Friday, October 30, 2015

A Trip to the Windy City to Explore the Complexities of Urban Poverty

The Gapsters Take Up Residence at the Br. David Darst Center in Chicago

Ahhh, it has been so sweet arriving back to the Mid-West amidst the last few days of changing colors and warm breezes. After 26.5 hours on a train, our Gapsters were ecstatic to not only breathe in some fresh air, but also to wear their hoodies, instead of their tank-tops. While the desert and the Norbertine Brothers of Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey offered a grand welcome, after two weeks of hot, dry weather, we were definitely ready for some cooler autumn days.
Although the weather and scenery has changed, the Gap Experience is still going strong in content, reflection, sharable moments, compassion, and exploration of tough topics. Since arriving in Chicago there has been a palpable difference in our students: they are watching out for one another even more than before, they are thinking deeper and more critically, they are identifying and naming the different emotions they feel, they are coming into their own.

Proof of these changes was apparent after a reflection session on identity led by the talented staff at the Brother David Darst Center. “Who am I?” “Where do I come from?” “Why am I here?” “What is important to me?” We were asked to think about and journal responses to these questions. We are all at different stages of processing these questions—this is a strength of this year's Gapsters. Everyone’s unique background brings diversity to the group. The respect and support that is embodied by our students during our reflection sessions further demonstrates the ways in which they are maturing as a group.  
Staff at Br. David Darst Center Open Students' Eyes to Social Injustice
Br. David Darst Originally Opposed the Vietnam War
Chicago presented the group with many different perspectives. Over an incredibly packed two week period the students were exposed to homelessness, poverty, post incarceration rehabilitation, deportation, gang violence, alternate faith traditions, food deserts & food scarcity, and environmental sustainability. The group visited the following organizations respectively: Cornerstone Men's Shelter (homelessness), St. Leonard’s House (formerly incarcerated), U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (deportation vigil), Precious Blood Ministry (non-violent gang reconciliation), Taller de Jose (ministry of accompaniment for ESL clients), the Golden Shoe Project (public art installation raising awareness about gun violence), Kadampa Buddhist Center (Buddhist perspective), Old St. Patrick's Cathedral (Catholicism), Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (anti-Jewish sentiment in public affairs), St. James Food Pantry (food scarcity), and The Plant (environmental sustainability).
Exploring Issues Related to Urban Poverty in the Heart of the City
Overwhelmingly, the exposure that the group has had toward gang violence and violence in general hit home the hardest. Our Gapsters spent time talking with some boys their own age who have grown up in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Chicago—'Back of the Yards'.  The two boys shared their honest life-stories with our students: these boys have known incarceration, parole, gun violence, robbery, drug trafficking, battery, and death.  When conversation was redirected toward the Gap students, the two boys were shocked to discover none of them had ever been arrested. Different worlds came together that day to share perspectives via a two-way conversation, rather than a one-way presentation. To further address the issue of gang violence in Chicago, the group traveled via train to Daley Plaza to participate in the Golden Shoe Project. The interactive art display used spray-painted gold shoes to represent lives lost to violence in the city last year: 432 shoes. The public was welcomed into the display to read and mourn the tags attached to each pairs of shoes which included the victim's name, age, description of death, and sometimes a personal message from a family member. This public display moved the students deep to their core. As one Gapster said, “It’s one thing to hear stories, it is another to visually see representations of those stories…to imagine the actual people.”
Madeline engaging in the Golden Shoe Project. 

Perhaps the Most Potent Message Student's Heard Throughout the 2-Weeks in Chicago
On one of the last days in Chicago, the students went to serve at the St.James Food Pantry, which addressed the issue of food scarcity and urban food deserts in a slightly different way than other food pantries. Rather than simply handing out bags of food to those in need, the volunteers and staff believe deeply in more of an empowerment model of assistance -- that is, clients who visit the food pantry are also provided with an 8-week nutrition class designed to help clients understand food and nutrition labels, and also to encourage clients to make healthy food choices when shopping for groceries. The pantry serves over 1500 clients monthly, and
the respect and dignity the long-standing volunteer staff showed the clients was something especially inspiring to the students. They found it quite impactful to be working in such a positive environment for such a positive cause. Not only did some students directly serve and interact with a culturally diverse client base that morning (52% Asian, remaining 48% mixed ethnicities), but many worked behind the scenes to help sort, clean and organize the food storage area. It was quite impressive to see the level of organization and efficiency with which the volunteer staff distributed food, and the systematic method of reducing food waste by encouraging the clients to take only what they knew they would truly eat. The camaraderie and genuine joyfulness that as present that morning was something that many students were not expecting. And as one student said as they were debriefing their service-learning experience, "Working here this morning put a face to hunger, and it made me realize how someone might just need a bit extra in helping to feed their family, especially if they don't have a job. I mean, it could be me in a few years."
Madeline, Alec, Morgan and Mallory Sort Fresh Produce to Bring Out Front to the Distribution Room
St. James Food Pantry Clients Are Provided With Multiple Choices of Food
Jack, Abby, Christian and Josie Distribute Bags of Food to Clients
Later that day, Gapsters headed down to 'the Yard' which is an area of the inner city that historically housed many meat processing and packing business. Now many of the warehouses are abandoned and sit empty -- subject to vandalism and further deterioration. Yet, the students discovered at least one bright spot amidst the otherwise empty and bombed-out buildings -- The Plant. 

The Plant is located in a 93,500 square foot former pork packing facility. Built in 1925, the building was owned by Peer Foods, who operated on site until 2006. Bubbly Dynamics, LLC purchased the building in 2010, and The Plant was born!

Bubbly Dynamics purchased the property for an extremely low price – about $5.00 per square foot! It was assumed that the new owner would simply strip the facility of an valuable metals, tear the building down, and build something new on the property. However, part of The Plant’s mission is to show that sustainable food production can happen inside of an existing, undervalued property such as this. To that end, instead of stripping the building and tearing it down, The Plant will reuse as much as possible of the building and internal materials.The Plant is a center for start-up for existing food producing businesses to develop into viable, sustainable ventures. The Plant’s business incubator consists of permanent tenant spaces maintained by Bubbly Dynamics, LLC, and offers food-producing businesses the advantage of reduced rent and energy costs. All food waste generated by these businesses will be processed in an on site anaerobic digester to create bio gas for The Plant’s renewable energy system. This self-sustaining, interconnected process helps the businesses housed in The Plant grow and prosper together, while creating new, green jobs in the community.

The Vibrant Mural on the Outside of 'The Plant' is Indicative of the Vibrant Ecologically Friendly Businesses Inside
Gapsters Getting a Tour of the Aquaponics and Aquaculture Areas Inside 'The Plant'
So Long Chicago, Hello St. Lucia!!
As the students packed up their bags and reviewed the many experiences and people they encountered throughout their two weeks in Chicago, it became clearly evident that developed a new depth of understanding about the many challenges that people face when living in poverty, particularly in the inner city. And rather than feeling overwhelmed with the enormity of the social injustices that occur within our cities, many of the students were galvanized to actually get angry about some of what they learned. But as one of the speakers they heard at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs so aptly pointed out, "It is one thing to educate yourself about a particular issue -- to even become an advocate on someone else's behalf -- but it is another thing altogether to really take a stand for the long haul and actually get involved. You have to make the decision to put your thoughts into action." 

So it came time to say good by to the friends we made at the Br. David Darst Center, and to head home for a few days to repack and regroup. The learning journey continues as the group prepares to head towards warmer climes and lush greenery.

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