A Chicago youth group continues its slain leader’s fight for safety, housing and health care

Community members, friends and family of Damian Turner prepare to march outside the University of Chicago Medical Center. Turner died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital downtown after being hit by a stray bullet near 61st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in August 2010. His family and friends think he would have lived if he could have been treated at the University of Chicago, just blocks away. [Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz]

Community members, friends and family of Damian Turner prepare to march outside the University of Chicago Medical Center. Turner died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital downtown after being hit by a stray bullet near 61st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in August 2010. His family and friends think he would have lived if he could have been treated at the University of Chicago, just blocks away. [Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz]

On a cold November evening, the strip of 75th Street in Englewood felt bleak and deserted, lined by boarded-up and dilapidated buildings. Outside a liquor store, young men appeared hyper-aware—on the lookout for conflict or danger.  But the atmosphere inside a corner storefront across the street was completely different, filled with warmth and energy as South Side residents crowd the colorful community meeting space talking with Miriam Miranda, a Honduran human rights activist and leader of the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras.

Miranda describes how the Garifuna—an African-descended people who live on Central America’s Caribbean coast—are in a constant struggle for land and medical resources and against state repression, especially since the summer 2009 coup that brought an autocratic right-wing government to power. Members of the groups Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) and Fearless Leading by Youth (FLY) hosted Miranda’s talk and said they could relate. The two grassroots groups—FLY is the youth wing of STOP—run direct-action campaigns around housing, health care, police brutality and other social and economic justice issues. Currently, their efforts are focused on preventing the city’s planned closure of mental health clinics and the privatization of community health clinics.

A week after Miranda’s visit, STOP and FLY helped lead a 10-hour occupation of City Hall protesting Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to close six of the city’s 12 public mental health clinics, mostly on the city’s South and West sides. Opponents say the mayor’s plan would leave many low-income and minority residents without needed care. They also think residents will find it harder to get care if all seven of the city’s community health clinics are turned over to private operators, as Emanuel proposed in the controversial budget that the Chicago City Council approved on Nov. 16, the day after the sit-in.

A focal point of the groups’ work has been the longstanding demand for a trauma center at the University of Chicago Medical Center. There are no adult level-one trauma centers on the South Side, and one of the founding members of FLY, Damian Turner, died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital downtown after being shot near 61st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in August 2010, at age 18. His family and friends think he would have lived, if he could have been treated at the University of Chicago, just blocks away.

Turner’s sister, Kandice Denard, 21, joined FLY at his urging and became one of its most passionate leaders after his death. In April 2011, she and other group members met with University of Chicago Medical Center officials.

The meeting was “kind of scary,” said FLY member Porshanetta Calhoun, 17. “They were sitting on the other side of the table, and everything we said they were just like, ‘No, no, no.’”

Quin R. Golden, associate vice president of strategic affiliations and the Urban Health Initiative, said university officials are sensitive to the group’s concerns but have no plans for an adult level-one trauma center since their previous one closed in 1988. At that time, Michael Reese Hospital, which has since closed, had a trauma center less than three miles to the north.

“They are very passionate about this particular issue, which I certainly understand,” Golden said of FLY. “Just as we’re passionate at the medical center about all the lifesaving procedures we offer to the community.”

Golden has met with Turner‘s mother and said the university is involved in anti-violence efforts and provides the South Side’s only burn center, intensive care unit and pediatric trauma center.

Golden cited peer-reviewed research indicating no significant impact on transport times or health outcomes caused by transporting South Side trauma victims to other hospitals. However, The Chicago Reporter last summer reported that a 2010 American Trauma Center map indicated that there’s no trauma center in Chicago south of 16th Street—which means significant portions of 19 South Side communities are not within 45 minutes of the nearest trauma center by ambulance. Since 2008, those communities witnessed more than 40 percent of Chicago’s homicides due to trauma.

Calhoun considered Turner “like a brother” and was at home across the street when he was shot. Her cousin also died from a gunshot to the back, she said. One of her best friend’s brothers was shot and so were four people in her 8th-grade graduating class.

“You shouldn’t have to be afraid just to step outside to check the mailbox, but that’s the way it is here,” she said of the Woodlawn neighborhood. 

Calhoun lives in Grove Parc Plaza, the subsidized housing development that was one of STOP’s early battles and victories. The federal government was threatening to foreclose upon the 504-unit dilapidated and crime-plagued development, constructed with federal funds for residents who qualify for public housing. Residents were offered Housing Choice vouchers to help pay their rent in private apartments, but since many voucher-holders have trouble finding decent housing they worried they’d end up in bad situations or on the street.

Students at nearby University of Chicago joined with residents to demand Grove Parc be preserved and restored, staging a sit-in at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) office. Ultimately HUD agreed to work with a nonprofit developer to keep the complex as subsidized housing, and the residents got to stay. Last summer, Mayor Emanuel and HUD announced a $30.5 million grant to rehab and add new units to Grove Parc and provide additional services in Woodlawn. Residents believe that Grove Parc still exists—and will receive the new investment—because of their organizing.

