On June 3, 35 graduating seniors from the Academy of Communication & Technology Charter School (ACT), located at 4319 W. Washington Blvd., held an assembly, which included speeches by Kwesi Ronald Harris of the Partnership for a Smoke Free Chicago, and William Lawrence Scott III, of LePenseur Youth & Family Services, to discuss what they had learned regarding the dangers of tobacco during their 13-week Cancer Society seminar.

The seminar began last January as a partnership with the American Cancer Society’s Chicago Regional Community Leadership Board Advocacy Committee and members of Phi Beta Sigma, a fraternity at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was attended by several students who wanted to learn more about the effects of smoking, particularly second-hand smoke, and to fulfill a school requirement of taking part in a community service project prior to graduation.

Along with helping students better understand the negative impact of smoking, the seminar also sought to empower them through political training in the ways that grassroots coalitions impact individual political issues. The students studied the life and philosophies of the late Saul Alinsky, who pioneered community organizing in the 1930s. Alinsky’s tactics and organizing principles gave birth to political activism movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Several organizations he founded, such as the Woodlawn Organization, still exist today and continue to work for the rights of those without power: the poor, seniors, those without housing.

“We felt it was important that the students have a grasp of the political aspects involved with the tobacco industry,” said Dee McKinsey, spokesperson for the Leadership Board Advocacy Committee, “the way that cigarette ads and other marketing are used to target specific demographics and the way that we can address our desire for stronger regulation of the tobacco industry.”

This point was addressed by Kwesi Ronald Harris, who spoke at the assembly about how the usage of respected public figures within the entertainment industry, whether it be music or sports, purposely targets minority communities for exploitation.

“It is just an example of the repeated victimization of the African-American community by the tobacco industry,” said Harris. “First, we were looked upon to harvest it, leading to tremendous profits for tobacco companies in the following decades. Now we are being victimized once more by ad campaigns that actually want us to buy a product that will kill us. I can’t believe my own government can sell me something that will kill me.”

Ed Smith, 28th Ward alderman, visited ACT School to speak with the seminar participants an hour before the assembly began, though he was unable to stay for the presentation and speak to the audience as scheduled due to an important meeting. He encouraged the students to support his legislative proposal to ban cigarette smoking in all restaurants and attached bars.

Most people who oppose ordinances against smoking in public facilities argue that it will hurt the restaurant’s business and derail the tourist market. However, such cities as Boston; Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; Dallas, Texas, Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando, Fla.; and New York City each have a no-smoking ordinance in effect, and have shown no significant drop-off in revenues of the restaurants.

“The assembly was a total group effort,” said Martin Vizcarra, who served as the emcee for the assembly. “We designed ‘no smoking’ T-shirts, wrote a skit about smoking and requested the presence of the people who spoke to us during our seminar whom we felt had the greatest impact on our understading of smoking regulation and activism.”

Each year, 18,400 people die in Illinois from smoking and approximately 2,980 people die from second-hand smoke. In fact, Smoking kills more people each year than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders, and suicides combined?”and thousands more die from spit-tobacco use and other tobacco-related causes (but there currently are no good state-specific estimates of these other tobacco deaths).

For every person in Illinois who dies from smoking, approximately 20 more state residents are suffering from serious smoking-caused disease and disability, or other smoking-caused health problems.

Along with Ald. Smith, Scott and Harris, the students also requested the presence of Kathi Lucus, who only months prior had spoken at the seminar about her own personal experiences with smoking, and who recently succumbed to her battle with lung cancer, unbeknownst to those planning the event. Her daughters, Dalila and Rashida, though, did attend the assembly and voiced their gratitude to the seminar group for remembering and acknowledging their mother.

“It was a wonderful moment when Rashida spoke at the assembly,” said McKinsey. “It really was the perfect ending to the seminar and a powerful reminder to the kids and their families attending the assembly how important tobacco regulation really is in this state. We want to assure that Kathi did not die in vain.”