we got in our pockets, if none of this is suitable, we gonna leave home with an attitude… [O]ur problem is really not among ourselves. Because the things we argue and fuss and fight about, it’s not coming from us. It’s coming from environment. The brother is not his problem. This problem comes from someplace else... Let’s find out where our problems are coming from.”
We know a lot more today about what contributed to these slumlike conditions: FHA-sanctioned housing segregation, commonly known as redlining, and the unscrupulous practice of selling real estate on contract that exploited African Americans unable to obtain legitimate mortgages. Beryl Satter’s 2009 landmark book, Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, which inspired TaNehisi Coates’s 2014 story in the Atlantic, “A Case for Reparations,” documents how African-American families in Chicago were essentially robbed of their earnings and the opportunity to acquire equity in their homes by paying two and three times the value of a property, and describes the risk of being evicted and losing that property if they missed just one monthly payment. We also know a lot more about the traumatic effects of living in poverty.
Complex factors led to the demise of CVL as an agent for social change in a community engulfed by crisis. In April 1968, after the assassination of Dr. King, the entire commercial district in North Lawndale, almost two miles along Roosevelt Road, was destroyed by fire, which some attributed to CVL members. CVL was also implicated in drug dealing activities of other gang factions. In 1969 and the early 1970s, Mayor Richard J. Daley and Cook County state's attorney Ed Hanrahan, the same team who arranged the murder of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969, aggressively investigated, imprisoned, and ultimately decimated the leadership of CVL.
During the post-screening panel discussion, Benneth (“Benny”) Lee, a former high-ranking CVL member, and an audience member whose own journey from gang membership loosely paralleled Lee’s, spoke of growing up on Chicago’s West Side. In what was, at the time, the second largest city in what was considered the most advanced industrialized nation in the world, both men entered prison as young adults unable to read. Both men, upon their release, earned advanced degrees. Benny is now an adjunct instructor at Northeastern Illinois University.
Benny described how Mayor Richard J. Daley got his start as head of Southwest Side Irish gangs that predated the formation of African-American gangs. Irish gangs were enmeshed in the notorious Chicago political machine, and benefitted from protection by the Chicago Police Department, for which many gang members were primed for secure, well-paid jobs. National media coverage, from tweets and comments by the National Disgrace to stories about Chicago’s 2016 murder rate in major news outlets, such as the New York Times, offer contrasting narratives about the devolving fate of black gangs, of black men who have no political power.
The following afternoon, Salon Members toured Growing Power’s urban farm on Iron Street, on Chicago’s Southwest Side. The farm, headed by Chicago and National Projects Director, Erika Allen, is a center of Growing Power’s food distribution activities on the South and Southwest Sides. An outpost in the one-time Daley stronghold of Bridgeport, the farm also altered the landscape of the psychic map of the city. Growing food in four feet of composted soil atop concrete, Growing Power has reclaimed land that supports communities of color living within a system of food apartheid, in a part of the city that, historically, was so hostile to African Americans that some black Chicagoans still refuse to go there.
Erika, daughter of Growing Power founder Will Allen, along with Quinten, a former student and now employee at the site, gave us a tour of the seven-acre farm. Its mural art, hydroponic fish farming, hoop houses, vermin-composting and mushroom production systems, apiary, and family of pygmy goats are nestled on land and in a warehouse once occupied by a trucking firm, in a mixed industrial and residential neighborhood. As noted by Erika, the farm demonstrates that you can build food systems in urban environments where people live. “You can grow a farm on concrete, and people of color can do this in a sovereign way.”
Presenters for the evening Salon included David Stovall, a scholar of community, housing, race, and education at University of Illinois Chicago; Sam Darrigrand, the new workforce development manager at Rebuild Foundation; and Carol Zou, the project manager at Trans.lation in Dallas. Theaster Gates, Steve Edwards—the series’ Emcee—and Place Lab’s Isis Ferguson introduced the presenters.
Dr. David Stovall, University of Illinois at Chicago
Dr. David Stovall is Professor of Educational Policy Studies and African-American Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). He participates in the UIC’s Great Cities Institute, and volunteers as a social studies teacher at the Greater Lawndale/Little Village School for Social Justice. David talked about the junior high and high school students who are his experts, and how, in whole segments of the city—with a tactic that might be termed intellectual redlining—students of color are proscribed from the process of thinking and creating. They are taught history in ways that are intended to bore, not to enlighten or empower them; ways that are designed “to settle, not to trouble, the waters.”
