Between its beaches, museums, restaurants, and malls, there’s no shortage of attractions that Chicago has to offer college students. But what can these students offer Chicago?
The People’s Lobby is a grassroots movement focused on fighting structural inequalities by implementing specific policies and electing officials that support those policies to put the interests of the community before big corporations, according to its website. The People’s Lobby addresses issues from wage policy to environmental justice to mass incarceration and more.
What does this have to do with students? Chicago Student Action is a branch of the People’s Lobby that serves as a way of building bases of students on college campuses around the Chicagoland area. From there, students organize on their campuses for issues that affect those campuses directly, as well as coming together as a whole to fight jointly on policies that affect them as Chicago students.
Chicago Student Action members chained themselves up and blocked the intersection in front of the Art Institute to hold a protest and press conference advocating for free higher education.
According to Dominic Marlow, a senior and student organizer at University of Illinois at Chicago, what separates students from other activists is their optimism. “Young people in general are a lot more willing to question the status quo. They have the belief that things can get better a lot more than older people generally do.”
Having grown up during the 2007-2009 U.S. recession and seeing the toll it took on much of his family, Marlow got involved as an activist when he came to college, where he learned “[the recession] was totally avoidable. That was really big for me in realizing the public sector is run by people who are not representing our needs.” He also explained that his exposure to Chciago’s diverse community made him realize “we have been intentionally divided in order to keep us from building anything sustainable to make a government that works for people.”
Chicago Student Action members on their final day of the March to Springfield. Members marched 200 miles from Chicago to Springfield for the People and Planet First Budget.
Unlike many non-profit organizations, which rely on donations of labor, money, and time from their volunteers, Marlow explained that Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby emphasize investing in their members as people to help them develop as leaders. “Our vision is for real powerful communities that can actually advocate for themselves.” Members of Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby strive for “an intersectional movement that is diverse and representative of the people we’re actually fighting for.”
Marlow described some of the accomplishments he has seen during his time with Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby.
- March to Springfield: In May of 2017, Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby members led a 200-mile march from Chicago to Springfield to fight for the People and Planet First Budget which began with a kickoff rally in downtown Chicago. Once in Springfield, members took part in a sit-in in front of the Governor’s office and held the building for 10 hours before being arrested and moved. That year, the state legislature passed $100 million in revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes.
- Cook County $13 Minimum Wage: Members of Chicago Student Action and the People’s Lobby disrupted Cook County budget hearings and organized for electoral work to reclaim some of the commissioners districts. Eventually, they garnered the nine votes needed to pass the $13 minimum wage.
- Election of Theresa Mah: Theresa Mah is the first Asian-American Woman elected to the Illinois General Assembly.
- Election of Kim Foxx: Kim Foxx, now the Cook County State’s Attorney, has helped reduce the Cook County jail population by over 1,000 inmates.
Call to Action
We all know what prisons are, but do we really know what goes on inside these facilities? Are they actually successful in reducing crime and making Chicago a safer city? And most importantly, who is responsible for monitoring that?
John Howard Association [JHA] is an independent nonprofit organization, whose main mission is to push Illinois to have the most humane and effective criminal justice and prison system possible. According to JHA’s executive director, Jennifer Vollen-Katz, this can be achieved by “having a smaller system that does not rely so heavily on incarceration, providing meaningful rehabilitation programs for those people who are in prison and providing them with opportunities upon release so they can be successful and not return to prison.”
JHA’s work has three different levels. First, they run a prison monitoring program. For the past 116 years (Vollen-Katz), JHA has been going to Illinois prisons to talk to inmates and staff. They monitor conditions of confinement, programming and treatment. The program provides the opportunity for people to talk to someone outside of the system.
They also run a prison response unit, where inmates can write JHA with any questions or concerns. Letters usually contain requests of case laws and statutes, but many also include questions regarding current events, sports, movies and music lyrics. JHA staff and volunteers work relentlessly to reply to hundreds of letters every week. Even if they don’t have the answer the inmates are looking for, they still make sure to write the inmates back apologizing and acknowledging their feelings. Phil Whittington, Corrections Police Analyst, explained, “We write back. I am glad we are able to provide that service. Everybody as a human being should have the dignity of being responded, and that [is] something we take seriously.” JHA staff is also available for loved ones and families who are concerned about someone who is incarcerated; these people can reach out to JHA via phone or email.
The third level of the nonprofit’s work is a combination of the first two: fighting through advocacy. There are several different ways to approach advocacy, according to JHA. Sometimes it is by reaching out to a legislator to draft or push for a piece of legislation, which can be related to policies affecting the prisons themselves or policies to provide the right tools for those who are released. It can also be through creating written reports or presenting oral testimonies. They testify at subject matter hearings and talk to any sort of advocacy groups such as nonprofits, schools, religious affiliated groups and anyone who is interested in talking about these issues.
Even though JHA is a statewide organization, they are based in Chicago, and that is not coincidental – 50% of inmates in Illinois correctional facilities come from Cook County jails.
