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Students Prepare to Welcome Robben Island Singers

[UPDATE – 1-29-07 – South Africa’s Robben Island Singers will share stories, songs and film clips about their journey from an island prison with Nelson Mandela to musical triumph, in a two-week Black History Month tour of Chicago schools. The tour’s public launch has been postponed to THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 1, when the group will join the Kenwood Academy Choir for a 9 a.m. performance, with a press conference scheduled for 10 a.m. at Kenwood Academy, 5015 S. Blackstone.]

Students at nearly a dozen Chicago public schools are making extensive preparations for cultural exchanges with a group of South African freedom singers as part of Black History Month.

The Robben Island Singers – a trio consisting of former political prisoners who were held with Nelson Mandela and many others at South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison until its closing in 1991 – are appearing in Chicago schools under the auspices of Groundswell Educational Films, a local nonprofit which is making a documentary of their story. Recordings of the trio’s prison songs, featuring the rich harmonies of South African vocal traditions, are now featured at the museum founded ten years ago at the site of the former prison.

“They have such a hopeful and empowering message, and it really strikes a chord with students,” said Jennifer Amdur Spitz of Groundswell.

At Prosser Vocational High School, 2148 N. Long, dozens of student groups are preparing for a day of cultural exchange on Monday, January 29, said Spitz. The drum and bugle corps is learning South African drum beats, a West African percussion ensembles is rehearsing, the choir is practicing American civil rights songs, the culinary club is learning South African recipes and the whole school is signing a banner expressing welcome and solidarity. Following student presentations on the morning of the 29th and a tour of the school, an afternoon assembly will feature the Robben Island Singers performing their music and discussing their personal experiences and the political movement of which they are part.

Preparations for similar cultural exchanges are being undertaken by students at other Chicago schools where the Robben Island Singers will appear through February 15, and public performances are planned at Columbia College (at 1104 S. Wabash) on January 30 (starting at 4 p.m.), the Chicago Cultural Center on February 4, and St. Sabina Church (1210 W. 78th) on February 9.

Groundswell Films fosters cross-cultural collaboration, transfer of media skills to disadvantaged communities, and the use of film in ongoing public education programs. “The Robben Island Singers” is a work-in-progress by Chicago documentarian Jeff Spitz and South African filmmaker Mickey Madoda Dube.

Report on ‘Teaching to the Test’

[UPDATE 1-20-07: “The failure of test-driven school reform in Chicago should provide a warning for the country,” said FairTest executive director Monty Neill at the release of a new report January 18.

Based on a review of recent research on Chicago schools, “Chicago School Reform: Lessons for the Nation” reports that student learning has improved in Chicago schools that “developed strong curriculums, ensured professional development of classroom educators, and shared leadership among parent councils, the principal and teachers.” Meanwhile, “test scores flatlined in schools where central office controls replaced local decision making, and top-down interventions over ten years did not work,” according to the report, which examines strategies linked to the No Child Left Behind Act. The report was sponsored by Designs For Change and Parents United for Responsible Education along with FairTest.

A copy of the full report is available at]

Test-centered instruction has not succeeded in raising achievement levels in Chicago, and other approaches are far more effective, according to a new report to be released at a community forum on “teaching to the test” next week.

Monty Neill of FairTest, one of the authors of the new study, will be among those speaking at a forum sponsored by Parents United for Responsible Education and other education groups on Thursday, January 18, at 6:30 p.m. at PURE’s office at 100 S. Morgan.

Driven by the No Child Left Behind Act and CPS policies, “overemphasis on standardized tests is robbing our children of a quality education,” said Julie Woestehoff of PURE.

Also participating in the forum are disability rights groups and multicultural educators concerned about negative impacts on students in special education and bilingual programs.

Speakers will address how parents can monitor the quality of their children’s instruction, and what local school councils and principals can do to improve instruction in their schools, Woestehoff said.

Global Warming: What Can We Do?

If human activity is driving global warming, then human activity can start to reverse it, according to a new report from Environment Illinois proposing policies for the state to cut global warming emissions.

“We’re hearing a lot of gloom and doom lately,” said Rebecca Stanfield of Environmental Illinois. “But the flip side is that it’s really not that hard to get started [reversing climate trends]. We know about these policies, other states are doing them, they’re good for the economy and for air quality, so we should just do them.”

The Illinois Global Warming Blueprint offers thirteen strategies to reduce global-warming pollution in Illinois, including investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies; establishing clean car standards and stronger energy codes for buildings and appliances; and expanding transportation options.

Legislation embodying proposals from the report will be introduced in coming days in Springfield, Stanfield said.