“We got out there and walked the streets, knocked on doors to get people out. Finally people really realized that if they didn’t help themselves, they would be put out with nothing,” said longtime South Side resident and group co-founder Sharyn Payne, who is in her 60s. “Grove Parc was in a lot of ways a victory. Had we not fought, they wouldn’t have had anything to come back to.”

STOP formed in 2004 around housing struggles and gentrification in Woodlawn, including a wave of new condo development and urban planning initiatives by the University of Chicago, The Woodlawn Organization and the New Communities Project that many felt did not include their voices and would lead to displacement of the poorest residents. The group has launched several tenants associations, most notably the Kimbark Tenants Association, that have taken on absentee landlords who’ve let their buildings deteriorate.

While the struggles for health care and housing are local, STOP and FLY have cast their campaigns in a national and international context. They’ve taken three trips to New Orleans, where members met with public housing residents facing displacement—a parallel to Grove Parc and other low-income communities in Chicago. Two members have traveled to Honduras with different human rights groups to visit Garifuna and subsistence farmers and indigenous communities locked in bloody struggles for the control of land.

They’re hoping to raise enough money to send six members to Honduras over spring break this year—not an easy feat for a group that survives on donations, volunteer work and a few small grants. They don’t seek funding from major foundations, government agencies or corporations since they want to stay completely independent and not influenced by outside interests. Veronica Morris-Moore, 19, likened the groups’ efforts to those of a Garifuna hospital they visited, which offers free health care and survives largely on donations without government aid. Hospital leaders oppose the current Honduran government and one of its doctors has received frequent death threats since the coup. “It was inspiring to see they run this hospital on their own,” Morris-Moore said.

Payne sees the struggles for health care and housing as part of a larger battle for social and economic justice. She said her own family has gone from middle-class to poverty after she and her husband lost their jobs, her husband lost the tavern he once co-owned and since he has been stricken with lung cancer. She’s also seen her in-laws and parents struggle to afford health care, even after long careers in the steel mills and other industries that were expected to provide for people in old age. Payne now receives disability payments, and sees STOP as her main occupation along with caring for her husband.

“It gives me something to do that I agree with,” said Payne. “Through the years when people were Black Panthers, I had young children and couldn’t afford to be ostracized or jailed for some petty thing which is what was happening at the time. Now some of the things the Panthers were saying have come true. You really have an uprising that’s started. People are damn tired: you work and you work and you hardly [earn enough to] pay your rent or house note and, on top of that, if someone gets sick, your bank account and everything you’ve got is devastated.”

Standing in her still-unfurnished apartment in a new subsidized complex near 75th Street, Denard reminisced about FLY’s past work and her brother’s leadership. She remembers the song he sang when members delivered a box of underwear to then-Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, protesting conditions at the juvenile temporary detention center where youth complained about going weeks without clean underwear and eating spoiled food.

“Cook County president, tearing up the evidence; Todd Stroger don’t give a damn about the residents,’” Denard sang fondly. 

STOP and FLY members have also held mock funerals outside the University of Chicago Medical Center, teach-ins and “plenty of press conferences and protests,” in Calhoun’s words. They’ve joined the Occupy Chicago and Occupy The Hood movements and the Anti-Eviction Campaign. They’ve marched in solidarity with union members on strike, including those at Hyatt hotels.

Both STOP and FLY each have about 30 regularly active members. Several hundred more have been involved with the tenants associations or have attended protests organized by the groups. While STOP and FLY are affiliated, they hold separate meetings and make decisions separately.

“FLY is one of the few youth groups that is truly youth-based, youth-run, youth-driven. [It’s] youth leading not only each other but an entire community,” said Morris-Moore, who is studying social work at Harold Washington College. “Other groups have youth chime in and then the adults make the final decision.”

STOP member Wiley Rogers has been involved in community organizing in Woodlawn since the 1960s. A retired social worker for the Chicago health department, he has watched the rise of gangs like the Blackstone Rangers and the arc of social movements like the Black Panthers and the grassroots campaign that helped get Harold Washington elected as Chicago’s first African-American mayor. He has seen youth violence and hopelessness escalate in recent years, but he hopes burgeoning youth activism can help provide an antidote.

“Violence is a very difficult fight for youth, because in Woodlawn their entire existence from birth on is premised on violence. Looking ahead and to the future, it’s hard for them to see anything else,” said Rogers, 70, who also taught at Olive Harvey College. “Something like FLY emerges partly as a defensive mechanism. But it opens the door to getting them engaged in changing the world.”

This article is third in a series on youth violence. Funding for this project was provided by The Chicago Community Trust via the Community Media Workshop, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation.

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