Carrying Black History forward

Over the decades, musicians, writers and activists have shaped the narrative of a vibrant Black Chicago. Here are three Black activists and organizations carrying the legacy of Black Chicago forward.

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Zahara Bassett, CEO and founder of Life Is Work, stands in the organization’s thrift store, Solidarity Resale, in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side.

Zahara Bassett, CEO and founder of Life Is Work, stands in the organization’s thrift store, Solidarity Resale, in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Zahara Bassett was born on Chicago’s West Side, the fourth of six children. She’s a transgender Black woman, an identity she began to grow into when she was 13 — and which got her kicked out of the house at age 15.

For 13 years, Bassett was a sex worker, sometimes homeless. But she kept pushing forward.

“I traveled the world. ... I pushed myself to continue to go to school and seek education, a better life for myself,” said Bassett, now 38.

That’s how Life is Work was born. What started with Bassett and a friend holding Christmas feasts on the West Side soon turned into a resource center for other trans-identifying people of color.

Over the decades, musicians, writers, activists and others have shaped a vibrant Black Chicago.Here’s a look at Bassett and a few other Black Chicagoans carrying that legacy of change forward.

Zahara Bassett, Life is Work

Zahara Bassett, CEO and founder of Life Is Work, works at her desk in the organization’s resource center in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side, Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 16, 2022.

Zahara Bassett, CEO and founder of Life Is Work, works at her desk in the organization’s resource center in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

On June 19, Life is Work opened their office and Solidarity Resale thrift store at 5463 W. Chicago Ave., where Bassett and her team also provide resources for their community. In 2020, they partnered with Prairie Management on a housing program.

Tenants can be in the program up to two years, renting affordable apartments through Life is Work. They rebuild their credit while also getting help with job training and employment.

Life is Work also offers help with legal services, medical care through a partnership with Cook County Health and filing tax returns.

“My trajectory on success is owning a block,” Bassett said. “I want to see a grocery store, I want to see a laundromat, I want to see a full-service wraparound clinic, all trans-operated. ... I see something that’s going to expand what we have into a trans district and I want to be a part of that.”

Isiah ThoughtPoetsOpinion Veney

Isiah Veney, a photographer, writer and organizer, outside his home in Englewood.

Isiah Veney, a photographer, writer and organizer, outside his home in Englewood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“Screw the logical, continue to dream.” That’s the agenda of South Side artist Isiah ThoughtPoetsOpinion Veney, who writes and takes pictures, working out of his West Englewood apartment.

“I used to really not value that I was from here,” said Veney, “because, like most oppression when it comes to Black and Brown families, when you’re not taught your heritage or where you come from, you really don’t care for it.”

But that dislike changed around as Veney graduated from high school and began writing for Truestar Magazine.

“Once I started realizing that myself as a creative who has power to tell these stories, that’s when I started realizing everything that makes Chicago so magnificent,” said Veney, 30.

In 2013, he began his #HeartMelanin photography series, highlighting “the embodiment of the Black and Brown experience.”

This photo, part of Veney’s #soulsunday series, a collaboration with Chicago stylist Bella Royale featuring artists and individuals working to change their community.

This photo is part of Veney’s #soulsunday series, a collaboration with Chicago stylist Bella Royale featuring artists and individuals working to change their community.

Provided/Isiah ThoughtPoetsOpinion Veney

Veney’s latest series is based on what Black Chicago would look like without police. He calls it his love letter to this city.

“It’s picking up on everything; the good, the bad, the extremely ugly, but the present and the future,” said Veney. “Whether we’re talking about gun violence or we’re talking about lack of resources for a community or we’re talking about taking down statues, these are things that happen when you’re trying to actually fight not just for abolition, but for a better world.”

Young, Black & Lit

Co-founders of Young, Black & Lit, Derrick and Krenice Ramsey had a simple goal for creating their non-profit in 2018: increase access to books featuring Black characters.

Co-founders of Young, Black & Lit, Derrick and Krenice Ramsey had a simple goal for creating their non-profit in 2018: increase access to books featuring Black characters.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

In 2018, Krenice Ramsey was shopping for books for her niece but quickly became frustrated.

“I really wanted the books to feature little Black girls because she was a little Black girl,” said Ramsey, 37. “I went into one of the big chain bookstores trying to find children’s books with a little Black girl, and it was not easy to find.”

Ramsey began searching online for books featuring Black girls. She found 50, and donated them to local organizations. Her then-boyfriend, now-husband Derrick Ramsey said she should next donate books featuring Black boys.

“Everybody was like, ‘I’ve never seen some of these books before!’”Krenice Ramsey said. “And Derrick then was like, maybe there’s something more here. Maybe we should try to expand this.”

Six weeks later, they were filing for tax-exempt status for Young, Black & Lit.

What started as a monthly donation of 50 books grew to 1,000 books per month. Since May 2018, Young Black & Lit has donated 32,861 books to schools, churches and hospitals.

Any organization can apply for donations through the Young, Black & Lit website, Derrick Ramsey said, so long as they’re in the U.S. and serve low-income youth.

Now they’re looking forward to summer, when they hope to take them into communities around the city. They also want to find books featuring Black LGBTQ children, and Black characters who live with disabilities.

“Every child deserves to see themselves in the stories that they read,” said Krenice Ramsey. “When you see yourself in the stories that you read, you feel valued. You feel like who you are has value, you feel like your community, your family, your culture, your experiences are an important part of this world.”

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