Malcolm X College’s hallways last Saturday were filled with tables of vendors passing out information and selling goods and services-from banks trying to recruit new members to daycares trying to register children. This was the scene at Cong. Danny Davis’ 7th Annual State of the District Town Hall. This year’s theme was “Citizen Participation: The key that unlocks the door to change,” which included a special focus on ex-offenders and issues affecting women.
The town hall took place last Friday and Saturday at Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren. Friday’s event kicked off with a keynote address by Cheryle Jackson, the recently appointed president of the Chicago Urban League. An awards ceremony on Friday night highlighted individuals for their community service.
The town hall concluded on Saturday with several workshops taking place at the college. With bright signs and tablecloths, some tables received more attention than others. But the one that got the most attention was Davis’, which was set up on both sides of the school entrances, filled with information regarding the day’s events.
Saturday’s workshops included a discussion on AIDS and a session about the different programs offered to ex-offenders. According to city and state estimates, Austin, the city’s largest community with more than 100,000 residents, annually receives the highest number of returnees from Illinois prisons of any community in Chicago or the state.
As a result, Davis has made ex-offenders one of his top priorities for the past several years. Saturday’s ex-offender workshop was facilitated by Dennis Deer, a community activist, former aldermanic candidate for the 24th Ward and CEO of Deer Rehab in North Lawndale.
Davis said more than 35,000 ex-offenders call his 7th Congressional District-which extends from the western suburbs through the West Side to downtown-home.
The workshop included a panel discussion. Panelist Jim Andrews, a local restaurant owner, said that businesses offered a huge door of opportunities for ex-offenders, who themselves want to become business owners.
Andrews and his wife plan to open a chain of hot dog restaurants nationwide staffed by ex-offenders. Instead of making the term “felon” a negative, Andrews had the idea of turning it into something positive-and funny. So he’s naming the restaurants “Felony Franks: Home of the Misdemeanor Weiner.” Andrews launched a non-profit organization, Rescue Foundation, to specifically target ex-offenders as future entrepreneurs.
“If an ex-offender wants to change things around and wants to have his own business, we want to be his resource for his business, but they have to work for it,” his wife said. “We are hoping to be the McDonald’s of hot dogs!”
West Side resident Marvin Lindsey and his wife attended the discussion. Lindsey said he wished more people had come out to the workshop.
“I am disappointed in the turnout, but I do hope that the people who came to the event will take this information and pass it on for the people who need it,” he said.
Senior citizen and attendee Corean Bevly agreed. “I think it is nice to have this every year,” she said. “But if you never come, you will never know. It is like school for the community as a whole.”
Davis’ Second Chance Act, which would offer ex-offenders such resources as affordable housing and employment training, has yet to pass out of the U.S. House. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in Illinois, there are more than 50 job categories that are closed to ex-offenders. Davis said this has resulted in unemployment or low-paying jobs for former inmates, and that within three years, 60 to 70 percent of the people who get out of the penitentiary will be re-arrested. Davis has said the annual town hall lets the community have input on issues that affect their community.
“We always try to get direction from these meetings,” he told the audience, “for you to rate what’s the number 1 issue or what’s the number 2 issue or what’s number 3. We are inviting your recommendations.”