The biggest source of global-warming emissions in the state is coal-fired power plants, which account for 38 percent of carbon dioxide pollution in Illinois. Emissions from coal plants increased by over 50 percent — significantly more than any other source — between 1990 and 2002, according to the report.

Some of the state’s oldest and dirtiest coal plants will be retired under a recent agreement between power companies and the state to reduce mercury emissions, Stanfield said. But with the cost of natural gas rising, 14 new coal plants have been proposed for the state.

Illinois should limit CO2 emissions from existing coal plants – as eight northeastern states have already done – and should declare a moratorium on new plants, the report argues.

“You can’t say you’re for solving global warming and be issuing permits for new [coal] plants,” Stanfield said. “You can’t do both.”

Churches Go Green

A local church’s award-winning site redesign will be highlighted at an upcoming workshop for religious institutions to explore cost-effective ways to make their facilities more environmentally friendly.

The January 30 workshop takes place at Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen (in Will County, southwest of Orland Park). The church was awarded for Excellence in Conservation by Chicago Wilderness last year for its native landscaping project.

Strategies that reduce maintenance and upkeep while lowering energy use and air pollution emissions will be presented at the workshop by the Clean Air Counts initiative, a collaboration of metropolitan mayors and environmental agencies. Father Thomas Loya of Annunciation Church and architect David Yocca of Conservation Design Forum will discuss Annunciation’s new site plan.

Shirlee Hoffman of CAC and the Openlands Project hopes the program will extend an Openlands’ program promoting native landscaping on the campuses of corporations, colleges and nonprofit organizations to the religious sector. Native landscaping helps create native wildlife habitats, requires fewer pesticides and fertizilers and less watering, and eliminates emissions from diesel mowers.

Churches and other religious institutions – particularly retirement homes – “have the land and they have the commitment to stewardship of the environment,” Hoffman said. “They just need support to help them get unaddicted to turf.”

Located on a 10-acre site at the bottom of a hill, with a stream running through it – and facing additional development planned upstream – Annunciation Church mitigated a flooding problem with native landscaping around a pond, and reduced mowing to once a year, timed to accomodate ground-nesting birds. The church created a park and trail system, including a “prayer path,” which is open to the community, and plans to replace asphalt with permeable paving in its parking area. The project inspired the Village of Homer Glen to develop a Green Vision Statement.

Cosponsored by CAC, Openlands, and Annunciation, the workshop takes place Tuesday, January 30, from 8:30 to 10 a.m. at Annunciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Church, 14610 Will Cook Road in Homer Glen. Participants are asked to register by January 19.

Prospects for New Legislative Session

Major issues facing the Illinois General Assembly will be addressed – one day before the opening of the legislature’s 95th session – by senior staff of the Metropolitan Planning Council at a media briefing on January 9.

Prospects for sustainable development proposals and funding for education and transportation will be discussed by MPC president MarySue Barrett and other top staff.

In 2007 legislators will consider funding for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, the new agency joining transportation and land use planning, and MPC supports including a dedicated funding stream for the agency in a new state capital plan, said Mandy Burrell. Such funding could provide incentives to encourage transit-oriented development, and should be tied to performance indicators measuring regional progress toward sustainable development, she said.

The group has backed the RTA’s Moving Beyond Congestion campaign to build support for expanding public transit and has studied proposals to use public-private partnerships to finance roadways and transportation projects. “Such partnerships are most appropriate for new infrastructure projects,” Burrell said.

Other topics at the media briefing include proposals to encourage development of affordable housing near jobs and transportation and to link expanded school funding to tax reform and educational improvement.

The briefing will be Tuesday, January 9 at 12 noon at MPC’s offices at 25 E. Washington, and is open to the media. Reporters are asked to register in advance.

Community Wi-Fi Pushed

[Updated 12-13-06]

A coalition of community groups is meeting with companies bidding on contracts for the city’s planned wireless network, encouraging them to include in their proposals a community benefits agreement providing neighborhood networks.

The Coalition for Community Wireless Networks met recently with representatives of Earthlink and is scheduled to meet with AT&T this week.

“We want to plant a seed in bidders’ minds” that community benefits agreements would make their proposals more attractive, said Ben Helphand of the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

CCWN has joined a call by the Chicago Digital Access Alliance for the city to broaden internet access provisions in its request for proposals – which now requires equipment, training, and discounted service for low-income individuals – to address community-wide access issues. CCWN includes a number of community development corporations, while CDAA represents community technology centers.

The groups envision the city’s wireless system as a “network of community networks,” with community institutions and businesses served by each neighborhood’s network.

