Chicago, North Lawndale, part 2: Every Day, I Politic
Neighborhood elders take it upon themselves to step between warring gang members, a mother-daughter duo produces a DIY feature film about gun violence, a restorative justice mediator helps lawbreakers to repair the harm they’ve caused, and a bee-keeper goes from homelessness to running his own business. Plus, conversations with local politicians past and present, an activist science teacher, and a young motivational speaker with an inspiring voice.
Multiple Voices: From WYPR and PRX, it’s Out of the Blocks. One neighborhood, everybody’s story.
Our generation—my generation—did, like, what many people do, you know? We raise our kids, we say, you know, “Do right, make something of yourself, build yourself up so you can get out of here.” Well, what happens then?
I have kids in my classes who carry guns and, you know, they have their “ops,” right? The people who they’re in conflict with, but at the end of the day, they want to pass their chemistry test.
Bullets have missed me by just a few inches. One of my childhood friends was murdered in front of me when I was twelve years old.
That’s when I stopped everybody, said, “Hold up.” Heaven and hell better open their gates because there’s gonna be a lot of us going, because we’re serious about this.
It’s like the community is speaking. It’s saying what they want these guys to do in order to repair the harm to the community and to make the residents of the community feel safe.
From producers Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, in collaboration with Bashirah Mack and WBEZ, Out of the Blocks: North Lawndale in Chicago’s West Side, right after this.
Robert Calhoun Sr.: My name is Robert Calhoun, Sr.. I’m safe, sane and sober, blessed by the best, ain’t ashamed of it, don’t care who know it. I’m the cofounder of an organization in the North Lawndale area as Men Making a Difference, better known as Mad Men. My life at seventeen was very exciting. I ended up being in a little slight trouble and a judge kind of made…he said, “You want to be a tough guy? You want to be a bad guy? I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.” And he said, “Look to the back of the courtroom.” There was a Marine Corps sergeant and there was a Cook County sheriff. He said, “I’ll let you choose which way to go.” I was set off the coast of Vietnam twice for seventy-two days where there’s no communication to anything but water and sky, and at one minute it’s pitch black and you can’t see your finger coming into your eye, and all of a sudden—from the bombs going off—it looks like a thunderstorm, and then it goes back to pitch black. That was very shocking and scary. 1972, I was released from the Marine Corps and after my Marine Corps stationing, coming back and everything, that’s when angel dust came about, you know, PCP, phencyclidine, all of these things being introduced and keep going and everything until I found my love for addiction. My love for addiction was cocaine.
Aaron Henkin: So, you were… Sort of simultaneously to your addiction, you were involved in the trade as well, and sort of in your role in the trade, you learned how to process it for freebasing.
AH: Wow, okay. That’s when arrest, and trial, and jail happened.
RC: I’m talking about all of ’70, all the way up until ’79 to when this organization was cracked. An older guy told me in prison to don’t let time do you due time. He said, “And take this as a four-year college term.” So, I took time out to study and choose what motivated me spiritually. I would come back to 16th Street and there was a group of men sitting and playing dominoes, so that’s where we started off when the shooting was noticed around us. We started the group Men Making a Difference in the community, and that was when we went to our community—which was a four-block area—and said we wasn’t going to tolerate it no more. We were brought into the two gangs that was there, and we knew family members from both sides. They knew us from our past. I was adjoined by most of us that had did time and everything and was back in the community had reputations. So, when they go home and say, “I met this guy or that guy,” they would say, “You don’t wanna mess with them. Those old guys ain’t nothing to play with. They ain’t on this drive, they gonna come get you like this.” So, when they came at us after us stating that we weren’t going to allow it, we actually posted up in the middle of it. That night we were sitting out, we moved our domino game up on 16th Street from out from behind the building that we was behind in the vacant lot. We moved it right up there. They pulled up, jumped out of cars, two other vans pulled up, we could see other people in the window with them. The leader at this time jumped out. We could see the other guy on the passenger side with a gun in his hand. Immediately, someone—I don’t know how—went and got the people from around the corner, so now they come around the corner. You know, you see people coming through the alleyway with artillery. You know, these people in vans have got artillery. That’s when I stopped everybody, said, “Hold up.” Heaven and hell better open their gates because there’s gonna be a lot of us going, because we’re serious about this. That’s when the guy said, “Pops, if they willing to talk, we’re willing to talk. They ain’t willing to talk, get out the way and we can get it on.” They decided at that moment that it was time to talk, and the guideline was let’s learn to live in peace. Believe it or not, the first month of it was kind of tense, you know, because we had to see if they actually bought into it. We finally knew that it was bought into when both of the supposed leaders went into the store at the same time, came out, went the same way, and sat down and had a drink. And since then and that day, there’s been only two shootings in the community. We have—my organization—has three citations from each command of the tenth district at that time for keeping the violence down, especially the gun violence in our community.
