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The Obama tour

Marking the fifth anniversary of Barack Obama’s election as president, Forgotten Chicago is offering a tour of the Chicago sites from Obama’s life in Chicago.

Hosted by Pullman activist Tom Shepherd and historian Cynthia Ogorek, the tour will include talks with people who worked with Obama in his early years, including environmentalist Cheryl Johnson of People for Community Recovery in Altgeld Gardens, as well as Bea Lumpkin, who will discuss Obama’s role working to save the pensions of Wisconsin Steel workers.

Also presenting their reminiscences will be the owners of Obama’s favorite restaurant, Valois, and his barber of of 20 years, Zarif of the Hyde Park Hair Salon.

The tour will also address the burning question of where Obama’s presidential library will end up.

It takes place Sunday, November 10, from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., departing from the Chicago Cultural Center.  The $59 ticket includes lunch at Valois.  Info at ForgottenChicago.com.

1963 school boycott

Tuesday is the 50th aniversary of the 1963 Chicago school boycott, and a commemoration at DuSable Museum features a panel discussion and a screening of highlights from Kartenquin Films’ documentary-in-progress, 63 Boycott

The panel — on “Lessons from the 1963 Boycott – The Struggle for Quality Education in Chicago Then and Now” – features Rosie Simpson and Fannie Rushing, leaders of the ’63 boycott, along with CTU president Karen Lewis, historian Elizabeth Todd-Breland of UIC, and Jasson Perez of the Black Youth Project.

The free event takes place Tuesday, October 22, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the DuSable Museum, 740 E. 56th Place.

On October 22, 1963, 250,000 CPS students boycotted school and thousands marched downtown.  They targetted the segregationist policies of CPS superintendent Ben Willis, under which students in black schools were crammed into classrooms and mobile units and taught in split shits, while nearby white schools had empty classrooms.  Spending on white schools was 50 percent higher than black schools.

In May, Ben Joravsky wrote about the documentary, giving some background on filmmaker Gordon Quinn’s involvement — and drawing some parallels with public education struggles today.

The People’s World has a retrospective that highlights the role of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations and the Congress of Racial Equality.  NewsOne credits the Chicago Area Friends of SNCC — a group which held its own commemoration two years ago.

At the time Newstips noted:

“The boycott and a demonstration by thousands of students and supporters in the Loop was a huge success.  The outcome was somewhat limited, though:  Willis was forced to resign, but school segregation continues to this day, [Sylvia] Fischer [of Chicago SNCC] said.

“In 1980 a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice resulted in a court ordered desegregation plan, but by then many white familes had moved to the suburbs, and many others had moved their children to private and parochial schools.  By the 1990s, two-thirds of Chicago’s white students were in private schools.   Today the city has a majority black public school system and a majority white private school system.

“The court order was lifted in 2009 over the objections of civil rights groups and students, who pointed to continuing inequities in Chicago schools.  In a blow to school desegregation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007, in a 5-to-4 decision, that using race as a factor in public school admissions is unconstitutional.”

Don Moore’s legacy

Don Moore’s life had an impact far greater than many more famous and powerful people:  more than anyone, he was responsible for creating and defending Chicago’s Local School Councils, while demonstrating their value as the most effective vehicle this city has seen for improving urban education.

He was among the first to push democratic school governance as the solution to Chicago’s schools crisis in the 1980s, and in the following decade, as politicians and CPS administrators sought to recentralize power – and brought the city’s business and philanthropic elites back under their sway – he defended LSCs from legislative attacks and mobilized community involvement in LSC elections.

Meanwhile, in a remarkable body of research, he demonstrated that while central office interventions from probation to turnarounds had little effect, the high-poverty schools that showed steady long-term improvement in Chicago were those with what he termed “school-based democracy.”

“It’s not a stretch to say that had he not been doing this work, Local School Councils would have disappeared from the scene – and we would have lost one of the most important engines of educational improvement in the nation,” said Ray Boyer, who directed public affairs for the MacArthur Foundation until 2004 and collaborated on projects with Moore after that.

As reported by Substance, Catalyst and the Sun Times, Donald R. Moore died last week at age 70.

In 1977 Moore founded Designs For Change, a multi-faceted organization that housed his rigorous research along with organizing, training, and advocacy efforts.  When a decade-long school crisis came to a head with the 1987 teachers strike, Moore seized the opportunity to rally community groups and business leaders to his vision of school-based democratic governance.

