Building Community at the Howard Area Community Center

Building Community at the Howard Area Community Center

Strung along a quiet strip of Paulina Street, just north of Howard Street and its eponymous CTA station sits the headquarters–several buildings in all, in addition to another facility on Morse Avenue and Ashland Avenue — of the Howard Area Community Center. Unassuming in appearance, the center is surprisingly prolific in practice, offering more than 40 different programs to a wide range of ages, ethnic and language groups and needs.

In order to familiarize myself with the dizzying array of services provided by this community cornerstone of Rogers Park, I sat down with the center’s Director of Development, Beth Ulion.  She led me through the main building’s labyrinthine of hallways and rooms, and pointed out various facilities and spaces of such disparate uses that I eventually concluded she was joking.  A daycare and separate adult ESL classrooms?  Check.  A Food Pantry?  Check.  A fully equipped and staffed dentist’s clinic??  Surprisingly, check.

Even more exciting, she mentioned, is the space at the Morse/Ashland branch.  Here, the HACC houses a Teen Arts and Technology Center designed to offer teenagers from low-income or troubled households a safe, fostering haven in the mischief-prone hours of after-school freedom.  If you’re picturing a beige-walled room with some scattered desks, chairs, and an assortment of cast-off art supplies, though, you couldn’t be further from the mark.  The Clubhouse is proudly youth-oriented and youth-appointed—that is, planned, purposed, and decorated by the very adolescents who use it.  This means that the basement—renamed the “ConCave” for reasons which will shortly become clear—walls are plastered in original comics authored and illustrated by program participants. The tech area offers not just computers and video games for business and pleasure, but also a super computer which the youth built themselves. A ‘cosplay station’—a workshop dedicated to engineering and executing costumes and props—occupies a corner of the basement.  Additionally, the center offers support and guidance for teens interested in starting their own crafts or arts businesses, as well as a facility to make t-shirts and other art projects.  The ultimate objective of this imaginative asylum—part-playground and part-professional development center—is, as Ulion puts it, to create “a second home that is a safer place than home.”

A shot of the Teen Center’s Computer Clubhouse. Photo courtesy of Howard Area Community Center

When I asked what Ulion would identify as some of the most unique characterizing features of HACC, she answered with a readiness that reflects how deeply she and other HACC organizers have considered the organization’s values and its activities.  “I think the way we execute our programs shows how invested we are in helping people and building the community in the long term.  Any (organization) can throw money at a problem, but we’re devoted to developing sustained community change and individual success.”

Oddly enough, Ulion’s comments and the HACC approach to authentic community change left me thinking of Leo Tolstoy’s exploration of the nature of meaningful social reform in his classic novel “Anna Karenina”.  In the novel, one of the main characters, Konstantin Levin, struggles with effecting positive economic and humanitarian reforms on his farming estate.  He notices that his landowning peers tend to follow en vogue technological and political movements blindly, assuming that they’re doing ‘the right things’ for their peasants by towing the popular social lines of the time.  It seems to Levin, though, that such politically correct measures aren’t doing much good if one honestly confronts and evaluates the results: the peasants’ living conditions continue to deteriorate, farming profits keep shrinking, and farming practices appear no more efficient for all the newfangled British equipment and methodology than they had been during the primitive centuries of serfdom.  Over the course of the novel, then, he comes to a reevaluate his approach to meaningful reform, learning among other things that authentic social reform takes more than good intentions: if you really want to make things better for other people and not just be smug about one’s laudable actions, you need to care about the actual outcome of your reforms—and not just the impressive nature of your efforts—on the communities and people you’re purporting to help.

It may seem like a bit of a long-winded digression, but the more I mulled over my conversation with Ulion, the more salient Tolstoy’s thoughts on authentic and counterfeit social change seem.  After all, in an age where philanthropic successes are measured by viral hits and dollar signs, we seem more and more obsessed with the statistical trappings of charitable success and less and less concerned with what happens to the X-amount of dollars once it’s been chalked up to a fundraising total.  The Howard Area Community Center seems to stand in inspiring contradistinction to these trends: its programs eschew the flashiness of short-term results for sustained and substantive involvement.

