Sydney Paul: November 2011 Archives


As we approach Thanksgiving Day, food seems to more often find its way into any and every conversation. This was not the case at Chicago Studies' first Social Justice Potluck for the academic year, but food did play a very important role. The theme at the launch event, which happened Tuesday evening on November 22nd, was "Soup and Bread". Inspired by The Hideout's Soup and Bread, where the north side bar holds weekly potlucks, Chicago Studies, in collaboration with the University Community Service Center, invited students to the Center to discuss social justice campaigns and community-building opportunities over some yummy soup, salad and bread courtesy of the Medici.

During the get together students talked about a wide array of issues including the south side trauma center campaign, policies regarding protesting, and the global Occupy Movement. A chill group of around 12 students and staff members who came to participate and relax before the holiday break rolls and more important the rush of studying that comes with final exams. They came from a variety of backgrounds and RSOs including SOUL, Student Health Equity and an exciting and possibly up-and-coming group called The Freedom Project. The group covered a lot of opinions over the course of the evening. Questions were raised, for example, about the disciplinary process involved in protesting policies and the effect of social media on the physical protesting in the streets. Listening to the multitude of perspectives on these topics is a refreshing experience. It's always humbling to witness civically and socially engaged students in action here at UChicago.

This potluck is a part of an event series that will run throughout the academic year. The goal is to generate discussion on socially and civically important issues and the launch certainly accomplished that. Individuals will gather to discuss specific themes generated though readings or simple curiosity and probing. The potluck will also become a great venue for collaboration amongst activists though sharing experiences and telling their stories. Chicago Studies is looking forward to many more refreshing events like this potluck launch event and hope that students are too.

Civic Engagement Beyond the University

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[photo by: scottchan]

Today's young adults are part of an extremely active generation. We are opinionated, vocal, passionate individuals who feel obligated and inclined to make a difference. Many college students do this through community service at their university, through social activism, community volunteering or tutoring, for example. It's refreshing to see that this call for service has been answered by so many when many areas of our community, locally and nationally are in need of support.

In addition to the assistance that these civically oriented students provide to their communities, civic engagement also benefits the provider as well. Sometimes the work they do during college can translate into career choices after graduation or as the next step toward finding a home for that spark for change ignited within them during college. Community work can be a very challenging experience and many college students are tested intellectually, mentally, emotionally and socially. What's great is that you're sure to come out stronger in the end.

When thinking about a career in social service, community support or social activism, there are challenging but also rewarding aspects of the work that are worth highlighting. Education is a great example. Teachers are part one of the most challenging professions, but are some the strongest individuals in our society because of it.

The University of Chicago produces many Teach for America (TFA) corps members. TFA is a non-profit organization dedicated to closing the education gap in low income communities across the United States, where children are not receiving proper schooling because of economic and social limitations. Current UChicago students can learn a lot from alumni who are in the program, not only if one is considering applying, but also as a sneak peek into social service and activism as a career.

Chloe Aaman, AB '10, is a current TFA corps member working at a public school in South Baltimore City, Maryland. Her work with 6-7 year old first graders has taught her a lot in terms of national education issues of course, but more broadly has built her character in ways she never imagined.

A Step toward Career Commitment

"I realized one day working with people is something I'd like to do, before I lock myself in another ivory tower for 6-8 years [of graduate school], and so I applied to TFA. I've never wanted to be a teacher before, nor is TFA a leisurely way to spend your time between undergrad and grad school, but somehow I ended up in Baltimore City and I'm committed to seeing this through."

Social service and activism is an enduring path. Those choose that route enter into an arena where every day is different than the next. It is a profession of patience and adaptability, but it can also be seen as an adventure which makes an appealing option. That curiousity and attraction to such a challenge even if you're not sure if it's the right path, might be the only warrant needed to begin that journey.

Chloe didn't go in with any expectations, other than to be challenged in news ways. She admits, "I expected, in other words, for the experience to defy all expectations. It has." Though this wasn't her calling per se, she's committed to its tasks, difficult or otherwise, unexpected or assumed. When thinking about civically and socially oriented work, expect trials but approach them as constructive challenges. Like Chloe, you will certainly be surprised by what you find.

Rewards Count

The biggest reward in social work is the impact you have on the community you're working with. Though it might be tough to recognize, effort does make a difference.

"Helping kids reach their "a-ha!" moments is extremely gratifying. By the same token, the kids will let you know if you've screwed up. They won't be shy about it, either!"

"All of my kids want to go to the University of Chicago, since it's one of the only universities they've heard of. I think I'll be writing many letters of recommendation down the road!"

Aaman's work produces benefits both ways. The children minds are opened and enlightened, but at the same time she also learns from them. This mutual relationship is a classic "pro" in community work and why so many are hooked once they begin. It's a great feeling.

It's Not About You

"Everything you do is done with someone else in mind--your success is defined by the success of twenty-seven roly-poly, whiny, hilarious, challenging six year olds."

