Grace Urankar, Staff Writer
This fall break, I received a shock.
My confrontation with new culture began on one of the many buses of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). We were twelve students at various points in our academic life spans, operating as a unit through the Center for Social Concerns’ fall seminar, “Latino Community Organizing Against Violence.” We came from a variety of majors, interests, and life experiences. However, there was something dissimilar between us and everyone else on the bus – this was a side of Chicago we had not seen before.
As we progressed into the city, I recalled the information digested in our previous classes. In some ways, Latinos are thriving in Chicago: a strip of West 26th Street in the Latino-populated Little Village neighborhood is the second-highest source of revenue in the city, following only the Magnificent Mile. However, like many minority groups, the Latinos are often pummeled by poverty and stricken by violence. In a city known for being one of the most segregated in the country, Latinos are often on their own in trying to better their communities; for instance, 14 Little Village women went on a 19-day hunger strike in 2001 to draw attention to the community’s need for a high school. In our hometowns, change is much more manageable. Our class read about community organizing, social psychology, Catholic social teaching, and theories behind social change; however, these concepts did not become real until I was on that bus.
Riding the CTA, I realized that our journey this week would not be limited to the Latino population, as the course title implied. The African-American community is also in great need of healing and struggles with many of the same problems. The most difficult problem for me to stomach is the prevalence of gangs, which accounts for the vast majority of community violence. In a documentary that we viewed entitled “The Interrupters,” camera time was split between African-American and Latino gangs. The film followed these so-called “interrupters,” often former gang members, who try to intervene and prevent situations from escalating. It is clear that violence is universal, but even more striking is the characterization that “violence is one of the greatest infectious diseases.” This observation was made in the film by Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist and founder of the CeaseFire and Cure Violence organizations. As the week progressed, this quote never left my mind. Is there any treatment or cure for this disease plaguing so many communities in our country?
If I learned anything over that week, it is that there is no “silver bullet” to youth violence and other urban issues. However, as a class, we witnessed a great deal of steps in the right direction – despite all the hardship and difficulty. The various programs of the Southwest Organizing Project, such as “Parents as Mentors” and “Teen Reach,” encourage parental and community involvement in education. The Kolbe House Catholic Jail Ministry provides thousands of inmates with religious resources, but most of all, hope. Through the unique work study program at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Latino students can afford a Catholic high school education; furthermore, they have their sights set on attending college–something totally off the radar for their peers on the streets.
We had a great deal to learn from these leaders of the organizations we visited–these people had often been in the same positions as their clients. Take Richard, for example. He never saw his childhood as dysfunctional; he thought it was normal to live with mattresses on the floor among rats and roaches. First affected by mortality in sixth grade when a classmate died, he joined a gang to protect himself from the senseless violence he observed in his community. After being kicked out of the house by his parents, he only “went harder gang banging,” figuring death on the streets would be an honorable end. He identified this period as being “addicted to the streets,” only being taken to metaphorical rehab when he was wounded and paralyzed by a rival gang’s bullet. Still he continued in the gang, until he realized the pain he caused his mother and family. This began his self-transformation, recognizing that he never truly believed in himself as a gang member; he poetically shared that “dream or destruction starts in your mind.”
Today, Richard works for the Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital’s “In My Shoes” program, which educates students on the challenges facing paraplegics. It would be simpler to say this was the only amazing story we heard, but every individual we met was extraordinary.
Within the course, my individual research was focused on the strength of the family. Time after time, we heard stories of broken homes: a father in and out of jail, a mother addicted to drugs, a sibling already in a gang. Most often, there was a combination of these scenarios. The most unfathomable tragedy to me was shared by a parent mentor: after telling a student on the playground that she loved him, he responded that no one had ever told him that before. Observing this dynamic was incredibly startling; I have never felt so blessed to be raised by two loving parents who encourage me to pursue education, but even more simply, tell me that they love me.
My greatest lesson from the “immersion” experience is the resiliency of the human spirit. One moment sticks out to me from that first bus ride. As my luggage-laden companions and I boarded the near-capacity bus, one Latino man jumped up to offer a seat. My fellow traveller politely declined, but not before one smaller man quickly did the same. Only about seven or eight, the boy followed his father’s example of chivalry and, upon retaking their seats, was rewarded with praise and a kiss on the head. With the observations I have since made about family life, I am thrilled to have seen and learned from this small and meaningful moment. Furthermore, I realize that no matter who we are or where we come from, all of us are just trying to do the best we can with what we have. We all share the ability to love our children deeply, our friends faithfully, and strangers inexplicably. All of us as humans are inherently good; we just need our society to reflect it.
Grace Urankar is a junior Religious Studies major at Saint Mary’s College. She returns to the Rover after a hiatus to participate in the Saint Mary’s musical, The Secret Garden, which goes on this weekend. She relishes this opportunity to shamelessly plug an incredible production: please visit saintmarys.edu/tickets for information. Otherwise, criticize Grace’s journalistic integrity at firstname.lastname@example.org.