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Across the World, Across the Street

Twenty-eight representatives from local nonprofits and government agencies enrolled in the University of Chicago's Civic Leadership Academy traveled to South Africa last summer. At a recent panel discussion in Pilsen, they discussed how their visit changed the way they view poverty, economic development, education and – particularly – race. 

Masimba Sasa


Travel, they say, broadens your horizons. For 28 representatives from local nonprofits and government agencies, that proved to be truer than they even imagined on a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa this summer.

Last month, a panel of fellows from the inaugural class of the University of Chicago Civic Leadership Academy (CLA) spoke at La Casa in Pilsen about how their visit changed how they view poverty, economic development, education and – particularly – race. 

LISC, which serves as a nonprofit partner for the CLA program, coordinated the panel discussion in part to continue a conversation around race, class, and gender in its Community Organizing and Engagement workshop series. 

Prompted by moderator Steve Edwards, executive director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, the panel started a lively conversation by outlining what they found familiar in Johannesburg: economic disparity and unemployment, concerns about public safety and how that sometimes overblown perception can impact growth and investment in poor communities, racial diversity and racial segregation.


Baronica Roberson, deputy commissioner for Chicago Public Library, said South Africans, with their history of apartheid, are more open than Americans in discussing race and its implications. The CLA panelists described a willingness to put racial issues front and center that could feel shockingly blunt.

Gordon Walek


“We found that Chicago’s problems are global problems,” said panelist Baronica Roberson, deputy commissioner for Chicago Public Library, who talked about a conversation she had in a township with some young girls who were hanging around on a street. 

“I asked, ‘Why aren’t you in school, why aren’t you working?’ And the answers I got were the same answers I would have gotten on 63rd and Damen,” she said. “It gave me this sense of urgency, this sense that I have to do more."

Let’s talk about race

Roberson and several other panelists said one big difference they found in South Africa, with its history of apartheid, is a more open discussion about race and its implications. Panelists described a willingness to put racial issues front and center that could feel shockingly blunt. 

“Conversations about race and racism are pretty evolved,” said panelist Karen VanAusdal, the executive director for social and emotional learning for the Chicago Public Schools. “They’ve talked openly about their past for the past 20 to 25 years – they’ve had to as a society.” 

Panelist Andrea Ortez said that her ethnicity makes her “more culturally ambiguous,” and so more than one person in South Africa would introduce themselves and ask, “What’s your name?” followed pretty much directly with “What are you?”


“Conversations about race and racism are pretty evolved,” said panelist Karen VanAusdal, the executive director for social and emotional learning for the Chicago Public Schools. “They’ve talked openly about their past for the past 20 to 25 years – they’ve had to as a society.”

Gordon Walek


“Here, we want to be careful in how we say it and how we present it,” said Ortez, a community organizer and program director at the Southwest Organizing Project. “In Chicago, I think the conversation about race needs to go deeper, even though that can be uncomfortable.” 

Randall Blakey, another CLA fellow in the audience for the event, spoke about how emotional the trip was for him because he had been in South Africa 25 years ago. 

Blakey, the executive director of the Near North Unity Program, described the dismay he felt to still see shanty houses made of cardboard and to hear that in Soweto, residents have to take a bus out of the community just to find a store to buy a loaf of bread. Racial segregation is no longer the law, but it certainly still exists – and economic segregation follows. 

“I had to tell myself that this is a very young democracy and they’re moving forward,” he said. “There has been progress made, but too many people are still too poor.”


Panelist Andrea Ortez, of the Southwest Organizing Project, said that her ethnicity makes her “more culturally ambiguous,” and so more than one person in South Africa would introduce themselves and ask, “What’s your name?” followed pretty much directly with “What are you?”

Gordon Walek


The product of trust 

Out of their daily element and faced with issues of race and privilege under a microscope, the fellows called a time-out from the planned itinerary: Requesting a members-only session to have a deep, honest discussion of race and racism. 

“We were staying in a nice hotel, being chauffeured around, but it feels like we’re waited on hand and foot by black Africans. How can we reconcile this?” said panelist Bob White, vice president of program operations for the Cara Program. “We felt like we needed the conversation just even to make sense of our experience there. I found it really engaging and profound.” 

The participants agreed that the trust built from months working and learning side-by-side in the program was crucial to having such a raw discussion. Creating a durable network of nonprofit and government professionals is one of CLA’s goals. 

“One of the biggest benefits of this program to me was the relationships we’ve built,” White said. “They’re going to have lasting value in our work. They run really deep.” 

In the audience, Teamwork Englewood’s Rosalind Moore said she found the panel discussion refreshing. “It was an example of what we need to replicate here. Let’s get a serious talk going about race,” she said. “It was great.” 

Applications have been submitted for the next CLA cohort. The second class will have its own opportunity to compare and contrast issues of poverty, race and development overseas: The 2016 trip will be to Delhi, India.


Photos by Masimba Sasa of Leadership Academy fellows in South Africa...


Photos by Gordon Walek of Leadership panel discussion in Chicago...

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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