Those who fight for communities in need of support put all their energy into the people they plan to have an impact on. When a student enters this environment after college, it calls even more sacrifice than before. Though that might seem daunting, the outcome of that sacrifice outweighs the worries one might have. Chloe's might spend every night, maybe even weekends, preparing classwork and activities for her students. She might not even have much time for herself, but her work is ensuring her students have a chance to succeed in life intellectually, socially and economically. For some, that's what keeps them going.

The Character Builder

"Every teacher has her dark days--the days students threaten her--the days young boys get into fistfights--the days babies come in with bruises--the days success seems impossibly far off--the days she doesn't sleep or have time to eat--the days she swears she'll quit and accept the cushy job that her education prepared her for. It requires a sureness of self that many of my peers (myself included) have had to pick up on the go, and it's an experience that's caused almost all of us to question our capacity for change and dedication."

Community service and social activism many times become a journey of self-discovery. But as Chloe mentions, it doesn't come without trials and challenges. It involves testing your beliefs, putting oneself in another's shoes and acting in sometimes uncomfortable situations for a greater good. Through these tests, social servants come out more sure of themselves, more sure of the philosophies and views on society and life. You come out stronger. Be prepared. More importantly, be excited.

10 Questions for a Student Activist

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Sophia Kortchmar, a 4th year American History major in the College, is one many civically active students at the University of Chicago.  Including her current work tutoring at Kenwood Academy and volunteering at the Michael Barlow Center, the Hyde Park resident and native New Yorker has also done work with  a variety of community organizations, like Southside Solidarity Network and the Transformative Justice Law Project.  It's safe to say that she's a pretty busy body and this work is definitely a part of what defines her.  But what's great is that there's more to learn!  We asked Sophia to let us learn a little more about her--behind the student activist:


What inspires you and why?

Other people. All kinds of people - the people I read about, the people I work with, the people I teach and learn from. I am incredibly inspired, at this moment, by the collaboration and organizing going on with Fearless Leading by the Youth and Students for Health Equity; I am totally bowled over on a regular basis by the absolute fierceness of my adult students, I'm really stoked about a conference USAS and MEChA are having this weekend; I'm inspired by people talking about income inequality in ways that push on my imagination; I'm inspired by the people I know who are struggling right now and get up and try to just do the best they can anyway,  - and by the everyday manifestations of passion and compassion and vision rolling out all over the place.  I'm a lucky lady I guess - I get inspired at least 10 times a day.


If your life had a sound track what song would you pick for it?

I only get one song? That's no good - my life has too many parts too it! That's why I listen to the radio. Actually, 95.5 is sort of the soundtrack to my life right now, not gonna lie. Ostensibly it helps me keep up my Spanish; actually, its more like it just makes me get up and dance around the living room sometimes.


What's your favorite place in Hyde Park/Woodlawn/Washington Park? Why?

The 57th street beach, always - when its full of people and energy and a million degrees in the middle of August, or when it is a quiet winter morning and you crunch through the ice to see the sunrise, or when it is May and not quite warm enough for swimming, but you do anyway, and are so so glad. 63rd street pier is a close second though.


Tell us something unexpected about yourself.

I dunno, I'm pretty predictable- maybe the last painfully unexpected thing I did was to spend about 5 minutes unconscious after I got my last flu shot. I definitely wasn't expecting that - but apparently I am the kind of person who read enough Victorian novels as a child to keel over when needles are involved.  Also, I like anchovies quite a lot, which many people find odd. Only people who haven't had spaghetti and anchovies how I make it, though.


If you could have a drink with someone from Chicago's history (alive or deceased) who would it be?

See that's tricky, too, because I actually would really like to have a drink with a bunch of people working on the reform of the Cook County Jail in the 1920s - that would make writing a history thesis about them so much easier! But then I wonder if they were all prohibitionists - probably, right? So that makes that harder...


What makes you laugh?

This one time, my dearly beloved rooomate and I had to clean out my grandmother's fridge - she (my grandma), who is a terrible hoarder, had been away for 3 weeks and the power in the fridge had been off for at least 2..and oh my word.  I have never before or since seen such extraordinary mold formations, never encounted so many half-consumed decaying pickles, never lobbed green fuzzy grapefruits  down a garbage shoot with such glee, never laughed so hard in my life.

I mean, there are lots of things to laugh about. You just have to have someone to laugh about them with.


What would your ideal weekend look like?

This one is shaping up to be pretty good- it is thoroughly suffused with good friends, lecture at the CSRPC this evening, giant margaritas, an organizing workshop, a new archive to dig around in, some letter writing, some salsa dancing, reading for class I'm actually excited about, and leftover squash risotto.  Drizzle some sunshine on top of that and I can't complain, really. 

The most most ideal though? That would probably have a poetry slam in it. And maybe an adventure to a neighborhood I've never been. And probably a picnic by the lake. In a month that was not November. But so it goes.


Favorite community service project.

I don't know if I think about "community service" projects much - because I think that "service" and "activism" are tied together, and because I think about "social justice work" more than I think of either of those. 

But you know what was absolutely great? Coordinating Summer Links. That might not count, but it was in the UCSC, so its related to Community Service at least. And wow, was it a project. In the best possible way.


Most fun thing you've done this Fall.