Audrey Dunford: So, restorative justice is so hard to explain, but part of it is about building relationships with people. It’s a process when you sit in a circle, you have your talking piece, and everybody knows that whoever has the talking piece, you know, that’s the person who talks. It’s considered a safe space. I’m Audrey Dunford and I am a third-generation North Lawndalean, and my role in the court right now, I’m a circle-keeper along with--it’s maybe five--other circle-keepers there. So, Monday through Friday or Saturdays, we get people from the community together with the person who caused the harm that was sent over from the court, and we have circle and we discuss, like, “How did you get here?” The court is called the North Lawndale Restorative Justice Court, but it’s some criteria that they have to meet before they come to the court. It has to be a non-violent offence. You have to be between the ages of 18-24, and you can’t have any violence in your background. So, once they screen them, then they send them to North Lawndale and then we take them in in our court. It’s not like the traditional court. It’s like the community is speaking and saying what they want these guys to do in order to repair the harm in the community and to make the residents of the community feel safe. One thing that might be in the repair harm agreement is that the person need a job. So, if they need a job, we’re gonna get them a job. Another thing might be that they need a high school diploma or some kind of schooling. They might need to, you know, write a letter to… We had one guy who stole a woman’s car, so he wrote a letter to the lady and apologized for that, and actually he found some of her belongings in the car as well and he returned everything that was in the car with nothing missing, so the lady—she was really happy that she participated in the court because she understood that sending him to jail was not going to make him a better person, but him going through this process, it would. It’s work. And sometimes it’s people who come through that are like, “Naw, I’d rather just go to traditional court,” because they don’t want to have those conversations where they have to dig deep, where they have to sit with a person from the community and that person’s asking them questions about, “Well, why was you doing this? Why did this happen? What could you have done differently?” So, it’s a lot of work, because you really got to tap into your emotions. You really gotta be real and dig deep down in yourself to really talk to people. It’s like a whole man shifts, a whole being shifts. Like, some of the guys, now they got jobs, they like, “I don’t wanna miss no days of work,” you know? Even sometimes when they have to come back to court, they like, “Man, you know, I’ve got to figure out, like, what I’m gonna do because I don’t want to miss that day of work,” and that kind of stuff. For me, that’s improvement because last week, you was like, “I don’t care about working.” But now they forming these habits, they gonna keep up with them. You learn so much about yourself. Like, even me, like, from doing restorative justice, from practicing it, I am not the same person that I was five years ago. This has really changed me. It has really made me more compassionate for people. It has made me more empathetic to people and it has just made me more open to help people and not to always see the negative side of people. So, I mean, restorative justice—it works. It works.
Timothy Sanders: So, I’m going to do some jerk chicken in rice.
Brandon Crawford: My favorite specialty is macaroni and cheese.
TS: So, I’ve got some green peppers here. I’m gonna add some broccoli and some onions.
BC: Alright, so my name is Brandon Crawford. We’re at the Firehouse Community Art Center right now.
