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:: By Zak Stambor

:: Photography by Dan Dry

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Chicago Journal ::

Civic journalism

Students team with a journalist to explore the South Side.

Jamie Kalven is a lifelong South Sider.  When he walks Azardo, his chocolate lab, he passes one of three Kenwood homes he grew up in. It’s a half-block from his current apartment and about a mile and a half from the Experimental Station, a renovated 1920s parking garage that houses a community garden, artist loft, bike shop, coffee shop, and gallery space. It also hosts the office of the Invisible Institute, a four-person team including Kalven, that works to provoke discussions of human-rights issues through documentaries, photography, and print and Web journalism.

Kalven, whose father was Law School Professor Harry Kalven Jr., AB’35, JD’38, has spent three decades chronicling such urban problems as police misconduct and public housing’s poor living conditions in publications like the Nation, In These Times, and Slate. After years of reporting on the lives of Bronzeville’s Stateway Gardens residents, in the mid-1990s he served as a formal adviser to the building complex’s resident council and helped negotiate with city agencies, private real-estate developers, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


In the Experimental Station, Nate Roth (left), Leo Gertner, and journalist Jamie Kalven discuss a potential article examining police-contract negotiations.

He calls himself a human-rights reporter and community organizer, and he suggests the city is at a crossroads: “I pride myself in knowing Chicago and knowing my way around, but at this point I feel like I don’t know the city.”

One symptom of the juncture, he argues, is the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) Plan for Transformation, a citywide strategy the housing department approved in 2000. The plan has included demolishing the infamous high-rise housing projects, such as Stateway Gardens, and replacing them with mixed-income developments.

Without what Kalven calls “high-rise ghettos,” the city has rendered housing projects’ residents invisible, he argues, leaving them easier to ignore. Meanwhile the media has yet to explore the mixed-income units that are replacing CHA residents’ homes, and the tenants who live there. To do such exploring, this past February Kalven and about 25 Chicago students held the first meeting of the Local Human Rights Development Project (LHRDP).

Existing under the umbrella of the Invisible Institute, the group grew out of a University Human Rights Program panel—organized last fall by College fourth-year Leo Gertner—that examined Chicago media coverage of social issues like the state of the Cook County public-health system. After the session Kalven and Gertner discussed ways to engage students and the South Side community in what they deemed critical issues.

Kalven explained how journalism can spur social transformation. Then Gertner proposed forming an unofficial, off-campus student group. Kalven was wary. “I have had enough experience with organizations having interns who cost more time than their production was worth,” he says. “But I thought that if we could get an immediate and strong student response, this could be mutually beneficial.”

The group appeals to students like Gertner, an anthropology major, because it explores issues they feel are often ignored, or poorly covered, by the mainstream press. “I’m interested in income inequality, police violence, social distress, and questions of that sort that are embedded in my major,” Gertner says, noting that the project offers a forum to ask: “Why are these spaces forgotten on the front pages of newspapers? Or, when they are mentioned, why are they conventional stories? Clearly there are people interested in something different.”

After the first meeting, the students began reporting for their projects—which range from public health to police reform to public housing—both through archival research and first-hand observation. For instance, in February Nate Roth, a second-year in the College, and Kelin Hall, a third-year majoring in law, letters, & society, visited Cook County’s John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital to view its emergency-room conditions because a proposed county budget called for cutting public-health funding by 17 percent (the doomsday situation was resolved later that month). After several hours of monitoring and speaking with hospital employees and patients, the pair got an initial glimpse into how the public-health system looks on the ground.

“The building was in better condition than I had expected,” says Roth. But patient service wasn’t great. “Some people were being seen rather quickly, and others seemed to be waiting very long periods of time.” To find out what care is like for most patients, the LHRDP has entertained, but temporarily shelved after the budget was resolved, keeping one member there for a 24-hour period.

The group’s in-depth perspective is refreshing to Sharon Kim, a fourth-year double-majoring in law, letters, & society and gender studies, who has spent hours observing the city’s Fantus Health Center on the Southwest Side. “When I went I had no feeling that this is horrible or terrible,” she says. “I could have written that the lines are really long and people look miserable, but they weren’t that bad and the lines weren’t that long.” Rather than write a “preconceived notion of the story,” she intends to continue talking with the interested parties and watching the situation to make sure that when she does eventually write a story, she can capture a fuller picture.

More important, she says, is a plan to encourage readers to post comments to the articles, which will appear on the Invisible Institute–published View from the Ground Web magazine (currently being overhauled, it will relaunch in late spring). The group also hopes to develop a message board on the site to spur community discussion. “It’s important to allow people who experience these situations on a day-to-day basis to have a say without feeling as though they are making a political statement.”

The issues affecting Chicagoans are too important to gloss over, says Kalven. He’s encouraged that two months after LHRDP’s first meeting, about a dozen students continue to attend the weekly gatherings and to toil away on their projects. “There is a tendency to regard local issues as the minor leagues in regard to more national or international issues,” he says. “The stories must be told.”