Michael Neal, 54, began his “Real Men Read,” program in one classroom six years ago.
Now known as “Leading with Literacy,” the program is in 12 Bronzeville schools and in two schools in Cincinnati.
All volunteers who go into the classrooms to read are male.
In the school where Neal first introduced the literacy program, there were no men.
“The custodian was female. The security officer was female. I was like the super hero,” Neal said at a King Day event held at Alpha Baptist Church in Bolingbrook on Monday.
Besides being a literacy advocate, Neal is pastor of Glorious Light Church in Bronzeville. He is passionate about books because he sees reading as one way to reduce the violence that plagues too many neighborhoods.
“We will continue to see all the violence because people have not had an opportunity to know who they are,” Neal told the gathering.
“If we don’t read to them when they are 5 years old, we are going to have to call the policeman when they are 15,” he said.
Volunteers aren’t asked to make a long-term commitment.
“We read a book. Ask some questions and say, ‘I will see you next week.’ And you are on your way. It is perfect for a retired or semi-retired man. We ask for men because [the children] already see women every day,” Neal pointed out.
“We’ve got an opportunity as a community and part of the body of Christ and as men to step up and preserve our future generation,” he said.
Born and raised on the South Side, Neal launched Glorious Light Church in Bronzeville in 2008.
The church moved into the shuttered Price Elementary School at 4351 S. Drexel Blvd., after it was closed amid protests in 2011.
Price has since been repurposed as a community hub that includes the church, City Year, and Timothy Community Corporation, the not-for-profit community development arm of Neal’s ministry.
The facility now provides STEM classes — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — yoga, Zumba, spin, kickboxing and health and wellness classes. An Alzheimer’s Town Hall is planned for Jan. 27 and a cancer awareness event is scheduled for March.
“I already had a vision of a multi-use place where there would be various activities. I presented the idea to CPS and we were allowed to continue to lease the space,” Neal told me.
The repurposing has not been without critics, however.
“I think the losing of Price was a tragedy in our neighborhood,” noted Jitu Brown, a grassroots community organizer who vigorously protested the school’s closing.
“If a school must close, then I think repurposing the building has to be a community-driven process to determine what happens to that space,” he said.
“A church provides spiritual service, but a church inside an elementary school?” he asked.
“I don’t think we should have empty buildings in our community, but we also can’t have public spaces used for private purposes,” Brown said.
CPS turned over the task of repurposing these shuttered school buildings to aldermen. Six of the 50 schools abandoned in 2013 have been repurposed for CPS or city use. Twenty-one buildings have sale agreements approved by the Board of Education, and one building is leased.
“We have been actively working to find new uses for the remaining 17 properties,” Michael Passman, a spokesman for Chicago Public Schools, said in an email.
“In a lot of communities, they never resolved what they wanted to do, and instead of having these buildings sit around, they’ve been put out in the market so they can be used for something,” Passman told me.
As Neal has shown, there is a way for communities to get some real benefit out of these closed structures.
“Organically, we’ve got an opportunity to be a model as to what can happen without funding and without major backing,” he told me. “We are showing the city that these buildings have value and this is what we can do with them.”