TCR Talks: The fight for education equity comes with hard lessons

Valerie Leonard [Photo by Sophia Nahli]

Valerie Leonard [Photo by Sophia Nahli]

Earlier this month, the grass-roots group Educational Village Keepers recognized longtime North Lawndale resident Valerie Leonard for helping to produce a 13-week CAN-TV series that explored this year’s mass school closings in Chicago.

Leonard, 50, a nonprofit consultant with an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management has spent most of life in the West Side community where both of her parents taught schools. Much of her time and energies are devoted to improving the lives of North Lawndale residents, especially the educational outcomes of the young people who live there. That fight itself has been a real education for Leonard.

The Chicago Reporter talked recently with Leonard about education activism, community involvement and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election chances.

What happened to the way African Americans view education?

It eroded with people in my generation. My dad’s father only finished third grade, but he was instrumental in making sure [the Mississippi town where he lived] had a school built. That’s just how important education was. But people who came of age in the ’70s and ’80s—my generation— didn’t want their children to experience what they went through. It’s very hard to have a message resonate with parents—that education’s important. It’s very hard to channel that same level of involvement into activism that reaches beyond their individual family.

What is your challenge in reaching people?

I think I do a pretty good job of communicating, sending messages out. I’ve got an extensive database of addresses, phone numbers, but I haven’t been able to motivate people in a coordinated way. The people who are more likely to listen to me are seniors who have grown grandchildren. The younger people [don’t get involved].

What will it take?

It’s going to take a lot of education. This reminds me of 2007. We were living in the last area that was a TIF in North Lawndale, so we got a copy of the redevelopment plan and went through it line by line with residents, homeowners. Looked at the pros and cons of the TIF, how it could impact them, how TIFs could be used. By the end of it, 20 weeks of organizing, we really had a broad coalition of seniors. We had the so-called thugs and the middle class, who were all working together. We had some serious questions because [developers] were looking to displace about 1,300 families and purchase about 1,700 vacant [city-owed] properties.

That’s a lot of land.

A [development] group had put forth a plan to acquire the 1,700 lots. Then when they showed us their plan, it was only to build 300 units of housing the equivalent of a Jewel-Osco in terms of retail space. … I went to Chicago Public Schools, but I know it doesn’t take 1,700 lots to build 300 houses. We really did organize around that. There was so much energy around that. But trying to get that same energy around schools is frustrating and elusive.

The lack of civic involvement is disheartening for you, it seems.

I learned in college—studying black people’s contribution to the gross national product—we actually contributed more in the ’30s before welfare than we did [later]. …Before integration, you had different classes of black people living together. You could be in abject poverty, but you could see a black doctor who was doing well, especially if you lived in Bronzeville. … Role models are few and far between now.

What are some bright spots that you see?

There is a foundation, First Book, in Washington, D.C., that donates books in low-income communities. Rep. Danny Davis’ wife has asked me to work with her to identify groups that can take advantage of this. It occurred to me why not use this as an opportunity to refurbish school libraries? So much of our problem is literary. When you’re in church, you get a skewed sense because they make you read in church. I went to church in Lawndale. The folks there could all read. But here I was out in the community doing a survey, and I was shocked at how many people could not read the survey. I had to read it to them. This was in the ’80s. It’s worse now.

What do people in your community think of Mayor Emanuel and his policies?

We gripe. We complain. People seem to not like him. But we gripe and complain about a lot of people and put them back in office.

What’s the main thing you’d like to see happen in Chicago in 2014?

I’d like to see a serious candidate emerge for mayor. We need new leadership that would focus on communities. The mayor that we have now is not focused at the neighborhood level.

That’s going to take serious money.

That’s true, but there’s a network of organizations that extend from the far North Side to the far South Side, Latinos, black, white, rich, poor who are seriously disenchanted. I seriously believe if this group of people can coalesce that can be a formidable force of ground troops. I don’t think they’ll be looking for money, they’ll be willing to work for a candidate.

This transcript has been edited and condensed.

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