Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bernie Mac: Forever part of the Chicago Family

I was watching the Bud Billiken Day Parade when I heard news of the death of Chicago comedian Bernie Mac. As the floats made their way down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on Chicago’s south side in the back to school parade which is the largest African American parade in the nation, the people who lined the streets took a moment to reflect and remember the life of the man who never forgot where he came from.

Local celebrities, newscasters and just plain old regular folks alike shared their favorite Mac moments like his appearance in the movie Friday and the Ocean’s films. More than one shouted “Who ya wit”, one of Mac’s favorite lines. The parade, which is over 75 years old, draws old and young onlookers and performers from around the nation. Folks wake up early, set up folding and lawn chairs, fire up the barbecue grill and make it a family affair and it is somehow fitting that his passing was announced where this group of people was assembled because the community resembled a huge family gathered together to hear this important news and to grieve together.

Unlike other comedians and actors who get rich and quickly move to a new location and cut ties with the people they knew, Mac owned a home in the South Suburbs and before his death had met with Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley to find out what he could personally do to improve education for students in the city. Mac’s down to earth nature came across in his professional work as well. Much of his material was derived from the realities of urban life for many black folks. He took on subjects from crack addicted family members to marital difficulties in a no nonsense kind of way always adding that he was just saying the things we could not. It was his mix of fearlessness and compassion that smoothed his rough edges made him seem so much like that uncle who lovingly tells it like it is and dishes out healthy portions of tough love because it seems like no one else will.

I shed tears the morning of his passing to honor the life of a local black man who made good. Mac put in numerous hours of work on regular jobs and stayed on a good path, not getting sucked into the thug life, strung out on drugs or locked up, and I know, from personal experience, that it is not easy to rise above one’s environment as he did. Yes, there is a certain amount of pride attached to watching someone who came from your part of town overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and climb to the top of his craft. It gives hope to those who remain letting them know that they too can shake off the shackles of poverty and despair and create good lives for themselves and somehow that person who beat the odds becomes just as close to you as that guy you went to high school with even if you never knew him personally. Bernie Mac will be missed but his legacy will live on as part of the Chicago family.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown's Annual Domestic Violence and Child Support Summit a Provides Assistance to Families in Chicago

“Too many custodial parents are not getting the kind of support that is necessary for their children. At least 62% of the people that qualify for child support are not collecting child support, have never requested it or have not made arrangements. That means too that children are not living the kind of quality of life that they should live,” Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Dorothy Brown said.

The Clerk’s office sponsored the A Child Support and Domestic Violence Summit held Saturday, August 29th at Wright College. The event was a way for Brown to bring the services of her office and numerous partner organizations to the public. Free HIV testing and medical screening was also available.

“Domestic violence, with all of the efforts that we have made over the years, is still on the increase. We had in 1999, 27,000 orders of protection filed, in 2006 we had 32,000. Looking at the case of Nailah Franklin, we’re doing something wrong. I think we have a social ill that needs to be healed in this country,” Brown said.

Brown experienced domestic violence from a boyfriend while she was in college and once struggled to get child support from her ex-husband.

“I think that we are not doing enough to reach the abuser. We’re not doing enough to reach the non-custodial parent to help them be able to pay child support by decreasing unemployment, by helping them stay out of jail. Helping abusers or even potential abusers to heal themselves internally as to why they feel that they need to abuse,” she said.

T.A. Banks, domestic violence survivor and author of “He Won’t Hit Me, He Won’t Hit Me Again, We Thought That Too” revealed to attendees that the manipulation, fear and abuse she experienced only came to an end when she realized that her husband could end her life during an attack in which he beat her with a lead pipe.

“I don’t know how long I was on the floor but when I came to I saw he was over in the kitchen grabbing a butcher knife coming over to get me. I got off the floor and ran out of the house. The whole eight years we were together we never had a phone. I went and called the police for the first time during the relationship. I had never called the police. I didn’t want to make him angry”, Banks said.

