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Natalie Y. Moore: Setting goals to improve South, West sides

Shari Runner, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Nothing irritates me more than hearing that black people don’t care about their neighborhoods or so-called “black-on-black crime.” I see black folk all the time working to improve their communities in Chicago. Whether block clubs, volunteer organizations or community groups, efficacy runs deep even if one doesn’t see it.

OPINION

One group that’s gotten a lot of attention for their work in Englewood is Mothers Against Senseless Killings (M.A.S.K.) This intergenerational group of mothers – donned in pink shirts and matching black hats – occupies the corner of 75th and Stewart every single day of the summer. They spread out a pink tablecloth for the spread of food they barbeque, followed by dessert, usually ice cream. Sounds of Earth Wind & Fire and Chris Brown blare from the speakers. Patrolling the block and creating a consistence presence are how these mothers physically respond to violence in an area previously known for gun play.

I’ve been able to spend some time with the mom patrol, and it’s pretty amazing to see their daily commitment to ensure children have a safe place to congregate and eat. And simply be joyful in summertime. But I’ve realized despite their laudable efforts, the moms can’t fix the sidewalks of Englewood by themselves.

The corner of 75th and Stewart is the intersection of myriad problems that afflict black South and West Side neighborhoods. One block north a man sells “loosies,” or single cigarettes in a vacant lot. Recall, Eric Garner died in New York at the hands of police, and he sold loosies. This is part of the underground economy in Englewood in which jobs are scarce and unemployment high. The fact that he’s plying his trade in a vacant lot illustrates idle land that is ripe for redevelopment.

A number of abandoned homes are on Stewart Avenue, chipping away at their neighbors’ housing values. Several boarded-up buildings line 75th Street. Aesthetically, the ones that are open are ugly. There’s a liquor store. Inside, there’s a paucity of healthful food. Englewood has high rates of preventable diseases.

Women with substance abuse problems approach the M.A.S.K. asking for food. Another woman with mental health issues causes a scene by cussing out one of the moms over something trivial.

In that small radius, I see lack of economic development, unemployment in real time, a crisis in housing, lack of mental health facilities. These are deep-seated structural issues rooted in racial segregation and economic inequality. No one mom or group can unravel this decades-long web of inequity.

That’s why it’s promising to hear what the Chicago Urban League has in mind. As the organization celebrates its centennial, the group has released a blueprint to improve black South and West Side neighborhoods over the next 10 years. The three areas focus on jobs, wealth building and education.

  • Increase the black graduation rate by 15 percent.
  • Increase black youth employment by 30 percent.
  • Increase black adult employment by 20 percent.
  • Increase black business ownership by 5 percent.
  • Increase black homeownership by 10 percent.

“The first step will really be to take this as a watershed moment in our community. This kind of discussion about race, about how that is impacting our community — not just the African-American community but the city of Chicago as a whole has to be had. And we really need to start to think: Where are we?” Chicago Urban League President and CEO Shari Runner told me.

This report comes on the heels of a study the Chicago Urban League put out earlier this year about “persistent segregation” in 19 Chicago neighborhoods. The blueprint is smart in how it addresses gun violence, which people often talk about as a cause of inequality, not a symptom. Runner said gun violence is a symptom of poverty and inequality.

“As we talk about gun violence, we talk about that being one of the most impactful things that’s happening to our community that’s deterring investment. As people see these communities as violent and lawless, they don’t want to come back to these communities,” Runner said.

Runner said over the next year the Chicago Urban League will partner with community groups while engaging corporate and civic partners to execute the 10-year plan. If the city and business sector come on board, all of the seemingly intractable problems on the South and West Side can recover. And then the moms of Englewood group won’t seem like they’re working in isolation.

Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”

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