TS: Well, he’s my right-hand-man so I count on him for everything. Brandon, let me get some onions. My name is Timothy Sanders. I’m the executive chef of the Firehouse Community Art Center. Our purpose is to train these guys a trade in the culinary art field.
BC: We cook every day for the gentlemen in the program. Usually it’s between fifteen and maybe thirty-five people.
TS: Brandon has, uh, has grown a lot. He was in the last group of guys who we trained.
BC: Right here’s an open range. We also have a grill. Here we go here, we have a roaster.
TS: Little stuff he’ll see me doing, he’ll stop working and look and check it out, and come to me to ask questions. He’s all about being a better person all around.
BC: It’s the Firehouse really expecting more out of us. That’s generally what they do: kind of expect more than we expect from ourselves.
Derrick White: Brandon was definitely… He was always a good guy, but he’s had a rough path. He’s had just some different things in his life that stood in his way. My name is Derrick White. I am the lead life coach at the Firehouse Community Art Center. Guys walk through the door with—I’ll just say first—extreme trauma. So, guys have maybe seen people die as far as close to them, friends, family members, so I say that’s one of the biggest things… It’s trying to fill that tool bag with different things that they’ve never been accustomed to, never had, never seen, never heard of. It just… It’s a lot of trial and error because—like I said—guys come through with extreme trauma. And then also, most times as well, guys come through with a lot of, maybe, just a lack of love. Positive love.
Phil Jackson: Our work with our workforce development centers around catering. You know, culinary arts is a discipline where you’ve got to follow the order of the recipe. Otherwise, you will mess up the pound cake. Otherwise, you will mess up the ribs. And it’s frustrating for some guys, because it causes them to slow down, causes them to focus, and they have to follow a particular process in order for them to bring out what’s going to happen. So, it’s a great discipline. So, my name is Phil Jackson, or “Pastor Phil” as I’m labeled in this neighborhood. I’ve been pastoring thirty-one years, youth and young adults. A lot of the realities that our young people and young men, specifically in our Firehouse pact, face happen because of trauma that’s affected their family, right? And so, some stuff has happened because mom was dating a guy, and the guy was a drug dealer and the guy went to jail, and now the family’s lost. Resources… The mom is now trying to find a job and work, and so the sons were raised around that. And so, now they trickle into, “Hey, this is how Pops brought money in, so let me figure out if this is the way I’m going to do that,” and it just begins to roll into their lifestyle. So, guys we work with come from places where they often aren’t able to just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, not so much because opportunities aren’t there, but because of what they have been through. We work with three particular mobs in North Lawndale that are responsible for 40% of the shootings in this community, and so we try to reach and pursue the most violent young men we can, but we don’t see them in that light. That’s just the language to help people understand our work. I mean, we love these guys as human beings and they are strong in being able to survive all of that and have made a choice to believe in themselves enough to be a part of what we’re doing so their outcome in life doesn’t represent their past. The power that they have from that resiliency can change neighborhoods, communities, blocks and generations of conflict that has happened, you know, in their life.
Kimberly Dixon: I retired in September of 2016 and, uh, I wrote my first feature film. It’s called Redd—R-E-D-D. It’s an anti-gun violence story. It’s about a single parent after her ten-year-old son is shot and killed. She uses her music and social media to help end gun violence, and I used all of the children here in North Lawndale and they were remarkable. My name is Kimberly Dixon. We’re here in North Lawndale at my home and I have sitting here next to me my daughter, Ariel Walton.
Ariel Walton: This is a dream. I remember her having—when I was three and four years old—“I wanna start a production company, I want to write.” I remember her telling my father this, sitting in our living room when I was four years old. I’ll never forget this, and just to see her make it all happen, like… She’s resilient and to know that I’m her offspring, it just lets me know that I am that too.