Rev. Lopez, founder of Lopez Out Loud Ministries and keynote speaker of the event witnessed domestic violence as a child and believes that men abuse because they are hurting.

“A lot of guys are out there toting guns and doing drugs. Why? Because they are hurting. They’re trying to suppress the pain. My dad was hurting but nobody knew about it. They drink and they try to express ‘Somebody please help me. I’m trying to get out of this situation. I’m trying to get out of this pain that I’m in’,” he said.

Representatives from the Chicago Police Department, City the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago Domestic Violence Helpline which operates 24 hours a day and offers translation in 144 languages, and many others outlined the services they provide and how they help victims and families through the process in addition to reviewing cases, offering free legal advice and answering questions on site.

“Child support and child support enforcement is about families. I don’t want anyone to walk away from this thinking child support is only financial because it is about bridging that gap between what a family needs to sustain itself both from a financial and emotional standpoint,” Norris Stevenson, Deputy Administrator of Field Operations for The Department of Healthcare and Family Services Division said to the crowd. His agency currently has about 600,000 child support cases, nearly half of which are in Cook County.

“There is still lots of work for my agency to do. We are absolutely poised and ready,” he said.

Originally published in Streetwise in 2007.

Before 2016 Olymipics in Chicago Residents Demand Clean Up

About five hundred south side residents gathered in Kennedy King College’s Great Hall for a town hall meeting in April sponsored by Action Now, a grass roots organization, to demand that the city clean up neighborhoods that may showcase the 2016 Olympics if Chicago wins the bid for the event.

“The meeting is to bring more attention to the communities and to put more pressure on the mayor,” said Vanessa Ferniza, Director of Communications for Action Now.

Several south side Aldermen, the Chicago Police Department, the Department of Streets and Sanitation and other representatives from the city and state who were in attendance were asked by Action Now to promise that they would fix cracked uneven sidewalks, repair potholes, and provide more assistance for homeowners among other things that need improving. Although city officials agreed to make changes they also asked community residents to take more responsibility.

“ I’m as committed to you as I’ve always been but I need your help and always will. The vacant lots, once we clean them what will we do to keep them clean. I will fight to the end for us. We need to come together and start taking care of our own community,” said 16th Ward Alderman JoAnn Thompson.

Toni Foulkes, 15th Ward Alderman and a 36 year resident of her ward says that more block clubs and block captains are needed to make it easier to address community issues. “We get multiple requests for the same issues,” she said.

“I want you to call 311 and keep calling 311 because these numbers get logged. That report goes in to Picardi [Commissioner of the Department of Streets and Sanitation], the mayor and comes to each of the aldermen,” said 20th Ward Alderman Willie Cochran.

“They will react to us because they want to make things better. I want to kick them in the butt for you. I’m doing it because I want Englewood to be better. I made a commitment to deliver the service but we have to take care of our community. How often have we told our children not to throw those chip bags down?” he asked.

Residents sighed and groans were audible as Robert L. Myers, Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Neighborhood Services for the Department of Streets and Sanitation requested more resident participation in the collection of trash in their neighborhoods.

“You’ve got to be proactive. Call us. You’ve got to come back there and help clean up. We’ve got to fight and say no. A clean neighborhood makes a safe neighborhood. We need you like you need us. You’ve got to help me help you,” Meyers said.

Frustrated residents shouted questions about the lack of trash cans and overgrown, junk filled vacant lots despite requests for questions to be submitted on index cards to be asked near the end of the meeting.

“Garbage cans are put out [by the city] and stolen because they are aluminum. Vacant lots are often privately owned by people who don’t live in the neighborhood. Violations can be given to the owners up to $1500,” Meyers answered.

Edward Kulbida acting 7th District Police Commander said that in response to increasing violence in Englewood the Department will begin to identify officers who want to work on the bicycle patrols and are present at high schools and parks.

