Antwaun Lamar Sargent - 2007 Recipient
My grandmother once told me that there would be a defining moment in my life that would shape me into who I am. That defining moment was in a no cliched sense 9/11. Before that day I was by and large an impassionate, insulated kid. I got good grades, but there was nothing that drove me. I have spent the last five years changing all that.
I joined the Civics Club, participated in debates, policy discussions, taught eighth graders about bills that were being discussed on the Senate floor, and sat on first amendment rights panels. I have also joined the City Club of Chicago and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. I've engaged in all these different discussions to further my understanding of the world and the policies and institutions that shape it. I also try to help other young people get involved in the political process. Last year I started my own community based "History Class," an educational initiative that focuses on the growth and development of grade school kids. Most kids in my neighborhood continuously hang out on the corners and cause problems because there is nothing for them to do. I was astonished that the neighborhood management company's solution was to bar the kids into their homes, instead of setting up a community program so the kids could grow, interact, and have fun. In response I first set out to start a big brother program in the community, but after having a few meetings with Big Brother, it was made clear that it would be too costly to bring a program into my community, North Town Village.
North Town Village is unique because it is the first development that is part of a 1.6 billion dollar plan for transforming public housing to habitable mixed income communities. The Chicago Housing Authority, in partnership with private sector developers have hopes that North Town Village will act as a new kind of model that would have former public housing families overcome some of the hardships associated with living in public housing, by allowing them to live and have access to better housing and better educational opportunities. I thought that by not building community programs to help educate the kids, the entire purpose of the relocation was lost. Realizing that the so called "Ghetto" is not just a place but a mentality which has been forged over generations and generations of people who were forced to adapt to the conditions of public housing, I felt that something had to be done to break the cycle.
I first called the management office, telling them of my plan and why I thought it was important. They referred me to Jackie Taylor, Vice-president of Human Capital Development. I called and emailed, with no response. I went to my Alderman to see if he could help. Alderman Burnett brushed me off telling me, "come up with some ideas and I would support you." I realized that North Town was a bit of a political hot potato, and bad press wasn't welcomed, and that was the Alderman's way of telling me politely to get lost. But by chance I went to the Metropolitan Housing Authority policy discussion, where Terry Peterson, the CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority was the keynote speaker. I thought that for sure he would be able to help me get my program off the ground, and address my concerns about North Town. I went up to him and told him that I had a few ideas about the plan for transformation, and asked him if we could meet. He gave me his card and I set up a date.
I met with Mr. Peterson and later with Mayor Richard Daley's advisor on the plan for transformation, and told them my concerns. They assured me that they would take these issues into consideration for future developments, and do everything in their power to help bring about change at North Town. A few days later, my original contact at North
Town called and asked me to meet with her to discuss a possible solution. I presented my ideas about how starting a history class at North Town would be an asset to the goals of North Town Village. I was granted permission to use one of the community rooms to run my class.
The history class consists of twenty to twenty-five neighborhood kids, who every week pick different historical events that they are interested in, and as a group we research the topics, have discussions, and do projects to further our understanding. This has been no easy task. After working on behavior, we had to work on reading skills, then writing skills, then how to do research, and at the same time keep the kids interested. So it quickly evolved into a discussion oriented class, because I didn't have all the tools I needed to close the gap that going to really bad schools afforded them. I made it my goal that we would as a group become worldly. I began to bring in all types of music, articles about different cultures, and ask them questions about things that they don't normally discuss. This is the most meaningful thing I have done in my entire life. It was absolutely priceless to see how widening the worldliness of the kids in my neighborhood changed the way they acted, and it actually empowered them. One of the exercises we did was to talk about the usage of the word "can't." It's interesting to see the effects that words can have on behavior. This program has made me even more of a believer in the democratic promise of our society. I now know from personal experience that people can effect change, it's not just something we say to legitimatize our belief in democracy.