KD: I used to write little stories and I would share them with my children, put them on the shelf, and when I retired, I said, “Okay, I wanna do what I wanna do now. I want to do what I love doing, what I have a passion for.”
AW: I never in a million years dreamed that she would write it and come right here and say, “I finished it! Yeah, you’re going to be Redd! Like, I wrote Redd, it’s gonna be about a mother, she’s gonna get justice for them killing her son, you know? He’s on his way to school and he gets shot in the crossfire of gun violence, the friend sees it… and by the way, you’re Redd.”
KD: And it was so crazy. I had never seen Ariel act before, and being a parent—now, I wrote the story—and even during some scenes, I would be crying. [laughs] Like, oh my God, I’ve got to stop, I wrote this, you know? But it was just… She was remarkable.
AW: And I never thought that the role itself would require so much of me. I mean, I was born in the ‘90s and I’ve witnessed some traumatizing things in my childhood. I’ve witnessed, um, like bullets have missed me by just a few inches. One of my childhood friends was murdered in front of me when I was twelve years old. So, when she wrote Redd it just went back into my childhood because it’s telling my stories too. In Redd, it sheds a lot of light on grief itself with the many children involved because kids don’t know how to analyze exactly how they feel in order to even say what they’re dealing with. So, a lot of times, those very things get swept under the rug and they go on being traumatized, wounded adults, you know? So, and I am a product of that. I am that person.
KD: I loved this opportunity we had. I’ll always… It’ll forever be in my heart.
AW: She saw something in me to bring the character Redd herself to life and I was able to meet parts of myself that I didn’t know existed. I give her full credit for, you know, giving me the opportunity to be able to do so and to show myself what I’m made of. So, thank you.
KD: You’re welcome.
Tiffany Childress-Price: So, my name is Tiffany Childress-Price and I teach at Michele Clarke High School, sophomores, fifteen and sixteen year olds in the Austin community. For the years prior to this one—this is my first year there—I taught at North Lawndale College Prep High School and that’s where I started my organizing science work. We do a lot that’s centered around community issues, so while I teach chemistry and my students learn the periodic table and what they need to be able to succeed in a freshman chemistry course, they also are learned about lead and other heavy metal contaminants like mercury and why communities like ours are disproportionately affected by issues like lead poisoning, right? So, actually yesterday we… I took a group of thirty students from my high school, we went to Loyola University to the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and they took a bunch of soil samples and they’re going to have the soil tested and share the results with the community. So, yeah. It’s important to me that education goes beyond memorization of just facts that are really disconnected from their lives.
AH: Paint a picture for me—from the eyes of an educator from the neighborhood—of the kids you encounter every day: what they’ve got going for them, what they’re up against… Just sort of the stories that walk in and out of the door of your classroom.
TCP: They have grit. They have plenty of grit. They show up every day—most of them. Some of them are late because they’re taking younger siblings to school, but the students who I have encountered really want to succeed, and it just… I think for a lot of them, they don’t know how to make that happen because they’re going to school in neighborhoods that are experiencing disinvestment for decades, right? Since their grandparents or great-grandparents moved here, and there aren’t a lot of models. My students… They break my heart a lot because they want so much and sometimes it feels like none of us know how to give them what they need and what they want. Yesterday, coming back from the Loyola trip, I was talking to a young woman named Blessing. I was asking her what she was excited about for the summer and she said, “I hate this time of year because this is when everybody dies,” and she said, “In August, you know, you think you’re there, right? You’re at the finish line, you’re about to start another school year and then you might lose your life.” And this is what our kids, our young people, are experiencing in Chicago. You never know what the next day brings. There’s so much instability. You don’t know if you’re going to live ‘til your sixteenth birthday. Students talk a lot about, like, “Man, I made it to eighteen. I never thought I would get to this age,” and that’s an adult problem, you know? I think that it’s so easy to scapegoat our kids and just talk about these violent black kids but our young people are reflecting our failure. One particular morning, a young lady was talking about just having a really rough weekend but didn’t want to get into details, and then she pulled me aside a few periods later and told me that her dad had overdosed on heroin and that he died and they revived him, but he’s going to be in the hospital for a little while and she’s taking care of her sister, you know? No other adult. There is no other adult in the family who could take care of her and here she is, asking questions in chemistry class. Like, I don’t know if I could have done that. I have kids in my classes who carry guns and, you know, they have their “ops,” right? The people who they’re in conflict with, but at the end of the day, they want to pass their chemistry test. You know, this is…. When you think about what’s around them, there’s not much economy here, right? And so, again, our young people are reflecting what we’ve given to them and I want people to know that the students who I have encountered in the last twelve—thirteen including my student teaching—they want to be doctors, engineers, they want to be music producers, they want to be cosmetologists, they have dreams. They don’t want to die before the age of sixteen.
