Russell Cunningham was arrested for a class 4 crime, the lowest you can be charged with, and held in Cook County Jail awaiting trial for six months because he couldn’t afford the $20,000 bond ordered by the judge.

“My bond hearing was literally two minutes,” said Cunningham, father of two and and Austin resident, noting he did not have any other criminal convictions and thought he would be a good candidate for a substance abuse program.

He’s struggled with alcohol in the past but being in jail for six months and not receiving help didn’t benefit anyone.

After six months, Cunningham was sentenced to probation. By that time, he had lost his job and still had a substance-abuse problem to address.

“I was kept away from my family when they needed me,” Cunningham said. “Our court system punishes people for being poor.”

Cunningham was one of several speakers, Jan. 19, at the Sankofa Cultural Arts Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave., to address the gaping disparities between the rich and poor in Chicago, specifically in Austin.

Though the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. was the event’s keynote speaker, community organizers took the lead in charging residents to speak up against economic inequality. 

Jarret Adams, co-founder of Life After Justice, urged residents to support community groups.

Adams was wrongfully convicted of a sexual assault and served nine years in prison before the conviction was reversed. Through Life After Justice, he is working to establish re-entry homes for recently released prisoners, in hopes of providing them with the tools they need to interact in society again.

“The organization is just a hope and a dream right now. We’re looking for Rahm to give us contracts to clean up our own neighborhoods,” Adams said, referring to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Another topic discussed was Chicago’s educational system and the lack of resources for children in many neighborhoods.

Community development consultant Valerie Leonard gave a presentation on Chicago’s public school system, explaining why schools in Austin were failing. She pointed out that a large number of Teach for America fellows are stationed on the West Side of the city and questioned their ability to relate to students.

“We have a large concentration of inexperienced teachers coming to the West Side,” Leonard said.

She also noted that the majority of teachers usually stay on the West Side for only the two years of their program, then leave.

Mark Carter said students need to be taught by people who look like them.

“Whether it’s charter schools or public schools, if they’re not run by us, it’s no education,” said Carter, adding that no one has challenged the curriculum in Chicago Public Schools, and in order to address the issues, you have to start at the top and work your way down.

Dr. Roslind Blasingame-Buford, executive director of BUILD, said she doesn’t necessarily think there’s a lack of resources in Austin but rather a lack of collaboration and organization.

“I think there are a lot of resources,” she said. “If we can come together with a plan, things will enhance.”

“We work to provide holistic services for youth,” said Blasingame-Buford, whose group mentors youth and provides programming in several Chicago neighborhoods, including Austin.

Though Sunday’s event was held in part to acknowledge and pay homage to Dr. King’s legacy, Blasingame-Buford and others said his dream has not been fully realized.

“There’s still a large disparity when you look at the justice and educational systems,” Blasingame-Buford said.

She questions whether the access that is said to exist actually includes all individuals equally.

Jackson Sr. talked about the March on Washington and observing Dr. King prepare for the day. He said King’s speech that day has become known as the “I have a dream” speech, but that was not King’s original manuscript for the day.

“It was the ‘broken promises’ speech,” Jackson said.

Jackson said King’s intent in 1963 was to tell government leaders they had broken the promise of emancipation that was offered when African Americans were freed from slavery.

Jackson urged West Side residents not to become complacent and accept the inequality they are dealing with in their community.

“The one thing worse than slavery is to adjust to it,” Jackson said.

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Additional coverage

Jesse Jackson, West Side residents speak out against economic inequality

The Sankofa Cultural Arts Center hosted the Rev. Jesse Jackson and community leaders from Austin and the greater West Side Jan. 19, to address the issue of economic inequality that's plaguing many communities nationwide.

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