Critical role

Amid a vast and often conflicting array of groups pushing reform, Moore “played a critical role” in creating and pushing legislation that established LSCs in 1988, according to Mary O’Connell’s fascinating account of that struggle.  As Catalyst notes, when O’Connell asked participants in that movement who was “most responsible” for school reform, Moore was named most often.

He was “brilliant” in “bringing a theoretical concept into reality,” said Rod Estvan of Access Living, a former Designs board member, and he was commited to the idea that even in a society scarred by poverty and racism, “if people had some democratic control over their schools, they could make them better.”

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From 1968, a long view on movement building

After demonstrators were arrested and roughed up in an unsuccessful attempt to march to McCormick Place on Sunday, I thought it would be interesting to check in with Mel Rothenberg.  He has the distinction of leading the only demonstration that succeeded in marching to the International Ampitheatre, where the Democratic National Convention was being held, in 1968.

Now a retired professor, Rothenberg has been politically active through the intervening decades, most recently with Chicago Jobs With Justice and the Chicago Political Economy Group.  This gives him a long view on movement building and social change. (He and I worked together on the Chicago bureau of the Guardian, the independent radical newsweekly published in New York, in the 1980s.)

Chicago 1968 “was very different,” he says.  “It was a shock.  Everybody, the demonstrators and cops, were uncertain about what would happen.” At last weekend’s NATO protest, “both the authorities and the demonstration organizers had much more control of the street action, and the media had already orchestrated its coverage ahead of time.”

Big differences

“In 1968 the mayor was completely unprepared and the city was completely on edge,” he says.  In contrast to media pre-coverage this time – featuring scary headlines which almost surely depressed turnout – in 1968 “the media was trying to keep things calm, pretending nothing was going to happen.”

Also different was the police department: “In ’68 there was a lot of overt racism in the department — the Klan was operating openly; there were conflicts within the police department.” There had been major riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark. “The authorities were in a panic.  There were National Guard and state police, and it looked like for a while that the city would be put under martial law.”

Rothenberg helped organizet the Bourbaki Brigade, a contingent of mathematicians, who marched about 100-strong through Bridgeport to the Ampitheatre at 42nd and Halsted.  “It was very tense,” he recalls.  “There were neighborhood thugs threatening us, and the police in between, both protecting us and threatening us.”

The police “were making decisions on the spur of the moment – they didn’t know what was happening either – and they decided to let us through; we were a small group and not very threatening, mathematicians, college professors.”

The next day was supposed to be the big march to the convention site.  “It was supposed to be peaceful.  We brought our kids.”  A huge crowd gathered in the park across from the Conrad Hilton, and someone (later revealed to be a police infiltrator) climbed the flagpole and took down the American flag.  “That was the signal, they attacked us, there was tear gas, there was chaos.”

A big flop

This year, he says, “I don’t think Obama or NATO came out very well.  All the attention was on the demonstrators. The summit was a big flop.”

“There was no popular support in Chicago for NATO, no outpouring of sentiment to support NATO.” And “no one except city officials and p.r. people thought it was going to help the city.  It was a bust from the point of view of helping the local economy or getting favorable international attention to Chicago.”

“About the only thing they accomplished was to avoid a disaster,” Rothenberg said.

As for the protests, they turned out thousands of people – certainly far more than the 2,000 reported by the police – and wove together a range of social concerns with the issues of war and militarization.

But Rothenberg says there needs to be more attention to building a sustainable movement that goes beyond occasional demonstrations to actually challenging and changing policies.

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Studs Terkel and Woody Guthrie at 100

With world attention growing on Chicago protests against this weekend’s NATO summit, the centennials of two cultural icons of American progressive protest are being celebrated here this week.

A series of events is commemorating what would have been Studs Terkel’s 100th birthday, including two events Wednesday, and a concert on Saturday marks Woody Guthrie’s centennial.

Studs and Woody had a lot in common.  Both were products of the Great Depression, Studs first finding his voice writing and acting for the WPA; Woody, having hitchhiked and ridden the rails to California, hosting and performing on a radio show for fellow Okie refugees from the Dust Bowl.

Both were prolific, Studs hosting a daily radio show on WFMT for 45 years and writing 18 books, many of them bestsellers, the final one at age 96; Woody writing thousands of songs.  Each created a body of work reflecting their close identification with ordinary people.  And both lent their talents to countless progressive causes, speaking and performing at innumerable protest rallies.