“We need your input at beat meetings. That information is given to the commander then taken and suggestions are given to the superintendant. Superintendant Weiss is intent on getting officers off of desks at 35th. I’m tired of seeing vigils of slain children with teddy bears,” Kulbida said.

Maruwa Ferrell, a New City resident since 1976, listened earnestly to the speakers and said that he came to the meeting to see what politicians had to say about the Olympics and its possible impact on south side communities. He does not believe the Olympics coming to Chicago will change his neighborhood for the better.

“Oh yeah things will change. I don’t know if it will be positive because [it will bring] gentrification and that will increase hardships on the working class. I think it is a way to move the people. Everything will go up. They will promise jobs but they will not happen,” he said.

Is Cycling the New Way to Go?

Getting motorists to leave their cars in the driveway and to strap on a bicycle helmet instead requires the creation of a new culture that embraces the bicycle as a major mode of travel. The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, Environmental Protection Agency, city planners and other groups assembled at Modeshift, an annual conference in Chicago, to take on the daunting task of developing ways to encourage the public to decrease their dependency on vehicles, to change their perception of cycling, and to share success stories of communities that have embraced the bicycle as a clean and economical.

Although vehicle emissions are declining nationwide, the Midwest is consistently problematic and is still not meeting ambient air quality standards according to Frank Acevedo, Environmental Protection Specialist for the Environmental Protection Agency. Clearing the air requires a big lifestyle change.

“People are more aware and it helps that we are facing an increase in the cost of gasoline. I think people take lightly how each person contributes but it has a cumulative effect,” he said.

Within the next 20 years the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation along with the city of Chicago as part of the Chicago Bike 2015 Plan, seek to implement programs that will help reduce accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians by 50% and to encourage the public to take trips of five miles or less by bicycle in efforts to reduce tailpipe emissions and combat obesity among other goals.

The Federation plans to get at least 26% of the children in the Chicagoland area to walk or ride bikes to school in the next 20 years. Federally funded Safe Routes to School programs implemented in area schools and community groups have proven successful. According to Melody Geraci, Director of programs for the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, Safe Routes to School is changing modes of travel for an entire generation.

“We want to get kids when they are young and show them different. Often times parents will follow,” she said.

Competition between motorists and cyclists for the limited space that exists on the city streets has created ongoing tension between the two groups and sometimes becomes deadly. Matthew Lynch, a 29 year old cyclist and owner of a catering business was accidentally struck by an SUV and killed as he cycled through and intersection against a red light while participating in the “Tour Da Chicago”, an unofficial street race. Incidents such as these have a significant impact on the perception of cycling.

“[The Tour Da Chicago] is atypical; it is not your normal situation. They are not people who are riding to work and the race competes with traffic,” says Margo O’Hara, Director of Communications for The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation.

In efforts to increase safety for cyclists the Chicago City Council Committee on Traffic Control and Safety approved ordinances in March that will require fines to be paid by motorists who turn left in front of a cyclist, for passing a bicyclist with less than three feet of space and opening a vehicle door in the path of a bicyclist in addition to fines for motorists who park or stand in vehicle lanes. Fees begin at 50 dollars but can increase to 500 dollars if a bicycle crash occurs during the violation.

“Matt’s death is very sad. We encourage cyclists to be safe when traveling on the road and to remember that you are responsible for yourself and the people around you. It presents us with the opportunity to present the message of safe cycling again,” O’Hara said.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

John Edwards’ Affair Revealed: Can We Forgive?

I’m torn about John Edwards.

I must admit that the revelation of his affair with a staffer is not a shock. Extra-marital affairs had by politicians are nothing new and seem to be about as normal and anticipated in politics as baseball is to summer.