Call to action
JHA is always recruiting volunteers for different tasks, but the fastest way to help their cause right now is by becoming familiar with their work. Part of their mission is educating the public. Many people are not aware of the issues regarding our current prison system, and JHA writes reports every year about Illinois correctional facilities. These are all available on their website.
Donation is another way to help their organization. As an independent nonprofit they do not take any government money and making sure that they have all the necessary resources to do their work is very challenging.
If you have time to help with office tasks such as replying to letters, preparing surveys, and eventually monitoring prisons, you can always apply for it on their website.
No matter how much time you can commit to volunteer, JHA can always use your help.
Instead of waiting for people to come to them, The Night Ministry is taking to the streets of Chicago. The Night Ministry is a non-profit which provides housing and support for those confronting homelessness.
Unlike many similar organizations throughout the city, The Night Ministry puts boots on the ground in the streets of Chicago each day in their Health Outreach bus. This bus, which is roughly the size of a CTA bus, transport social workers, nurse practitioners, members of The Night Ministry’s team, as well as volunteers throughout the city to help individuals who aren’t able to reach clinics and other service locations that are open during the day. The team on the Health Outreach Bus provides free services such as confidential testing for HIV, Hepatitis C and STDs. They also provide basic medical care, pregnancy tests and provide referrals for medical and dental care for those in need. For encampments these large buses are unable to reach, The Night Ministry sends out a street medicine team to help those in need. The street team visits individuals living under bridges and other outdoor locations to provide survival supplies and connect them to needed support services.
The Night Ministry also makes an impact through its five housing programs for young people experiencing homelessness. The non-profit’s doors are open to anyone and everyone, with specific support services for LGBT youth and teen mothers. Barbara Bolsen, Vice President for Strategic Partnerships and Community Engagement at The Night Ministry, stated “Success is measured in small steps – almost 90% of former residents of our youth housing programs say they feel confident and stable in their current living situations and more than 60% of Health Outreach Bus visitors say that relationships they’ve built at the Bus have led to new opportunities”. At The Night Ministry, they are not simply lending out a helping hand, they are setting individuals up for a successful and independent life.
Call to Action
- Donate! The Night Ministry is always accepting packages of new white or black adult socks, packages of new adult sized underwear, single-ride Ventra passes, and $5-$10 gift cards for McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks and $15-$30 gift cards for stores like Jewel, Mariano’s, Walgreens, CVS or Target. Drop off times are Monday-Friday 9am-5pm at 4711 N. Ravenswood Ave.
- Volunteer! Serve a meal with a group of friends at “The Crib,” a LGBTQ-friendly overnight shelter, or provide street meals alongside the staff of the Health Outreach Bus. Volunteer on a Saturday to create hygiene kits for distribution! E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 773-784-9000.
Learn! Invite The Night Ministry to your workplace for a “Corporate Lunch and Learn” including a presentation on their efforts, and complete a service project (making sandwiches or creating hygiene kits) with your coworkers!
La Casa Norte is a non-profit that aims is to uplift Chicagoans who find themselves facing a period of homelessness. Serving youth and families, their mission states, “We provide access to stable housing and deliver comprehensive services that act as a catalyst to transform lives and communities.” La Casa Norte [LCN] supports youth and families with emergency, transitional and long-term housing options when they are in need, but they don’t stop there. They also assign a case manager to each individual they serve to ensure that they have all of the support necessary to place everyone on a successful track. Whether it is supportive housing, food, clothing, school supplies, job skills, or health services, the staff at La Casa Norte take the steps to uplift Chicagoans in need.
Part of supporting youth, apart from basic necessities, is supporting their focus on a successful future. La Casa Norte’s Youth in College program allows for college-aged individuals to do just that. Through collaboration with schools, LCN is able to target and support college students in need through tuition assistance, dorm-style housing options, academic services, and career services. In the coming months, LCN is making even more leaps and bounds in supporting youth and families.
In March, they will be hosting their fundraiser “Unveiling Homelessness,” where people will have the opportunity to share the untold stories behind homelessness in Chicago. They will also be launching “Project Period” in March, in which they will be fighting to end the taboo surrounding female menstruation, and raising funds for feminine hygiene products for women in need. In August of 2018, La Casa Norte plans to unveil their Foundation Project: a brand new, state-of-the-art facility including housing units, showers, a food pantry, a nutrition center, an employment training center, and a medical health center.
At La Casa Norte, they work endlessly to support any and all individuals who come knocking on their doors because they truly believe in their mission of transforming lives and communities here in Chicago!
Call to Action:
Twenty-two million. That’s the number of refugees worldwide living outside their home country. The U.S. has made efforts to combat this crisis, resettling over 3 million refugees since 1975, but giving refugees a safe place to call home is only the first step.
Founded in August of 2011, GirlForward began when founder Blair Brettschneider started to work with a refugee resettlement agency. Brettschneider noticed that girls especially had trouble accessing resources, and with all the refugees resettling in Chicago, GirlForward was born as a reaction to the community’s needs.
GirlForward aims to provide girls with better access to education and opportunities to explore and express their identities. Though GirlForward has evolved since its founding more than six years ago, its primary focus remains the same: building its programs around the interests of the girls, making sure they each have a voice to allow them to dictate how the programs run and change.