Multiple Voices: It’s Out of the Blocks, North Lawndale in Chicago, West Side. One neighborhood, everybody’s story.
Bobbie Steele: You want to ask me my age?
AH: Well, I don’t wanna… Yeah, if you’re willing to tell me.
BS: I’m eighty-two years old. My name is Bobbie Steele and I’ve lived in North Lawndale for fifty-six years.
AH: We’re sitting in your living room right now and you have this beautiful big window and in front of this window is a rack with lots and lots of pictures. Talk about what’s up there and the memories that go with them.
BS: Well, first of all, I have my family there and then I have pictures of some political allies like Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton… Of course, I met Princess Di when she came to Chicago, had a conversation with her.
AH: I see there’s a photo of a city street that’s been renamed President Bobbie Steele Avenue.
BS: Right. That was Springfield Street, the street on which I lived. Very cool. [laughs] Makes me crazy when I see paper on the sidewalk. I had the unmitigated goal to become chairman of the community group to find out why we couldn’t have somebody who looked like us as precinct captain. The community was primarily African-America, but the precinct captain was white and hadn’t lived in the community in years. So, I ran for alderman. Well, with me running for alderman of my ward, I got quite a bit of publicity and I joined a women’s group called Cook County Democratic Women. So, the election following the mayoral election was a county election, so Cook County Democratic Women asked me if I would run for Cook County Board. I said, “I don’t know what that is!” So, I called Mayor Washington and I said, “Hal,” because he and I were on a first-name basis. I said, “What do you know about Cook County government?” and he said, “That’s a great branch of government. They do X, Y, and Z.” I said, “Oh okay.” I said, “Do you think I should run?” He said, “Bobbie, if anybody can win that, you can.” I said, “Okay, I’ll give it a try.” So, I committed myself to running for County Commissioner. Well, election night was probably one of the most exciting nights of my life because you’re listening to the news, and then you have people coming in to the headquarters bringing in their total votes and you’re trying to tally them. So, a lot of stuff is going on election night. Longer shorter story, as they brought in the results, we began to see that we were leading and so we won with 158,000 votes.
AH: Do you remember what your acceptance speech was that night?
BS: No, I don’t remember the acceptance speech. All I wanted to do was go to bed. [laughs] I served on the Board of Commissioners twenty years, and I’m very proud to say I got some really important legislation passed while I was there. Everybody’s in politics. If you live and breathe, you in politics. Everybody is. So, it’s very important that we don’t take… that we don’t take it lightly about the word politics because it’s made to sound like it’s something bad nowadays, but it’s something essential the country is built on. Political process.
Creative Scott: Every day, I politic—before I even thought about becoming a politician. Every day, I politic. My name is Creative Scott, you are on 16th and Pulaski. My hair salon is called Creative Salon right in the heart of North Lawndale. Well, where I’m at from the West Side of Chicago, 16th Street, Pulaski divides the gangsters. Okay, so, I had a lot of friends that’s been murdered or locked up in jail. So, my thing is being a young activist that I need to change a lot of stuff in the community. So, my hair salon is a safe haven in the community. I had poetry in my hair salon for seven years, and so it changed a lot of people’s lives. They was able to come off 16th Street and hear open mic poetry and spoken word, things that can change their energy, their attitude. I’m a poet as well.