Good lord, I have no idea. I think fun is a sort of secondary category, and not a super useful one: things are valuable in a thousand different ways, and there are a million different kinds of joy to get out of them.


Best advice you've ever received.

My mom always says to me, "Everyone is their own universe. Remember that." That's pretty good advice.

 A good friend told me once that the best organizers are not always the people who work themselves into a state of ragged sleep-deprivation and insanity, but also people who take good enough care of themselves to have something to give, sustainably, and joyfully. And I think that's true. 

And there is a line in a Lucille Clifton poem I like, which asks, "What have you ever traveled towards/ more than your own safely?" - which is not exactly advice, but more like a prodding reminder to challenge myself. And I value that immensely.




(photo by: worradmu)

"Music can change the world because it can change people." This is just one of the many reasons why the arts are an important part of the human experience and U2 front man, Bono, couldn't have said it any better. Music allows you to feel emotion, express oneself and think creatively. With music as an already proven constructive asset, the arts should naturally be an integral part of a person's development; and where better to start than with our children? 

Unfortunately, music and other art forms have fallen by the wayside in many schools in the United States. Arts education programs across the nation are being cut from schools because of lack of funding and government support, though evidence that the arts are important to a child's educational growth has been brought to the table. For example, university studies show that "middle school and high school students who participated in instrumental music performances scored significantly higher than their non-band peers in standardized tests". Results like these have yet to be translated into concrete programs where kids can learn the art form in some communities.

Chicago is unfortunately not an exception to the trend. Many of the city's public schools have programs that are of poor quality or practically nonexistent. Kids have very few ways of expressing themselves, let alone discovering their talents. Some groups on the South Side, however, are hoping to make a difference by helping students find the music within.
"In my life, music has been a source of strength and comfort, and the opportunities exist on a logistical level in our program to invite people to participate in that, who might not otherwise have been able to" said Noah Moskowitz, a 4th year student at UChicago.

Noah is referring to a program called South Side Free Music Program (SSFMP). In the program, students from the University of Chicago go to after-school programs at community centers and schools on the South Side to teach kids how to play music and instruments. After only a year and a half, SSFMP already has 32 UChicago students working with over 60 kids from the surrounding neighborhoods, teaching anything from the cello to the flute to the drums. Currently, the program is held at three locations: K.L.E.O. Community Family Life Center near Washington Park, Sexton Elementary School in Woodlawn, and Goodspeed Hall on UChicago's campus. It's a very impressive feat for such a young program.

Moskowitz, who is the founder and president of SSMP, has been playing music since he can remember, and giving kids in the surrounding neighborhood the opportunity to have that experience is very important to him. For him, what started as a simple desire to "jam" with these kids has turned into a call to the campus community, to help open opportunities for artistic expression that weren't available to the children before.

"The areas adjacent to the University are well known for being some of the poorest in Chicago and marked by lack of access to good education, healthcare, employment, etc." he explains. "I feel disgusted and stressed by this state of affairs, and indifference has not been an effective way for me to address that feeling." The University has one of the best music programs in the country and with that, SSFMP students are using their access and education to give kids a similar opportunity.

Audio production is Noah's focus this year as a teacher, which has been a very exciting class for many of his students. Though the program works with kids as young as four, he is working with high schoolers who are entranced by the work they do in his class. With that skill, we might see the tons of young Kanye's coming out of South Side as claimed by some of Noah colleagues. That excitement from community partners, as well as the kids, is a great motivator for the progression of arts in education and evidence of its effectiveness.

South Side Free Music Program doesn't just benefit the kids however--the UChicago student teachers get something out of it too. Noah explained that "the program causes its student teachers to make contact with a population and community they might otherwise not have." The interactions that UChicago students have with their surrounding community help the challenge stereotypes that they are privy to at the University as well increasing their awareness to the present disparities in the area.

With all its success thus far, there isn't much that Moskwowitz hopes for the program in the near future. Of course, he'd like growth in terms of participants, as well as to see more spaces for social engagements and performances. But as a graduating senior, he also will be passing the baton on to his fellow peers with the simple hope that it continues to live on.

"This program gives me the opportunity to deal productively with the disgust and stress our social environment gives me, and to lessen it to whatever extent the program is effective. This disgust and stress will not dissipate until the South Side looks very different, [so] I am driven to keep it running", exclaimed Noah.

Noah's passion for music shows how powerful it can be. It is one of the most creative forms of expression and conjures up so many different emotions: sadness, happiness, anger--it's give you a sense of liberation. The kids on the South Side need a medium like music to express themselves, especially when they live in an environment that has caused them to struggle intellectually and emotionally. South Side Free Music Program has become that refuge to escape and be constructive about how they feel. Whether a four year is picking up a saxophone as big as he is, or a high school student makes the next beat of the year, Noah Moskowitz and the program's other teachers are excited that their passions are becoming someone else passions too--someone who might not have even known it was option to explore.

"There's a sense that I shouldn't be doing this. If there were any justice, I wouldn't have to" said Moskowitz. "[But] I'm acutely aware of the power of music and it's something I can give to them."