Over the Labor Day weekend, I’ve been thinking about what it means to do hard work. Hard work is filled with lots of little details that eventually pay off in the long-term, but aren’t much fun to hear about until you see the results.
I’d been thinking about what hard work looks like because of some news stories about Jaheim Benton and his South Side teammates from Jackie Robinson West, this year’s United States Little League champions. Just days after the team’s victory, the Sun-Times reported Benton, along with his mother and father, had been sleeping in the homes of friends and family for the past few months. Both parents work, but have been unable to pay their rent on two part-time salaries.
The story was a stunning contrast to the events of a few days before at a homecoming rally for Benton and his teammates at Millennium Park. Many of Chicago’s most powerful — the mayor, the governor, the State’s Attorney General and others — took the stage to praise the Jackie Robinson West team for its skill on the field. All were happy to celebrate the win and connect their names to a Chicago victory.
The question on the minds of many was whether any of the politicians who shared the stage with Benton earlier in the week would step up and be there for him now that his family needed help.
They didn’t. But the neighborhood did.
Leak and Sons Funeral Home offered to pay the family’s rent for a year. A South Side institution that has seen the effects of violence firsthand, Leak and Sons is no stranger to helping those in need, often providing discounted or pro bono funeral services to those who can’t otherwise afford it. Other offers of assistance followed from various South Side institutions, including one from Leo High School in AuburnGresham, which offered Benton’s mother a job.
It’s easy to show up to a victory rally. It’s harder to show up when there’s lots of work to do and no cameras around. But the politicians were silent even though an offer of help would have been an easy win for them. Would it have been an obvious piece of political grandstanding? Sure. But no moreso than their appearance at the rally.
The reason they didn’t is simple: People in power only like to take credit for a win, not blame for a loss.
The South Side has seen plenty of loss in the last year. Twenty out of the 49 Chicago Public Schools were closed in this part of the city. It also sees a higher proportion of gun deaths and shootings. Many of these neighborhoods are starved for economic resources as well. These facts are all interrelated and help to explain why a family like Jaheim Benton’s would be homeless.
The politicians who shared in Jackie Robinson West’s win don’t want to acknowledge their part in preventing any of the above.
Jaheim Benton’s family has a solution now. But what about all those other families who are on the brink, but don’t have the benefit of a Little League World Series victory to bring attention to their plight? The young men of Jackie Robinson West either live in or live close to neighborhoods that make headlines due to gun violence. But they’re also supported by families, churches and schools.Their victory and the offers of help from Leak and Sons and Leo High School show what is possible when we stop thinking there are either “good” or “bad” neighborhoods.
Local businesses are present in a community for more than just the exchange of goods and services and public schools are a lynchpin of safety and stability for families with an uncertain home life. When we don’t work to create strong networks of both in our neighborhoods and instead save those tax dollars for downtown, we aren’t investing in our city’s long-term future.
This story is also a reminder that a systemic problem in any of Chicago’s neighborhoods — violence, poverty, failing schools or homelessness — is a problem in our own.
It’s something the politicians at Jackie Robinson West’s victory rally should remember, too: The victories of our youth come only when we take the steps necessary to prevent the losses. It’s hard work that starts long before anyone takes the stage.
Scott Smith is from the South Side. You can follow him on Twitter@ourmaninchicago.