“I’m struggling for my rights, and struggling paying for my likes and telephone bills and why the president and government spend millions, I mean billions of billions of dollars on wars? I can’t rest no more. Thought the Persian Gulf was enough, my social sore sweating pain through pores letting the homeless person I used to ignore life worsen by sleeping in the abandoned building corridors. Life got me cursing and I can’t rest no more and it makes me want to holler.”
AH: I want to ask you about… On the wall outside your barbershop is a big sign that says Creative Scott for 24th Ward alderman. Punch number 60. February 26th, 2019. That date came and went. Talk to me about that chapter, your political career.
CS: Right, right, right. You know, people say, “Why do you want to be into politics, a politician?” and I let them know, like, I talk and talk to the brothers and the sisters in the neighborhood, I talk to the elders, so I’m already into the political world, so why not go deep into it? And I figure being an alderman, I can offer more to the community as far as resources and grants. So, that’s how it is with them. Running for alderman, I like to create history. So, out of seven candidates, three got kicked off the ballot. Four left, and I was the top candidate. I came in second. So, I’m like, “I’m so happy.” Some individuals came to me crying and stuff and had tears, “Man, I really wanted you to win because I know you would help me with this and do B for the community?” And I let them know I am a winner, so it’s okay, and I have a chance to do it again. And I feel amazing to be a candidate. I’m watching the news and I’m seeing my numbers on the news being the incumbent. My numbers come up, I’m like, “Wow,” tears coming out my eyes just because of that. Just watching that and being on the news and hearing my name, like, it’s amazing. So, it touched my heart personally just to be a candidate, and another great thing I got out of all of this is my son, being eighteen, he was able to register to vote and when he voted, he voted for his father. That’s history, right there. When he gets older, “Man, when I first voted it was for my father!” I love that, so I don’t feel bad about none of that, you know? I’m happy. Every day I wake up, I’m ready to achieve a goal and I’m happy and I’ll do the same thing and I will run again, and everything will be much better. But until then, I’m gonna continue to politic.
Thad Smith: What I’ve learned in business is you have to have multiple things that you’re working with, because maybe I’m not making as much money selling honey, but I might make some money selling my bath products and my beauty products, or… I’m coming out with a new drink product named Honeybee Tea, it’s my honey with alkaline water and I carbonate that… My name is Thad Smith. The name of my company is called West Side Bee Boyz and we are in Douglas Park in North Lawndale. Douglas Park is one of the largest parks in the city of Chicago. More than 250 species of birds come through this park every year. This park is beautiful, but it’s so under-utilized. So, before I got into bee-keeping, I was homeless and Douglas Park was the epicenter for me. If you look right across here, there’s like a little patch of land. I’d just come and lay there, go to sleep. It was so quiet. Nobody came to bother you. Nobody. Here’s what happened: I had a house, but of course we didn’t have money to pay for the house, you know? So, we lost the house. So, we moved in with my brother-in-law and me and my brother-in-law didn’t get along, so he asked me to leave the house. So, I left the house, left my wife there and so, at that moment, I became homeless. I know it was two winters, I’ll put it to you that way. That’s how I remember it. Can’t figure out the dates but I know it was two winters. So, being homeless, you are a target for every single scam because you’re nothing. You are insignificant and if they can get money out of you, they’ll lose you and then freaking throw you away and don’t care about you. There’s always these guys that want you to cash checks. But what they want you to do is use your own freaking information. That’s what happened with me. I cashed some checks, I made some money, you know? And when you’re homeless, if you’ve got $200 in your pocket, that’s a good thing. You get to spend some money. But eventually there was a warrant for my arrest, and I knew there was a warrant for my arrest, so I finally got caught and I spent about eight months in jail. Yeah, I spent, like, eight months. So, when I came back, they had