As a disc jockey in the 1940s, Studs was “one of the first to promote artists like Mahalia Jackson, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Big Bill Broonzy,” according to his New York Times obituary.

And a Woody Guthrie song helped catalyze Studs’ career as an interviewer.  According to the Times, Studs contacted WFMT and began working there after hearing the station broadcast Woody Guthrie in 1952 and wondering, “Who plays Guthrie records besides me?”

Fittingly, Terkel’s signature sign-off on his radio show came from “Talking Union Blues,” by Guthrie’s Almanac Singers: “Take it easy, but take it.”

The Studs Terkel Centennial Committee holds a 100th birthday party at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 16, at the Newberry Library (60 W. Walton), blocks from the Grand-Wells Hotel where Studs grew up, and across the street from Bughouse Square, where he was schooled by soap-box oraters.  Writers, activists, journalists and historians will share Terkel stories.  It’s free, and there’s cake.

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Black history: Jazz ‘Awakening’

Ken Chaney’s Awakening with Ari Brown – and an award for longtime jazz advocate Geraldine de Haas – are highlights of a Black History Month program Saturday presented by the jazz staff of WHPK-FM.

Also featuring vocalist Milton Suggs and excerpts from the film “A Great Day in Harlem,” the program starts at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 25, at the International House, 1414 E. 59th.  General admission is $10.  Food and drink will be available.

An underground favorite in the early 1970s, featuring hard bop originals with overtones of soul and the musical freedom of the period, Chaney’s band Awakening was a big hit at a 25th anniversary reunion at the 1998 Chicago Jazz Festival and has continued to work together since.

Chaney and Brown, who are among Chicago’s top jazz masters, are original members of the band, and they are joined by the powerful Pharez Whitted on trumpet, Joshua Ramos on bass, and Ernie Adams on drums. This show is highly recommended.

De Haas, known as the “Jazz Lady,” has a long and varied career. In the 1950s she and her brother and sister formed Andy and the Bey Sisters, a popular jazz vocal group, and in the 1970s she began a successful career in theater.  In the 1980s she founded Jazz Unites, which has presented the South Shore Jazz Festival for nearly 30 years.

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Black history, from quilts to opera

A West Side McDonalds will be transformed into a quilting bee, and the South Side Cultural Center will be transformed into a 1963 civil rights rally, in two cultural events exploring black history this weekend.

The North Lawndale African American Heritage Quilting Project is holding a “drive-thru quilting day” in the conference room of the McDonalds at Roosevelt and Kedzie on Saturday, February 25 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Customers will be invited to create a patch for the project’s second quilt, depicting anything they find meaningful including poems or Scripture, traditional African patterns, or depictions of family traditions or neighborhood landmarks or heroes.  People who bring photos or pictures can have them copied and transferred onto a patch.

The project reflects local activist Valerie Leonard’s passion for involving  people in participatory projects and a desire to build community pride.

The group has held quilting sessions at neighborhood churches and senior centers and is working on involving local schools, with students researching and designing patches with historical themes.

At a local church last week, “we had all ages, 3 to 80,” she says.  It’s not just women, either.  “It’s amazing, some of the young guys that do try it, they really get into it,” Leonard said.

On Sunday at 4 p.m., the South Shore Opera Company is presenting “The March,” an opera in development by composer Jonathan Stinson and librettist Alan Marshall exploring events surrounding the 1963 March on Washington.

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Remembering Chicago SNCC

The story of Chicago SNCC – and of Freedom Day, a massive boycott of Chicago schools demanding desegregation on October 22, 1963 – will be discussed Saturday at an event marking the opening of the Chicago SNCC archive.

Chicago SNCC veteran Sylvia Fischer will interview comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, and the SNCC Freedom Singers will perform as part of the program, Saturday, October 22 from 1 to 5 p.m. at the DuSable Museum, 760 E. 56th Place.

The archive, which includes oral histories along with posters, photographs, and correspondence, is housed in the Vivian G. Harsh Collection of the Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted.  An exhibit featuring items from the collection and videos of oral histories runs at DuSable through December 23 (reservations for Saturday’s event are full).

Chicago Area Friends of SNCC was one of  a number of groups in northern cities formed to support the work of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, which faced jailings, beatings and killings as it organized voter registration drives in the South.  In addition to raising funds and marshalling public sentiment, Fischer and others often housed activists who came north for a break from the constant tension, she recalls.  “It was a very busy home, with people coming and going,” she said.

The Chicago group went further than others, though, becoming involved in local struggles.

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