GirlForward offers three programs aimed at girls ages 14-22 years old:
- The Mentoring Program pairs girls with mentors meant to serve as role models, friends, and someone to confide in. The ultimate goal of this program is for the girls to graduate high school, but it also aims to help them foster relationships, human connections, and mutual respect between themselves and their mentors.
- The Safe Space Project provides designated safe spaces allowing girls access to resources like books, computers, and tutors, as well as opportunities to connect with other girls and explore their own identities. These safe spaces are open to any high school girl, regardless of her status in the U.S. There are three in-school centers, as well one at the GirlForward headquarters located on Devon Avenue in Edgewater/Rogers Park.
- Camp GirlForward is an academic summer program centered around English language learning with an emphasis on establishing community and encouraging social justice. Camp GirlForward is targeted towards girls coming to the U.S. as teenage refugees.
Ashley Marine, GirlForward’s Director of Girl Engagment, works as a manager dealing with program design and evaluation as well as working on the ground as a staff facilitator and, most importantly, collaborating with the girls served by GirlForward to continue to build programs and curriculums based on their interests and needs.
As one of GirlForward’s first staff members, Marine has witnessed the organization’s growth and evolution and has seen all that’s been accomplished. One of the accomplishments she’s most proud of is how the Chicago community has come together to support its girls and young women, and how the staff continues to challenge and be critical of larger systems of oppression. The most rewarding experience, Marine says, is seeing the girls express themselves and explore their identities by setting and achieving goals.
With programs already established in Chicago and Austin, Texas, as GirlForward looks to the future, there is talk of expanding to yet another city. Through this process, though, the emphasis remains on meaningful growth that includes the girls’ voices and lets them have a say.
CALL TO ACTION
Featured as our Riser of January is Hugo Colin. At 16 years old, Hugh volunteers his time at various nursing homes, hospitals, and non-profits around Chicago offering tribute performances to Elvis Presley, and he pulls out all the stops. Between the costumes and the dynamic performances, Hugo is sure to show his audiences a good time.
How did you start doing this work? In kindergarten, I was six years old, and I performed my first Elvis songs just for fun for my school’s first annual PTA Talent Show. While I was in elementary school, I learned to perform a different Elvis song each year. I have been an Elvis fan all my life, and singing these great songs made me realize that lots of people still like to hear Elvis’ hits. After my final talent show in 8th grade, I really wanted to continue performing because I saw how happy people were to see this type of entertainment. The following summer, I started volunteering at local senior nursing homes and not for profit organizations (NFPOs) such as the Ronald McDonald House, Shriners Children’s Hospital, and the Misericordia Home.
Why do you keep doing it? Having the opportunity to volunteer my ‘tribute to Elvis’ performances for seniors and friends with special needs is a big honor. My family helps me out all the time. We see that the people sometimes look down and uninterested but then they start tapping their feet, dancing in their seats, and by the end of my show they all are bursting with happiness. Maybe because most of them remember the music from their teenage years, or maybe because they are Elvis fans, too. Elvis songs just get people feeling young and full of excitement. The energy that I bring to nursing homes and hospitals makes them feel as happy as I am to be there.
Do you think celebrating what you have is important? I can say that it is important to me, as an Elvis fan, to share my talent and and do what I can to add a little more happiness to the lives of my audience at nursing homes and hospitals. We all get to enjoy ourselves during the tribute show, and the enthusiasm stays with the my new friends as they leave. I get to celebrate my gift every time I make someone happy during my performance. This makes me the most proud of myself and my family and is why I love to perform for others. I know many will be even more happy waiting for me to return for my next performance with them.
What is your favorite quote? I’ll quote Elvis here because this is exactly how it is for me when my family and I walk into a new place and see that we have a tough crowd. But once I get going, they put their worries aside for a while and start enjoying themselves: “Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do ’em all together, I guess.” I’ve had the opportunity to perform for audiences of all ages and a few that don’t speak English. Great music speaks many languages. Music makes people feel good. Elvis music makes people feel even better. And I am glad to do what I love to do for them.
If you could teach any subject, what would you teach? After thinking this over, I decided on history. Maybe music history. Kids my age know a few Elvis songs because of the Disney movie, “Lilo & Stitch” and his biggest hits or else not at all. I would like to teach kids the history of rock’n’roll and all the different styles that lead up to the first sounds of rock’n’roll. Actually, I do mention a small bit of historical information as I introduce each song. That helps teach or remind the audience of a point in time when the music was new. These great songs that Elvis recorded over 60 years ago and recognized around the world will live on for another generation to appreciate, with a little help from me.
If you could pass a message to a large group of people, what would it be? “Volunteer any way you can; if you have a talent, share it.” Year after year, I enjoyed performing Elvis songs but after I graduated elementary school and knew I wouldn’t have anymore talent shows, I decided to volunteer at places in my neighborhood. I do get bookings for paid performances now, but I still look forward to the volunteer shows at great NFPOs around Chicago. Our small act of kindness is a special way to give back for all our blessings.
CALL TO ACTION
Check out Hugo’s Instagram, @hugoselvista, for information about his performances around Chicago!