“It’s an opportunity to bring economic development into our community” by helping merchants reach a local audience, encouraging internet-based businesses, and linking residents to local jobs, said Ernest Sanders of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. A community network would also better serve local schools, civic groups, and churches, he said.

A community benefits agreement would bring resources and support to efforts like Technology Bridges in Englewood. There FaithTech Network is conducting a digital assets inventory and developing 25 church-based community technology centers – with similar efforts underway in Bronzeville, Woodlawn, and North Lawndale, said Pierre Clark, a CDAA founder.

The groups point to community benefits in Minneapolis’s wireless program, including a digital inclusion fund backed by a percentage of service providers’ revenue, and a free “walled garden” of content featuring neighborhood groups, city websites and public safety information, available to anyone who can access the signal.

Bids on the city’s request for proposals are due at the beginning of next year.

CDAA has held six neighborhood meeetings on the proposal for a community benefits agreement and plans more, Clark said; the next one takes place this Friday, December 15, at 5 p.m. at the office of Networking for Democracy, 3411 W. Diversy.

The Year In Books

The Law in Shambles by Thomas Geoghegan, Prickly Paradigm Press

Predatory charities?! Yes, and it’s just one sign of the collapse of the rule of law in modern-day America, Tom Geoghegan argues in his recent book.

Indeed, this year public officials here added their weight to the voices of community and labor groups which have questioned the tax exempt (i.e., charitable) status of nonprofit hospitals that charge inflated rates to the uninsured – and use collection agencies to get their money.

“Today the charities that are supposed to take care of us hunt us down,” Geoghegan writes of these hospitals. “In Chicago many law firms exist just to chase patients.”

This trampling of the law of charitable trusts – which mandates not just prudence but care and loyalty – parallels other trends following the collapse of the labor movement and its American version of a social contract, and the rise of a cut-throat, nihilistic, post-New Deal legal and political philosophy. Contract law has given way to tort law, with rational, inexpensive grievance procedures replaced by invasive, costly, scorched-earth lawsuits over employment issues. Administrative law, undercut by deregulation and the defunding of enforcement agencies, has been given way to whistleblower lawsuits.

In a book rife with sarcasm (clearly the shield of an idealist against encroaching cynicism), one prominent irony is that trial lawyers who sue doctors and hospitals are the ones blamed for the nation’s litigation explosion. “Hospitals and doctors sue their patients far more than their patients sue them,” Geoghegan points out. And they sue thousands of low-income, uninsured patients, garnish their wages, and force them into bankruptcy. This is “charity turning into Frankenstein,” he writes.

“The universities may be even worse than the hospitals.” They charge “unconscionable tuitions,” force students to mortgage their lives with loans, and sharply limit their ability to apply their education to public service – which was once the reason that universities were made tax-exempt.

“Those who really shape the values of these kids are not the people who do the teaching but the ones who chase down the loans,” he writes. “The university, like the hospital, creates a culture where people prey on each other, and use the law to take from each other.”

Geoghegan proposes state-level legislative action to “bring back the rule of law,” starting with contract and trust law. And he has proposals, again at the state level, for expanding majority rule. He notes the numerous anti-majoritarian features of our political system (of which the Electoral College is only the most notorious). And he notes that industrial countries with newer constitutions, and voting systems that encourage participation and increase representation, are advancing social and economic rights while we hasten in the opposite direction.

A Chicago labor lawyer and author, Geoghegan writes with wit and charm and sometimes too much brevity; his connections and explanations could use some fleshing out. He discusses in passing lawsuits he’s filed here – against a large nonprofit hospital chain, handgun manufacturers, payday loan companies and others.

“The Law In Shambles” is part of Chicago’s Prickly Paradigm pamphlet series, and with ten chapters in 140 pages, it’s the perfect stocking stuffer, not just for the judge or lawyer on your list, but for any political critic or just plain curmudgeon. — CB

Sidewalks: Portraits of Chicago by Rick Kogan and Charles Osgood, Northwestern University Press

2003 Studs Terkel Award winner Rick Kogan has been poking around Chicago all his life, and this new book is taken from the “Sidewalks” column he and photographer Charles Osgood produce for the Tribune’s Sunday Magazine, revealing forgotten places and people of the city, from Maxwell Street to the lakefront, from Bensinger’s Pool Hall and the world of bike couriers.

Restoring Power to Parents and Places: The Case for Family-Based Community Development by Richard S. Koresh, iUniverse; see

This book transcends the liberal-conservative stalemate over “family values,” arguing that families have been weakened as they’ve become less self-sufficient (or “productive”) and that strengthening the productive family – which may no longer grow its own food but does grow children, among other things – is of central importance as a stimulus to community development. Oak Park author Kordesh drawns on 20 years of experience as community development professional, public official, professor and father to fashion a fresh and provocative analysis and call to action, with the family as the starting point for community development strategies.