Somehow the “breaking news” of this secret liaison between Edwards and this “other woman” seems to pale in comparison to reports of elected officials getting arrested in bathrooms for soliciting sex, sending inappropriate text messages to underage white house pages or getting caught paying thousands of dollars to prostitutes in by a sting operation. For me, Edwards’ predicament lacks the sensational jaw dropping elements of recent scandals but is no less disappointing.

What makes this affair different is the “how could he” factor. How could he have an affair with another woman when his wife is battling cancer? How could he - she stayed and fought for him on the campaign trail after going public with her illness? As a woman who has been cheated on, the coldness implied in this act sends a shiver down my spine.

Truth be told, I originally supported John Edwards’ bid for the presidency. I was drawn to his platform that included ending poverty in this nation and giving a voice to large segments of this society that are often marginalized or ignored altogether. No presidential candidate had ever shined a light on the hard working mothers and fathers who struggle to make ends meet with such passion and sincerity as Edwards. As a result of his extensive work in this area, I began to see Edwards as a politician who was less concerned with career building and social climbing and more concerned with the welfare of the people and therefore different than most anyone I had seen in office. In my book he was one of the good guys.

When his wife announced that her cancer was no longer in remission I was glad to see the couple pull together and reaffirm their commitment to one another and to beating the disease. When he announced that he would not pull out of the campaign I wondered about the toll the news of his wife’s illness was taking on him. The pressure to run a successful presidential campaign is intense enough and to add the sudden relapse of a close family member to the mix would be devastating I thought, yet day after day Edwards pressed onward and kept pace with the other contenders.

It now appears that Edward’s handled the mounting pressure by finding comfort in the arms of another woman. Sometimes, instead of facing the difficulties that lie ahead of them, people run in the other direction in search of relief or to just plain avoid them altogether and end up causing bigger problems for themselves than they had to start with. This may have very well have been true in Edwards’ case. He has broken a sacred trust with his wife and violated the trust of the public by repeatedly denying the affair ever occurred but can I forgive him? Heck, my faith in politicians was pretty fragile to begin with anyway.

It appears that Edwards is not a serial philanderer like Bill Clinton and possibly genuinely regrets his actions and will work to regain the public trust. Maybe he can regain the trust of his wife but who knows. Matters of the heart can be very difficult sometimes. Possibly, over time, we will come to believe in him once again too and he will prove that he is not just like all the others.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Michelle Obama in Her Own Words: Reflections on Her Exclusive Nightline Interview

Relaxed and composed are words that best describe Michelle Obama during last night’s exclusive Nightline interview on ABC with Robin Roberts.

The wife of presidential hopeful Barack Obama discussed everything from being a blooming fashion icon to taking up the cause of spouses whose partners are serving in the military during the interview that she said she woke up at the “crack of dawn” to do. Michelle is keeping a grueling schedule these days sometimes working 15 hours to do all that she can to ensure that her husband wins the presidency in November.

When asked if the presidential race was getting a little testy and nasty, Michelle replied that it was a part of politics. “You gotta have thick skin,” she said.

In the wake of a slew of negative images in the media portraying her as unpatriotic and the militant depiction of her on the cover of The New Yorker, the Nightline interview was a necessity. Despite the fact that these images may not reflect her personal attitudes and beliefs accurately they may be taken as truth by many potential voters who are still deciding how to cast their vote and could potentially shine a less than favorable light on her husband. In the interview with Roberts, Michelle took the opportunity to refashion her image in her own likeness once again.

During the ABC exclusive Michelle spoke candidly about The New Yorker cover calling it “tacky” but says that she moved on from there and read a wonderful article about her in Ebony Magazine. She said that she did not see John McCain’s ad comparing Barak to Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears but thought it was funny that anyone would characterize Barak as elitist considering the fact that he has walked away from lucrative jobs in order to work with the community.

Michelle answered tough questions posed by Roberts effortlessly. When asked if her work with military spouses could be viewed by some as an effort to woo voters who would vote for McCain because he is pro military and as nothing more than a photo op, Michelle responded that she has been doing round tables with troops for a year and a half and that she will tell her husband that the spouses are struggling and that when soldiers go to Iraq their families go with them.

