by Gabriel Piemonte

Twice a week I work with public high school students from all over the South Side. I co-founded Voices and Visions four years ago to provide a creative and intellectual space for these young people. We explore the challenges and opportunities in our communities and seek out explanations for what we see. The young people shoot interviews and other footage and produce documentary shorts that consistently reflect their incisiveness and their empathy.

I worry about what kind of future these students will have. As each year passes, we lose track of more and more of them. Despite their intelligence and their talent, many of them struggle, for no other reason than where they were born and what resources they have access to.

Whether they will have more or less opportunity as a result of the Obama Presidential Center has very little to do with lofty rhetoric and all of the ambitious people lining up to advance their careers in the name of improving the South Side. These people are jockeying to become members of fancy boards and to nab plum positions.

If their plans do not include community input and influence, they will very likely make disastrous mistakes. But that’s not how they see things, so we have to change the system so that we are an integral part of it. Otherwise, they will ignore us. There is zero chance of any political or business leaders taking up for us and advocating that we be a part of the decision-making process. The Obama Center is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a name for dozens of people. You can therefore expect a lot of people calling the shots who are more motivated by their own advancement than by the public good. You cannot expect these people to believe that you should have a say over what they do. We have to struggle to get that power for ourselves.

Self-interest will define the views of many of your neighbors as well. Any chance at wealth makes some people go crazy. Recognize that as nice as your neighbor is to you, he very well may knock you over for a chance to increase his property value by a few dollars.

As a result, our priorities get distorted as a community and misinformation is circulated when we start talking about factors that drive property values up and down. For example, residents who  get a little bit of help through a Section 8 voucher or subsidized housing already encounter neighbors who treat them like criminals. Poor people are not criminals. Sadly, you can say that to some people a hundred times and they’ll never believe it. What warps their thinking is the mantra that subsidized housing drives down property values. What gets lost is the moral question of how we should treat one another – and the practical question of what you’ll need if you fall on hard times. We give up the golden rule because of the rule of gold – and we are poorer in the most important ways because of it.

What a lot of people are thinking about is the development that will come, the huge amounts of money in new projects and how that will increase property values. Those new development projects will have to go somewhere, and people will inevitably be pushed out to make room for them. The most vulnerable are always pushed out first, but others always follow. Again, you can say this over and over, but people always think, “That won’t happen to me.” Believe me, developers depend on this ignorance. Otherwise, nobody would ever make any money. When middle class people start losing their homes, everyone will act shocked. But it is not surprising; it is part of a consistent, recurring pattern, one which uses prejudice against the poor to play people off one another. Will we fall for it again?

The students I work with see and understand these patterns; my affluent neighbors don’t always see them.

I point these things out to say that we may or may not be able to trust all of the politicians and developers lining up behind the Obama Presidential Center. I do not think so, but no matter what you think, I believe we can all agree that it would be best if we didn’t have to endorse everything sight unseen just because it gets an “Obama Library” sticker smacked on it by someone.

A local development council for each of the South Side neighborhoods affected by the Center would allow us to review projects as they come along and to change them based on our priorities. Let approval by the residents be one step in the process, just like going before the planning commission or some other government agency. We are the only people who are going to have to live alongside whatever changes come to the South Side, yet we seem to be the only people left out.

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