Miracle In Progress: The Story of Casa Central by Rev. Daniel Alvarez and Ann Alvarez, Chicago Spectrum Press

The story of the first 50 years of the largest Hispanic social service agency in the Midwest, told by its founding and current executive directors. Beginning of the Near West Side, Casa Central now operates 23 bilingual programs out of nine facilities in Humboldt Park, West Town, and Logan Square. Ann Alvarez says the book is “a tribute to the people who have devoted themselves completely to Casa Central, seeing it through good times and other times.”

There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods by William J. Wilson and Richard P. Taub, Random House

Looking at four working-class neighborhoods, this sociological study explores how the influx of Latinos is changing the racial dynamic in Chicago, which is no longer characterized by a black-white divide. It focuses on the varying capacity of diverse residents to work together on common goals, and the role of social organization in managing ethnic change.

Police and Community in Chicago: A Tale of Three Cities by Wesley G. Skogan, Oxford University Press

Northwestern’s Skogan has directed the evaluation of Chicago’s community policing program for 14 years, and here he looks at how effective the highly popular program is, finding distinctive responses among blacks, whites, established Latinos and new immigrants. Residents in African-American communities were most enthusiastic about community policing, and crime and fear dropped most dramatically there; predominantly Spanish-speaking areas fell behind. The book offers a window on the challenges posed by immigration and our increasingly multiethnic future.

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Harvard University Press

Explores the underground economy ranging from storefront preachers and alley mechanics to drug dealers and sex workers, and impacting every resident and household, in Chicago’s South Side Maquis Park neighborhood. With gang leaders helping to mediate neighborhood conflicts, some stereotypes are challenged.

Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing That Divided Gilded Age America by James Green, Pantheon

Views the Haymarket Affair of 1886 – the strike for an eight-hour day, the bombing of police who were charging a labor rally, and the subsequent repression – in the context of Chicago’s rough-and-tumble history as America’s Gilded Age boom town and center of the first national labor movement – as well as the first ‘war on terror’ aimed at alien subversives. Green is right that America’s overlooked labor history is “the repository of some of the most dramatic, even epic, stories in U.S. history” – and that 19th-Century Chicago offers a remarkable setting and cast of characters.

Prairie Alligators: A Nick Spivak Mystery by Henry Polz, iUniverse

A community activist is murdered during an urban poverty seminar, and his investigator friend and a team of neighborhood crusaders follow the trail through Chicago’s blighted industrial districts and ethnic neighborhoods, through drug and gang wars, and past politicians pushing casinos, unearthing development and underworld scandals that reach the highest levels.

And A New Year’s Present?

The Genius of Impreachment: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism by John Nichols, The New Press

Our friend Studs Terkel’s blurb: “Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: ‘Bugger off!’ So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so.”

Extreme Poverty and Human Rights

A report on extreme poverty in Illinois will be released at an International Human Rights Day event on December 11, inaugurating a campaign to address poverty as a human rights issue.

Some 700,000 Illinois residents live in extreme poverty, defined as an income level of 50 percent of the federal poverty level, said Doug Schenkelberg of the Heartland Alliance, co-author of the report. That’s $10,000 a year for a family of four.

Extreme poverty is concentrated in areas of Chicago as well as rural counties on the state’s southern border, he said.

Many cases involve people with disabilities or other barriers to employment, but a quarter of working-age adults in extreme poverty are regularly employed – many at minimum wage jobs, Schenkelberg said.

The report by Heartland’s Mid-America Institute on Poverty “paints a picture of what it means to live in extreme poverty” and explores poverty as an issue of human rights, he said.

The United States often proclaims its adherence to human rights “but we haven’t always done a good job of upholding human rights,” especially the economic and social rights contained in numerous international human rights agreements, he said.

“We tend to think of poverty as an issue of charity,” he said. “We need to see the elimination of poverty as a basic obligation of the state” in order to move toward eradication of poverty.

With 342,000 more state residents living in poverty than six years ago, Illinois now tops Midwest states in overall poverty rates as well as child poverty and extreme poverty, according to a recent Heartland report.

“Extreme Poverty and Human Rights” will be released on International Human Rights Day, Monday, December 11, with a panel discussion at 9 a.m. at the John Marshall Law School, 315 S. Plymouth Court. Panelists include Jennifer Kottler of Protestants for the Common Good; W. Robert Schulz of Amnesty International; and Nancy Tegtmeier of the Illinois Coalition for Community Service, which works in many rural areas with high poverty levels.

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