a program called the U-Turn Permitted Program through North Lawndale Employment Network and it was fantastic. I loved it. They hired me at Sweet Beginnings and Sweet Beginnings is beekeeping, and that’s how I got into beekeeping. They actually hired me as their apprentice beekeeper, and so as I learned the business, I understood what was going on in the beekeeping here in the city of Chicago and that was really the change for me. That was when I started West Side Bee Boyz. Bees… Honeybees are a metaphor. Honeybees are not native to the United States. They’re colonizers, and, you know, Black Panther was a big deal, so everybody understands what colonization is. There is no ambiguity behind that anymore. On the South Side and the West Side, there’s a lot of vacant land. So, that’s why bees have become significant, because people want to take advantage of that vacant land. However, before the honeybees got here, there’s twenty thousand species of bees on this planet, about eight hundred here in Illinois, maybe about a hundred here in Chicago. But these honeybees are taking away the resources from those native bees that were here before, and so I tell people it’s like bringing a Walmart in when you’ve had all these little corner stores. Now, that Walmart’s gonna suck all those resources out because honeybees can produce a hundred honeybees a day, and when you talk about native bees, they’re solitary. So, a honeybee will just crowd them out, take up all the resources. Now, if they don’t have anything to lay their eggs, that species is gonna die. Taking care of the native population first or our people here in this hood before we start to bring in other things is key.
Paul Norrington: One, two, three, four, five.
AH: You have a fantastic voice. You sound a little bit like Morgan Freeman. You knew I was going to say that.
PN: [laughs] And before Morgan Freeman, it was the guy who did the voice for Darth Vader, James Earl Jones. Yeah. My name is Paul Norrington. We’re on the 4200 block of 21st Place and this area—approximately a sixteen-block area—is known as the K-Town Historic District. Oh... Kostner, Kildare, Keeler, Kolin, Kilpatrick… In the early history of Chicago, they were coming up with a street-naming scheme and so this one city-working—and I don’t remember his name—came up with the idea of doing it alphabetically from the state line with Indiana and just going every mile, changing it. So, we’re the Ks. My father was born in 1916 in a small town near Widener, Arkansas. His family were share-croppers, so he worked and worked and worked and when he got in his early twenties, he left home and went down the road about thirty miles to live on his own in a little larger town called Brinkley, Arkansas. There, he met my mother. Eventually, they got married, my father went off to World War II, then they moved up here. They worked very hard and they pooled their money and finally, they bought this place. And that was in 1959. The family has been here since then.
AH: You’re living in the house that you grew up in. This same house that your parents bought.
PN: You know, life carries you places. But I came back to take care of my mother. She died, and I stayed. But yeah, those sidewalks out there, I ran up and down them, played on those sidewalks when I was seven years old. This is my home. My parents’ generation was our greatest generation. They fought the war, they went out and they… Although young people were the body of the civil rights movement, they were the mind. They’re the ones that got out there and really pushed it, and because of that I was exposed to other things in life. Our generation—my generation—did, like, what many people do, you know? We raise our kids, we say, you know, “Do right, make something of yourself, build yourself up so you can get out of here.” Well, what happens then? What happens to the community when all our brain trust leaves? I want people to go out and make something of themselves and then stay and build, and that’s what they did. Our generation did not. We left.
AH: You came back, though. You came back because of your mom.
PN: Because of my mother, yeah. Because of my mother.
AH: We’re sitting next to this piano that I assume was your mom’s piano.
AH: Did your mother ever teach you how to play piano?
PN: She… I have a sister who is ten years older than me, a brother who is five years older than me, and me. None of us play the piano.
AH: When’s the last time you heard that piano played?
PN: I’ll get on it periodically and do something—tinkle, tinkle, tinkle—but other than that, no.
