The 2015 Matthew Freeman Social Justice Lecture and Awards at Roosevelt University in Chicago were given and presented this year on March 26, 2015. The lecture was given by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Mr. Ortiz is a highly-honored photographer and photojournalist, and his presentation was therefore much more visual than many previous lectures. Based on the photographs from his book and gallery display “We All We Got”, the images and accompanying talk focused upon the lives of poor people of color in Chicago, particularly those of families of young people who had been killed, often as incidental victims. Ortiz developed long-lasting relationships with some of these families, and his photographs document that, even with these losses, life goes on.
But it does not go on smoothly or easily. Affixed to the back cover of his book is a fold-out list, by year, from 2007 to 2014, of the hundreds and hundreds of Chicago Public School students who have been victims of gunshots and stabbing deaths. In his talk, Ortiz notes that in more affluent suburban communities, such premature deaths are rare and often kept from young people, while on the south and west sides of Chicago grammar school classes may be taken to the funerals and wakes, such as that of Siretha White in 2006 pictured below. Diane Latiker and her husband are building a memorial, brick by brick, to young people lost to violence. Begun in 2007, it has more than 370 stones, and Ortiz tell us, is behind by more than 200.
We who are not part of these communities may see them as apart; indeed one mural depicts downtown Chicago as separated from their neighborhood by almost-impassable mountains (there are, in case you wondered, no mountains in Chicago). Our news media nationally cover tragedies involving the death of white young people as at Columbine and Sandy Hook; local news may cover the accidental killings of young Black girls such as Siretha White, but the deaths of young Black men, who may have been linked to gangs, is not news. But their families, and communities, suffer, as does our whole society which affords them no future.
This theme is tied to that noted by Richard E. Wallace, one of the amazing Roosevelt students to receive the Matthew Freeman Award. Wallace, who is a father and labor organizer while maintaining a straight-A average, works with day laborers. These people awake at 4am every day to be in line to be picked up so they can work for minimum wage doing tasks from backbreaking physical labor to shipping your Amazon packages so that they can provide at least minimal housing, food, and water for their families. With this life of constant work for barely subsistence wage, they have no hope of getting out or advancing, recalling the lives of ante-bellum slaves in the South. He is one of the founding members of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network at Roosevelt, and the professor who nominated him said “I have probably learned as much, if not more, from Richard Wallace as he has learned from me. I think he is one of the brightest and best embodiments of the university’s mission that we have seen.”
Danielle Cooperstock, the other reward recipient, is also amazing. She “is majoring in Social Justice Studies with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. In 2012, Danielle connected with PIRG through a transformational learning course on educational and economic inequality issues. She continues to work with this community organization and many others to this day. For the past two years, Danielle has worked as a student disability and peer mentor at the Academic Success Center. Additionally, she is a crucial leader of two Roosevelt activist groups, RISE and RU Proud, both of which motivate other Roosevelt students toward social justice goals.”
These are two incredible young people, and I had a desperately-needed sense of hope and optimism on meeting them and hearing what they have done. And I thank Roosevelt University for its explicit social justice mission and its nurturance and support of students like these two. Should you have the capability, it is certainly worthy of your support.