Photo courtesy of Howard Area Community Center

The New Era Project, for example, focuses on gang intervention and prevention, pairing at-risk youth with long-term mentors and activities.  The goal is not to tally attendance at a one-off workshop and then claim dozens of success stories.  Rather, the program focuses on building trusting, lasting relationships between the youth—many of whom have entire families and social circles involved in gang life—and positive role models, thereby making them lasting assets to—rather than detractors from—the community fabric.

Similarly, the Career and College Readiness and Scholarships program provides more than the limited or one-time guidance and support offered by many scholarship endowments.  Rather, a case manager remains with their students throughout the full first year of their college careers, keeping track of their lives and helping them through emergent challenges in the unfamiliar day-to-day lifestyle of higher education.  After all, Ulion points out, a scholarship program’s success shouldn’t be judged by the number of students it enrolls in college initially: if the unprepared and overwhelmed new students drop out over the course of the next year, you haven’t actually made any headway in the original problem and objective of the program; that is, to provide disadvantaged youth with college educations.

As if these programs weren’t sufficiently ambitious, the HACC offers dozens more, all geared to help the most vulnerable and under-served demographics of society, such as refugees, ex-cons, women experiencing domestic violence, those suffering from HIV/AIDS, and low-income families or single parents with small children.  In addition to the more intensive outreach and educational programs offered, the center also strives to assist community members with basic services and amenities, such as a public computer lab, print station, and fax machine, as well as a food pantry and in-kind donations for things such as toiletries and diapers.

Photo courtesy of Howard Area Community Center

Again, I think to myself, donations like Ventra cards and a place to check emails are the kinds of things that so often get overlooked, the minutiae of overwhelming societal problems like joblessness or recidivism which can be every bit as insurmountable an obstacle to finding gainful employment or staying out of prison as the overarching economic and legal policies which produce them.  By paying attention to these oft-neglected quotidian hardships, the Howard Area Community Center demonstrates a refreshingly practical approach to public service that values the details as much as it does sweeping community change.  And, as Tolstoy or the organizers of the HACC can teach us, if your goal is to strengthen a community and bolster the wellbeing of its individuals—if you really want to help—then there should be no such thing as a minor detail, no need too basic, and no purpose too small.

CALL TO ACTION

When asked how interested members of the public can get involved, Ulion suggested a litany of opportunities, ranging from those requiring a significant time commitment and period of training to those which require little more than a few hours a month and a pair of willing hands.  No matter how people get involved, she points out, the HACC boasts a special knack at keeping first-time volunteers engaged: “typically, once someone gets involved here, they never leave.”

Among some of the specific duties open to new volunteers are Food Pantry helpers, tutors for both Adult Education and After-School programs, and freelance translators and interpreters.  Groups interested in doing a project together can also get in touch through the center’s email at volunteers@howardarea.org in order to work on larger-scale renovation projects.  Interested readers can check out volunteer opportunities on the HACC website or, for more specialized queries, through the center’s email.  Additionally, anyone can also donate through the HACC donation portal or check the detailed list of in-kind donations and other giving options for a varied list of ways to contribute.  For further information about donating, contact Beth Ulion at eulion@howardarea.org.

 

Chicago Celebrates National Poetry Month

Chicago Celebrates National Poetry Month

On one of the first warm and sunny days of the Chicago spring, while clusters of galloping children and strolling adults soak in the long-awaited rays, a group of poetry aficionados gather in the friendly confines of Sulzer Regional Library.  The event they’ve assembled to see is entitled “Not-Your-Grandma’s Poetry,” part of a month-long initiative by the Chicago Public Libraries to celebrate National Poetry Month.  The series of events will culminate in the April 30th Poetry Fest at Harold Washington Library, where attendees can take advantage of a variety of free offerings, such as writing workshops, readings, and open mics.

