As MLK Day approached this year I knew that I wanted to do something meaningful. Before I had time to struggle searching for the right activity, a JCUA-related opportunity presented itself. At night, there was going to be the first “Chicago Justice Series” talk, this one about the history of housing contracts in Chicago. The dinner gave me the opportunity to spend my morning at another MLK Day event and still manage to attend the justice talk at night. While I loved listening to Jack Macnamara speak about his experiences with the Contract Buyers League, unveiling a piece of history I had never heard about in such depth before, a major moment of growth for me came in the following breakout dinner conversations.
At my dinner table I was surrounded by a diverse group of people, only a few of whom were directly related to JCUA. We had a lively conversation about privilege, institutionalized racism, and history, each person at the table bringing in their own unique perspective to the conversation. I am not sure when exactly it happened, if it was prompted by a specific comment, or if an idea sparked a change in thinking, but over the course of that dinner I began to see myself, and my work through JCUA, as legitimately impactful in the quest for Social Justice in Chicago. Reflecting back on that dinner, I think what really struck me was the reach of the JCUA network, and the different ways in which JCUA members are making an impact. Prior to the dinner I had really only thought of JCUA in the context of fellowship workshops and certain actions I had attended. When I had the ability to sit down with a new group of people to delve deeply into a series of issues and analyze a historical injustice that still impacts Chicago today, I began to see a link among the social justice communities in Chicago.
At my table, the different perspectives accentuated the way in which people can come together around an issue, motivated by the same optimism for an improved future, and make a change. I know that our conversations at the table operated mainly on the intellectual level, in that we weren’t discussing a specific campaign or a specific action, however, the shared passion among the group was a microcosm for what community organizing is all about: building a network of activists who have similar self-interests and values in order to effect a significant change. This key tenant of community organizing was instilled in me early on in the JCUA fellowship, and has since remained central to my conceptualization of what it takes to build and execute an effective social justice campaign.
On a personal level, in that dinner conversation I realized that my voice added value. Until that point, I primarily thought of myself solely as a spectator, someone who will show up to support JCUA but whose main job is to sit and listen. The format of the dinner conversation required participation and insight from everyone as well as one-on-one sharing. Due to my “forced” participation, I was pleasantly surprised to realize things I said resonated with other people and sparked further conversation. I slowly began to build the confidence to share my voice in spaces where that voice is beneficial to the broader discussion. That night inspired a personal growth that allowed me to commit more fully to, and understand more broadly, the mission of JCUA. I am thankful I had that experience so early on in the winter because it allowed me to carve out an activism path customized to my own passions and desires, fueled by my evolved frame of thinking from that dinner.
The MLK Dinner was just one example of a whole series of moments in which I began to feel like my activism, my voice, and my involvement in JCUA can have an impact. I saw firsthand how in a community organizing context, diverse perspectives can challenge and positively influence one another, fueling conversations and intellectual curiosity that would otherwise be stagnant. I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to be a JCUA Fellow, and I know that my experiences in the fellowship was just the start of my continued dedication to community organizing and activism.