This is also the way we talk about gun violence in Chicago, David said. We don’t complicate it. And he described the moment in 2011 when he heard Jody Weis, Chicago Police Department Superintendent from 2008–2011, who was also a former FBI agent and, significantly, an outsider, say publicly, on the radio, that displacement is one of the key drivers for violence. “I almost crashed my car on the highway. He let folks in on something we see in the day-to-day, but we don’t ask critical questions about.” Weis was gone from the department a few weeks later.
Sam Darrigrand, Rebuild Foundation
Sam Darrigrand, a small business developer and the new workforce development manager at Rebuild Foundation is in charge of workforce training for Rebuild, including St. Laurence School, where people from the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood will have the opportunity to learn and get paid. He talked about the importance of meeting people where they’re at as a way of facilitating moments of teaching and learning. Sam focuses on interrupting behaviors and diffusing points of conflict—like not making eye contact or shaking hands, not being on time or following instructions—that often keep job applicants from being hired or cause people to lose their jobs.
Carol Zou, Trans.lation
Carol Zou spoke about her work as Project Manager at Trans.lation in the Vickery Meadow community in Dallas, Texas, founded by Rick Lowe, who also founded Project Row House, and the Nasher Sculpture Center. Trans.lation is located in an immigrant, refugee, African-American, and Latinx neighborhood. The organization describes itself as a space of cultural freedom, where arts and language classes allow residents to self-organize and build community. Language is where we begin to see pedagogical differences, Carol noted, and talked about “language justice,” people’s right to communicate in a language in which they feel most comfortable.
Carol and Trans.lation serve as co-facilitators with community leaders to enable them to realize their vision; the organization hires residents to lead community workshops and other learning platforms, such as literacy classes. Carol told a story about poorly attended classes, including an English Literacy class. Women were not showing up for class because they didn’t know how to drive and couldn’t get there. The teacher spent the next four months translating a learner’s permit training into Arabic and recruited a colleague to train 20 new immigrant women to drive.
Carol also described how pedagogy, in language and literacy, becomes political for new immigrants. A young Togolese participant in the English Practice class decided to paint all the US presidents, starting with George Washington, and hung his painting on the wall at Trans.lation. When a local black leader saw the painting, she asked, “Why is there a portrait of a slave-owner in our space?” The incident illustrates how ESL classes and citizenship tests assimilate new immigrants with misleading neutrality. Uninformed about histories of race and class in the US, new immigrants can develop beliefs that cause division and conflict with US-born people of color, and that prevent new immigrants from recognizing and collaborating with communities of color to address issues such as gentrification, police violence, and poverty.
Following the presentations, Salon Members broke into small-group discussions. Members of my group created a pedagogical moment by sidestepping the suggested topics. There was a spontaneous rush from a couple of Members, and this before the November 8 election, to pursue deeper levels of inquiry into common questions and expectations about how we pursue redevelopment. How, and for whom, do we plan for the future—for the 30-year-olds or the five-year-olds? How do we prioritize community needs—for longtime community residents or for more affluent, younger people who are moving into the community? Who possesses community knowledge and how do we change core belief systems? Do we privilege people who attend meetings, or quiet community leaders who don’t? The example of the Brexit vote came to the fore: the majority of Brits who voted to leave the EU were Baby Boomers, who, some say, resisted change and yearned for the past. The younger generations of Brits, who mostly voted to remain, will have to live most of their lives with the consequences of that choice.
The evening closed with a performance piece by members of Honey Pot Performance, who draw on ethnography, sociology, and fieldwork data to feed experimentation with methodologies of moving through space and exploring relationships. The three performers, including Salon Member Meida Teresa McNeal, who is also Cultural Manager for the Chicago Park District, read a poem and presented for the audience a simulated rehearsal in progress. When the audience was invited to contribute responses, it felt like another pedagogical moment—a moment to recognize and reflect back the many dimensions and complicated perceptions of lived experience.
Pedagogical moments come when we are open to them, to the discoveries they bring and the truths they reveal, however inconvenient or uncomfortable. These moments of teaching and learning come when, as Benny Lee testified, we connect with our history, when we resurrect and examine purposefully forgotten, disparate narratives. Or, as David Stovall said, when we complicate things, when we are willing to trouble the waters, and the status quo. When, as Sam Darrigrand noted, we are willing to meet people where they’re at—not where we think they should be. And, as Carol Zou described, when we create spaces and conditions where diverse communities come together to learn, to imagine, and to recognize their shared values, needs, and, above all, their power.
Parts of this blog were originally covered in a story for Newcity magazine.
For more information on the series and the author check out the series introduction