But for now the Poetry Fest is still a couple of weeks away, and the audience currently gathered has come to see Emily Thornton Calvo, a Chicago-based multimedia poet who exhibits her watercolors—many of them with poems inscribed into the paintings—while reading her original verses.  The group isn’t exactly diverse or youthful—indeed one could gamble that most of the listening parties are in fact grandmothers explicitly excluded in the event’s title—but the resultant atmosphere is decidedly welcoming and thoughtful, with audience members listening carefully to Calvo’s engaging oratory while examining her corresponding paintings.

Calvo’s poems and paintings span from topics deeply personal and profound to ones light and humorous, moving seamlessly from smiling, frivolous observation, to wincing memories of family and painful personal crises.  Her first poem, for example, is called “Hunting Down Dinner on Highway 13,” a light-hearted recollection of dinner at a Missouri café called the Beefmaster.  After speculating cheerfully that the restaurant’s patriarch—presumably the Beefmaster himself—has “a past as checkered as the tablecloths,” she turns her eye on the rest of the diner’s supporting cast: Mrs. Beefmaster, Junior Beefmaster, and the ever-attendant swarms of flies making the rounds of the tables.  Ever insightful and good-natured, Calvo’s eye transforms a decidedly prosaic event and setting into an engaging character study and contemplation on the universal experience—part awkwardness and part adventure, part drudgery and part curiosity—of traveling the countryside.

Original artwork by Emily Calvo http://emilycalvo.com/artist/

After this carefree jaunt down Highway 13, Calvo changes gears to contemplate her father’s legacy in her life and childhood.  In “Daddy’s Gay and I Don’t Mean Happy,” she reflects on how her father’s later-in-life coming-out affected their friendship and her perception of him as a good father and husband.  Though he always kept part of himself hidden—the gay man separate from his family, the family man discrete from his friends—Calvo concludes that he was ultimately a wonderful father whose parenting she couldn’t fault: “whatever half of him was a husband,” she writes, “all of him was always my father.”

From such deeply personal reminiscences of her parents and children, Calvo proceeds to reflections on her own battle with cancer, thoughtful observations of African art exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago, travels in France and the delights of the French cafe, and life-changing conversations with a Holocaust survivor.  Despite this disparity, no topic seems out of place or jarring to the general flow of the reading, each shift in tone and content creating a resilient smoothness—which must in part be owed to Calvo’s artless delivery and openness—rather than a sense of unevenness or lack of context.  Indeed, while wall-to-wall personal subjects might have left everyone feeling claustrophobic and uncomfortably vulnerable, the alternating somber and buoyant tones produce an admirable balance.

Calvo closes her reading with an unconventional ode to Chicago, a hometown she loves but one which she perceives as mishandled or romanticized by fellow poets.  “Chicago is not a woman,” she objects to the implied voices of these mischaracterizing peers, “he’s your cousin who borrows money from you and pays you back with a wink.” This sneaky but lovable persona, she elaborates, trundles through winter “drunk on snow, high on blow” while boasting multiple character flaws—including its notoriously segregated neighborhoods—overlooked by poets attributing Sophian, gendered wisdom and gentleness to the gigantic and complex metropolis.  Ultimately, though, it’s an ode all the same, a loving gesture to the bright lights big city made all the more intimate and affectionate by the acknowledgement of its avuncular charm, weaknesses, cruelties, and anomalous features.

Original artwork by Emily Calvo http://emilycalvo.com/artist/

This off-beat depiction of Chicago seems a fitting farewell to Chicago’s celebration of National Poetry Month, as it reflects not just Calvo’s unique perception of the Windy City, but the quirky nature of the readings I’ve attended this month and even, in some ways, the Chicago Public Libraries system as a whole.  For anyone who has stumbled into a busy CPL branch on a warm weekend or a chilly workday, you’re familiar with the motley crew of fellow patrons that greets you, a crowd as diverse as the buildings, neighborhoods, and industries of the city that cradles them. They’re not all angels, as you’ll quickly discover when a cranky senior citizen grumbles at you for speaking above the meekest whisper—ironically using a decidedly audible and un-blushing tone to do so—but they’re nevertheless part of Chicago’s “treasure,” a few cantankerous frowns to match the “magnificent smiles, all colors all shapes” that make up this city.