AH: Wendel here is a classically trained pianist. What do you think about the idea of Wendel giving this thing a spin?
PN: That would be something! Yeah.
Wendel Patrick: Maybe I’ll just try a little melody here. This looks like a spinet. It’s nice. Thank you for letting me take it for a spin. I appreciate that.
PN: Now, I did just get flashbacks just then. I did picture my mother’s fingers going across the keys on that. Cool! Thank you.
AH: I want to go ahead and let listeners to this podcast know that this episode here would not be possible without the help of field producer Bashirah Mack, who is sitting here and Bashirah, I want to give you a chance to introduce yourself. Talk about how you got acquainted with North Lawndale and tell the story of meeting Kearra, who I think is the first person who you kind of got a conversation with in the neighborhood.
Bashirah Mack: My name is Bashirah Mack. I am a multimedia journalist based in Chicago, Illinois. I picked North Lawndale because I had some experience in the community, but not a whole lot and I just knew there was a lot more about North Lawndale that I wanted to get to know and so this was a great entry point for me to get to do that. I spent a lot of time at the Green Tomato Café, and I think the first time I was there, Kiera was the first person I met. It was an early morning and there were maybe about three of us in the café at the time, and I was just putting my bags down and getting settled and she came over, had the most bubbly presence and her first words to me were, “So, what do you do?” And it was really great because it kind of put you on the spot, like, “Oh, what do I do? So, here’s what I do. Um, I’m a field producer. I’m in North Lawndale, here’s why I’m here. I’m trying to get to know people who are from North Lawndale.” And from there, you know, conversation got started and I learned about Kearra and… She mentioned that she had just moved to North Lawndale and I thought it was pretty interesting getting to know somebody who was probably just as new to the community as I was, and so it’s pretty great to be able to come back and sit down and talk to her more about her growth in the neighborhood as well as my own.
Kiera Chester: I’m just a bold individual and I want to know people. My name is Kearra Chester and I’ve been here for four months now and what brought me here is I’m kinda-sorta engaged to a guy. So, I moved here for a guy. [laughs]
AH: You have a great laugh. Has anyone ever told you you have a great laugh?
KC: No! Do I?
BM: Yeah, it is beautiful.
KC: I didn’t know that! But thanks. My style is off the chains. I just basically go with what I feel, so if I feel like dazzling it up, putting on a crown or whatever the case may be, I just go with it. My style is kind of unique and it’s kind of different but I just go with it. It’s just pretty cool.
AH: You’ve got purple hair with gold in it, you’ve got a yellow dress on, you’ve got some jewels on today, you’ve got silver sandals on… You’re… Any special occasion today or is it just how you felt like dressing?
KC: No! This is just how I felt like dressing. Every day, I wake up and I feel like a queen. So, if I feel like a queen, then I’m dressing up and I’m showing up as the queen that I am. I see myself as a performer and a singer and also being a motivational speaker, so however way I can tie those both in, I’m going to do it. But yeah, I see myself being this superstar who is impacting and being a positive inspiration to the world. [singing] It’s called “Read All About It” by Emeli Sande. I love that song. It just tells me that I’ve got something on the inside of me that the world needs, so if I got it, you got it, and you got it, and everybody else got it. But if you never have that courage and that confidence to speak out, who will save the next person? So, I feel like we all have something to offer the world that can save the next individual to allow them to live to their highest potential, and so that’s my goal to allow everybody to tap into their greatness so that we can be the gift that God created us to be.
Multiple Voices: You’ve been listening to Out of the Blocks, from radio producer Aaron Henkin and music producer Wendel Patrick in collaboration with Bashirah Mack and WBEZ, with production assistance from WYPR’s Katie Marquette. You can podcast this series and check out photos online at wypr.org/outoftheblocks. Aaron and Wendel want to thank all of us who took a leap of faith and shared our stories and our lives. For WYPR and PRX, this is North Lawndale in Chicago’s West Side signing off.