By Billy Powers and Ava St. Claire
Take a quick look at the local news and you’ll assume one thing: life in Chicago must be grim – plagued by violence, alienating, divided and gray.
But for those of us sitting at Chef Sara’s Café in South Shore a few weeks back – one of the city’s most challenged neighborhoods as measured by crime and unemployment – our Chicago appeared anything but. There, as a community comes together, we see some very different headlines starting to take shape. “South Shore rich with promise and potential,” we can almost hear them read; “Historic neighborhood makes strides towards brighter tomorrow.”
Our group had assembled for a meeting of Exchange Ideas – a community forum we have been co-facilitating since we met this fall. The initiative brings together parents, neighbors, business owners, teachers, and public servants to share ideas, talk through concerns, and develop a set of common aspirations for the South Shore we know we can achieve.
To some, the two of us writing make an unlikely pair – and even more unlikely facilitators for the effort we now lead. One of us is Black, the other is, White. One of us is a Teach For America corps member teaching preschool to some of the community’s littlest learners – a group of students whose racial and economic backgrounds are overall quite different from his own. The other is a local homeowner and Florida native drawn to South Shore by the sense of neighborhood that makes this place so unique.
We met at Chef Sara’s – a local café beloved not just for its panini’s and pastries, but for the extraordinary siblings behind the counter. Chef Sara and her brother Gene have become staples of South Shore since they opened last year. When they talk, our community listens. So when Chef Sara sat us down and told us we had a contribution to make, we did the same.
It is this spirit of listening that now stands at the center of Exchange Ideas – a group designed to open communications channels across age, race, gender and economic background to focus on what is shared: a belief in what is possible for our community in spite of the very real challenges we face and, most importantly, a determination to be part of making it so.
Over the last few months, we’ve heard from parents, community organizers, neighborhood business owners and, most recently, from local high school students – South Shore slam poets whose eloquence and insight left the room in stunned silence.
In April, we turned to organizing these diverse voices – thinking about the kind of cohesive vision we’ll need to ensure that our community defines its own future. With each meeting, space at Chef Sara’s gets tighter, time goes faster, and our shared conviction gets stronger. We will look beyond what divides to what unites. We will challenge our own presumptions and perspectives. We won’t let the headlines define us. We’ll come together and write our own.
(Billy Powers is a Teach For America corps member and pre-K teacher at Ada S. Mckinley-Ersula Howard. Ava St. Claire is the founder and principal strategist for a small business-consulting firm, The MoonRose Agency, Inc. For more information about the next Exchange Ideas meeting at Chef Sara’s Café (7201 South Exchange Ave.), contact Billy at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ava at email@example.com.)