Call to Action

While this year’s National Poetry Month is now over, interested readers can attend a variety of ongoing poetry events across the city of Chicago.  The Poetry Foundation hosts year-long readings and workshops at various venues in Chicago and Chicagoland, including two upcoming events in May celebrating the works of Gwendolyn Brooks, a mid-twentieth-century Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whom Emily Calvo claims as one of her main literary influences.

If you’d like to support Chicago arts and poetry with more than your attendance and participation in said events, you can also make a donation to the Poetry Foundation, or to the Chicago Public Library Foundation.

You can also become a volunteer for the Homework Help Program through the CPL and assist local elementary and high school students with after-school assignments.

Rise From The Ashes

Rise From The Ashes

When speaking about Rise from the Ashes, a Plainfield-based 5013c nonprofit that provides legal and emotional support to low-income women suffering from domestic violence, founder Stephanie Austin is quick to point out some truly staggering numbers. Domestic violence, for example, causes more injuries to women every year than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.  Additionally, abusive partners seeking sole custody of children achieve their ends in 70% of cases in which the victim of domestic violence lacks representation.  These numbers, she says, speak for themselves, testifying resoundingly to the urgent need for her organization and its work.

And they aren’t, she points out, just empty numbers, black-and-white statistics she’s culled from the pages of reputable journals but to which she cannot attest in real life.  This is because Austin herself is a survivor of domestic violence, once a near-penniless mother struggling to sever the legal ties binding her to an abusive husband.  “It was a desperate situation,” Austin says. Even when she considered trying to leave her husband, she “quickly found there was nowhere for me to go.  You can stay in a women’s shelter, sure, but you can only stay for six weeks.  Then what?”  Not only was there nowhere to flee in the short-term, but the prospect of long-term solutions seemed equally grim: “No matter where I ended up staying,” she explains, “I needed legal representation to obtain a divorce and get custody of my kids.  But this is almost impossible if you don’t have the money to hire an attorney.”

After all, she continues, the issue is more complicated than people think: “People will say, go to legal aid—you’re entitled to an attorney even if you can’t afford one!” she remembers, her words recalling the Miranda warning made famous by popular police and court procedurals, such as Law and Order.  “But they don’t know or haven’t thought about the fact that this pertains to criminal law, not civil cases.”  You’ll get a state-funded attorney if you’re charged with a crime, in other words, but not if you’re pursuing a civil matter, such as a lawsuit, a divorce, or a protection order.  This means that many women—often already vulnerable due to straitened circumstances and abusive relationships—are left in a legal no-(wo)man’s land, struggling to address their problems legally but possessing no fiscal means to do so.

Original artwork by Charlotte Farhan https://panmelacastro.carbonmade.com/projects/6093377

It makes sense, perhaps, that people don’t know much about this side of the system as long as they’ve never had to deal with it personally; after all, Austin herself only comprehended the complexities of the problem once she encountered it.  Faced with the urgent need for a divorce and custody of her children but with almost no money to do so, Austin threw herself at the mercy of an attorney she found by googling the term “aggressive solo custody lawyer.”  Upon learning of her plight, this lawyer—Chicago-based attorney Michael A. Biederstadt of Biederstadt Law, P.C.—agreed to represent her.

Both Biederstadt and Austin would find the case and partnership to be an eye-opening experience: Austin encountered countless other women battling similar circumstances, women who, without the magnanimous assistance of an attorney, were faring far worse in their own cases than Austin was.  At the same time, Biederstadt was learning about a side of the civil court system he had never so much as glimpsed before: even after years of practicing family law, Austin’s case was the first time he witnessed the unique and astonishing problems specific to domestic violence cases.  He saw how the system tended to work against women in violent marriages and result in their legal underrepresentation.  For example, many women experiencing domestic abuse do not possess an independent income or access to marital funds or assets, meaning that they cannot afford to hire their own attorneys.  This material disadvantage does not, though, translate to free legal services as it would in many other cases: most free or subsidized legal aid services take the husband’s income and assets into account when considering whether an applicant qualifies for assistance.  Consequently, women just like Austin were suffering in violent marriages because they couldn’t get representation to escape them.