During the interview Roberts remarked that Michelle was warm in person and comfortable in front of the cameras. Indeed, Michelle came across as friendly and very down to earth. In one revealing moment while discussing her photo in Vanity Fair Michelle expressed that she is kind of a tomboy and jock at heart but that she does like to look nice.

Her candor, energy and humble nature make Michelle Obama easy to relate to and give her an almost girl next door quality. Michelle Obama seems to be taking everything in stride.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Chicago Public Library and the Homeless

Tom Knoska steps out of the Pacific Garden Mission on State Street on a hot and windy June day holding a plastic CVS pharmacy bag and headed no where in particular. He walks with a cane and with each step his right leg sticks out slightly awkwardly. His white t-shirt and jeans are spotless and his hair and beard are neatly trimmed.

“I had a stroke in ’97 and couldn’t get insurance. The money ran out and that’s basically what happened. I’ve been here off and on since 2003”, he said.
After the stroke Tom spent weeks in the hospital and lived in a nursing home causing his medical bills to soar. He went through an inheritance left to him by his mother after her death in 1995 and later sold his home because he could not afford to pay the property taxes. He eventually ended up homeless.

“Well, it’s [Pacific Garden Mission] open 24 hours. It’s free room and board and the food is ok. I ain’t got no points with the food. There’s no reason for anyone to stay hungry in the city of Chicago. They’ll take anybody. Doesn’t matter who they are or what they did,” he said.
The Harold Washington Library Center sits on the corner of Congress and State one block north of Pacific Garden Mission. Tom goes there frequently.

“I go there all year but I read like crazy anyway. I’ve been of the opinion that if I couldn’t read I would have shot myself a long time ago. Of course I don’t mean that seriously, but I don’t know what else I would do,” he said.

Tom admittedly reads a little of everything occasionally picking up biographies, mysteries and historical texts in addition daily newspapers. He has a library card and says that he goes through about 4 or 5 books a week. Although he has never had any problems dealing with library staff or anyone who uses the library, some other homeless men have had different experiences.

“Security has problems with some of the guys. Some of the guys don’t know how to act. They tear up the bathrooms, bother the women. You know, there’s always that element. I don’t think they are treated badly per se. They have problems with those guys but security is always on it,” he said.

Demetris works in the loop and normally uses the North Austin branch library in her neighborhood but has recently begun using the internet at HWLC. She has concerns about the homeless using the library. “The thing is that I’m asthmatic. I’m sensitive to odors. Although I really don’t want them here I can’t deny them a place to go. It sounds bad to say but maybe they should have a separate place for them inside,” she said.

“Homelessness is a broad term. Are they medicated schizophrenics?” , asked Micki who works downtown and was visiting the library for a meeting. “I think that the same rules would have to apply to the homeless as to the homed. If they have good hygiene and they are quiet then fine. If I get to then so do they as long as they follow the rules of quiet and courtesy,” she said.
Maggie Killackey Jurgensen, Press Secretary for the Chicago Public Library, says that since its inception the Chicago Public Library has been a community center and a place where people could come to read the paper and get information. She says that library staff is trained to give good customer service which includes how to deal with difficult patrons and that the job of library security is to quiet children, give direction and ensure that the library is safe and comfortable.

“Guidelines Governing use of the Library” posted on the CPL website asks patrons not to engage in a variety of activities including bringing animals that are not guide dogs and loitering to entering the library if hygiene has been neglected because it “constitutes a nuisance to other patrons”. Patrons who do not follow the guidelines will be asked to leave the facility or may be arrested.

“Our guidelines apply to all patrons. We are welcoming of everyone. We don’t ID people and don’t know if they are homeless or not. Our librarians are trained to deal with the stuff that occurs everyday and deal with folks of all walks of life,” Jurgensen said.