In my hometown of Chicago, Illinois, along the course of North to South Ashland Avenue, the house numbers mirror each other end to end, so that if you folded a city map in half the addresses would align, but that is where the resemblance stops. The south side rolls through a once thriving neighborhood known as Englewood, that today reflects urban neglect. Several areas within the community have bars on windows, potholed streets and cracked sidewalks. The north side meanders into Roger's Park, a place of obvious infrastructure investment, with manicured lawns, silent security systems and songbirds. The eight miles from one end to the other are worlds apart aesthetically, physically, economically, psychologically, spiritually and more. On one end there is networking and privilege, while the other harbors abandonment and disregard against a backdrop of unyielding resilience among its members. One is predominantly White while the other Black.
This street in Chicago is both a reality and a work of art by photographer/social justice artist Tonika Lewis Johnson. She is the creator of the Folded Map Project, a photo/video investigation into what urban segregation looks like, as a means to connect people rather than drive them farther apart. It is a project that has allowed a community of people who live on Ashland to join forces as they strive for a continuum of possibilities and a better future for all. Johnson’s project challenges people to understand change is possible and encourages them to be part of the solution. As an activist artist, she’s making what freedom-fighter, civil-rights activist, Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.”
Johnson is not alone. Activists—advocates and ambassadors for the community—have always been and are all around us. They are the scientists, doctors and nurses, essential personnel fighting for the globe to be free of this virus. Fighting for complete strangers to have the best healthcare services possible. Putting themselves at risk every day because they believe in the wellbeing of people; they believe in human life and human dignity. Activists are private citizens, teachers, students, policy makers, parents. They are volunteers who allowed trial COVID vaccines to invade their bodies in the name of science and the welfare of all of us.
President Barack Obama wrote a letter to John Lewis, “Because of you...” honoring Mr. Lewis and all civil rights freedom fighters for paving the way for many of us to occupy societal roles once not possible. I echo his “Because of you .... ” You, the unsung heroes and sheroes in our community and on our campus. People who work in grocery stores stocking shelves and packing food baskets for the elderly and unemployed. People who come together to find ways to help family members pay for rent or medicine. People who continue to find solutions during one of the most stressful times in our nation’s recent history. People who show up on campus, no matter what, to fix a leak or support students who are lonely or depressed from being isolated or quarantined. People who bring stability, calm, kindness, compassion, dedication, courage and hard work to the forefront of the dilemmas we face as a nation and around the globe. This is what community activism looks like to me.
Because of you, USI has the honor of making a difference for the future (ours, yours and others) educating you, your children, our community for 55-plus years. Because of you, USI has enabled thousands of young (and not-so-young) people to become doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals, scientists, educators, artists, engineers, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, policy makers, philosophers, journalists, historians, lawyers, judges, psychologists, social workers, ambassadors and more. Community activists—quiet, loud, bold, behind-the-scenes—everyday ordinary people.
As president of this University, I am always asking myself, How do I serve all? How can the USI community continue to serve all? Part of the answer comes from John Lewis. “Good trouble” is necessary when creating an informed, engaged and civil citizenry that will always think of the betterment and wellbeing of the whole and not just the self. We have a history, as an institution and nation, of people coming together to serve others with respect and civility. This is our path forward, our map, our moral compass. We do this for our children. We—our students—can be a part of the solution to the troubles/challenges we face by our actions. Let us face them with “good trouble.” Because of Tonika Lewis Johnson. Because of John Lewis. Because of you. Because of us. Because we can. Because we must.
Volunteer. Bring your gifts to your community in ways that improve the lives of others. After graduating from college, I volunteered at the Urban League, as a literacy instructor, to teach an adult man to read, and I often think how liberating it was for him and the confidence he gained in himself. Today, one of my favorite activities still involves the power of literacy, and that is to read to school children.
Engage. Elders are the brain trust of every society. Within their experiences and memories are the blueprints of life's successes in building community and healthy relationships across perceived boundaries that define our humanity. When we listen to them, one of the great lessons we gain is the ability to not replicate poor choices, poor behavior or poor policies that are potentially harmful to our respective communities, our nation and our globe.
Teach. As an educator, I practice activism. For me, the path forward in society is through education. But, while not all are destined for college, all are in need of mastering crucial life skills: literacy, communication, networking, financial management and more. Activists, to me, have always been servant leaders following the mantra: Each one, teach one. Each one, serve one.
Vote. Don't passively let others shape the world you live in. Educate yourself on the candidates' positions and execute your responsibility and right by casting a vote. Exercise your constitutional duty by voting in every federal, state and local election, from primaries to presidential.
Learn. Check out Tonika Lewis Johnson's Folded Map Project and see how her art and vision inspired two people from opposite ends of Ashland Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, to join forces for a better future, for a better community. www.foldedmapproject.com