The shared experience was so profound, Austin says, that neither one felt they could continue their lives as before, even after Austin’s own divorce and custody cases had been satisfactorily adjudicated.  In recounting the formative inspiration for their venture, she recalls a favorite saying of her cofounder: “[Biederstadt] says all the time that you get opportunities in life to really make a difference, and it’s up to you if you take them or not.”  So, the pair resolved to form a nonprofit that would support women in abusive marriages, connecting philanthropically minded lawyers and counselors with the women most in need of them.

Only two short years after its formation in 2015, Rise from the Ashes now provides an array of services to Kane, Kendall, DuPage, and Will counties.  Not only do volunteers provide legal representation and counseling to needy clients, but they also arrange court companions for women set to attend or testify in court against their abusive exes, as well as organize legal clinics at women’s shelters around DuPage and Kane counties.  These clinics are a way for Rise from the Ashes to reach and assist a wider range of women than the relatively few clients who qualify for and receive the organization’s more intensive, one-on-one legal and counseling services.  “Many women,” Austin explains, “don’t qualify for our services due to financial factors, but they can still get a lot of useful information, community support, and legal advice when they attend our clinics and forums.”

Image by Taproot India for the Save Our Sisters campaign

At a recent event, she recalls, the organization held an open-ended Q&A session where women could ask legal professionals any question they might have about their own personal plights and efforts to escape abuse.  Many women asked whether or not it was legal for them to record abusive telephone calls or in-person confrontations with their current or ex partners—after all, they reasoned, they would be asked later for evidence to support claims of abuse and mistreatment.  No, the lawyers, answered, surreptitious recordings of any kind—with the exception of those documenting a crime—are not admissible in court in Illinois.  This means that, while women may want to capture instances of their husbands yelling at them or their children for future reference, it’s actually illegal to do so.  Similarly, if one wants to videotape an abuser’s violent behavior, one must disclose the fact that one is recording the altercation in order to use it as evidence.

Despite the rapid expansion and resounding success of the young organization, Austin concedes that there are some challenges.  Fundraising and finding relevant grant opportunities, for example, can be a huge headache: since each case usually takes a long time—sometimes over a year—to complete, the organization is still building its finished client statistics.  This means that many of the statistics grant committees look for are misleading, unable to reflect the fact that RFTA has provided over $200,000 in billable hours—including legal clinics and counseling services—in the past year alone.  It can also be a problem to find highly qualified professionals: while signing on attorneys willing to donate their time and energy to the organization has been relatively easy, Austin notes that it has been more difficult to find pro bono counselors and psychologists.  This dearth of mental health volunteers is particularly problematic because victims of domestic abuse don’t just need physical and legal separation from their abusers; they also require intensive therapy to administer to the psychological scars of long-term trauma.

Thankfully, these challenges shrink to a speck when compared to the rewards of keeping Rise from the Ashes afloat.  Not only does Austin feel that she gets to “pay forward” the tremendous gift she received from her lawyer’s initial generosity, but she also gets to witness firsthand a kind-heartedness and goodwill in Chicagoland residents.   “In a lot of ways we’ve been really fortunate to have received such immediate and generous support: when people hear the numbers and find out about the lack of services available, they want to help.  I always say, it’s an obvious problem with an obvious solution.  Once people see the problem, they’re—more often than not—willing to help with the solution.”

Call to Action

Rise from the Ashes is always looking for volunteers to help the organization.   More specifically, they are looking for women who can commit their time to acting as court companions for RFTA clients.  They also need people who can help plan and put together fundraising events, as well as experienced accountants or bookkeepers who can help out with the clerical side of the organization.  If you’re interested in performing any of these duties, just reach out!   Email risefromtheashes11@gmail.com and someone from the organization will be sure to respond—just be sure to indicate what kind of role you can envision yourself playing in the organization, as it can be difficult for organization members to assign and coordinate ambiguous volunteer requests.

Or, if you’re short on time but still want to help out, visit the official RFTA website—rfta.co—and donate directly.  All donations go directly to client services and assistance, and even modest gifts are greatly appreciated.