On the evening of June10, I sat down with 13 longtime reform leaders, including Dawn Clark Netsch, Don Rose, and June Rosner for our informal annual reunion dinner at Yoshi’s Café. Over the past 40 years, we worked together on dozens of political campaigns and government reform project. We still play leadership roles in a number of organizations, although some of us are now only “senior statesmen” and have grown less active with age.
At this year’s event, past reform efforts were remembered and honored but the future was viewed with both idealism and cynicism. There was hope that new reforms would be adopted but doubt that there were the leaders or the citizens to achieve them.
Among the group, I am still one of the idealists. I was an idealist when we faced segregation, the war in Vietnam, and the Richard J. Daley machine more than 40 years ago. We still face wars abroad and we face the worst recession since the Great Depression. But in 40 years of political struggle, I have seen what people are capable of achieving when inspired. And each year in the classroom, I find students who want to make a difference in society. From experience, I know that we will get through the current trials we face.
There are more deep-seated problems, however. Chicago still has a segregation index of 81 percent. That means that 81 percent of us would have to move for any one community to share the same ratio of whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos in our communities that the metropolitan region has. So, we are still one of the most segregated cities in North America. Yet, we are actually becoming a multi-racial, multi-cultural metropolitan region – a microcosm of the world in which people who speak every language of the globe live together.
Crime rates remain too high on the south and west sides of Chicago while teen mob attacks are now appearing on the Near North Side. The suburbs have their own drug and gang problems with which to contend.
The Chicago-area jobless rate is above 10 percent and as high as 40 percent for young African-American males. Home foreclosures have driven property values down in ways not seen since the 1930s. As a result, the state still has an $8 billion deficit (even after an income tax increase), the city has a $1.2 billion budget gap and other local governments face similar crises. Social services-needed more than ever to help citizens cope with these crises-are forced to slash services or shut their doors because of government budget cuts and late payments.
But I am still hope-filled.
As a department head at the University of Illinois at Chicago, I deal with cutbacks every week as state support shrinks from 48 percent to 16 percent of our budget. My staff has been cut in half; tenure track faculty leave to go work in the private sector; students live in fear of further cuts in their state scholarship funds; and classes grow larger because of faculty shortages. But we still teach our students, publish our research, and serve the public good.
My goals for our city and country remain democracy, justice, and self-awareness. I continue to be a radical, idealistic reformer.
I believe in a more just, democratic Chicago.
I can see a future of a multiracial, multi-cultural, integrated society in which discrimination no longer happens.
I foresee a Chicago in which we can walk anywhere, any time of the day or night without fear of crime.
I yearn for a Chicago where we elect government officials based upon their ideas and character rather than clout and cash.
My view of the last 40 years and our current troubles is that despite all the setbacks, we are making progress. In the 1960s we naively believed that achieving our goals would take only a few years. We would end segregation, pull back from war overseas, elect a president and then work our way down to dealing with local problems. We were wrong. But our faith in our fellow citizens was not misplaced – the changes simply took longer and cost more than we thought.
I still believe as we sang then, we shall overcome someday. Until then I, for one, will keep the faith, embrace the vision, and trust the people. I will not succumb to cynicism.