Standing Up to Power: A Chicago Teacher Speaks Out

Standing Up to Power: A Chicago Teacher Speaks Out

SCENES FROM THE CHICAGO STRIKE: For seven days, Chicago teachers went on strike for a fair contract as well as better learning conditions in the city’s most under-resourced schools. (Photo by Jen-Morales Crye)

When I moved to Chicago from Onalaska, Wisconsin, to begin my teaching career, I chose to move into the Westside neighborhood where I taught. I figured it just made sense to be part of the same community as my students. Soon I realized that being part of a community isn’t just a one-sided choice. I was humbled and blessed to see that the families of my students chose to welcome me into their community. With that acceptance came a new responsibility to learn about and represent our mutual needs.

As a math teacher and member of the Chicago Teachers Union for the past eight years, I’ve learned a lot from my neighbors about what they want from their schools. Consistently, parents wanted schools that provided quality learning opportunities, stable places for their children to grow, and challenging and supportive environments that prompted academic, social, and moral development. The community wanted and needed schools that encourage the ripening of all the potential stored inside each of their children.

Unfortunately, I saw a system of schools that focused on students and their teachers only as statistics. Priorities have focused more and more on raising test scores at the expense of the growth of our children. The system has ignored so many of the needs of our students and when we attempt to meet some of these needs, we are chastised for not focusing on academics. My colleagues and I feel isolated by this system. Imagine how our students and their families feel!

Standing Up to Authorities and Powers

Every day, I try to remember the source of my hope. In Colossians 1, Paul writes of Jesus Christ: “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.” Later Paul writes that Jesus reconciles all things to himself “whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

TAKING IT TO THE STREET: Over the past week, Chicago teachers marched in support of the city’s first teachers’ strike in 25 years. (Photo by Matt Crye)

As a follower of Jesus, I know that he is the ultimate hope we have for the reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth. Jesus Christ cares about systems like the Chicago Public Schools and wants to reconcile them back to himself — to bring them back into their proper role as systems that empower and improve our communities.

I now live with the responsibility to be an agent of reconciliation in my role as a public school teacher. In Chicago, I believe the public schools are a part of a system of power, run by the mayor and the school board, that is unjust. It hurts our kids and their families. When the rulers decide to give the taxes collected from our communities to corporations so they can remodel their bathrooms, something is wrong.

This system needs reconciliation back to the priorities of families and students. And now as a member of it, my duty is to stand up and fight on behalf of the voices of my community. My community wants their kids to be given the same resources and opportunities as those from wealthier zip codes.

Learning from My Students’ Lives

As I stood on the picket line joined by parents and students, I realized more and more that our fight for a fair contract really is about fighting for better schools for our students.

A few years ago, I had the unique opportunity to co-teach an enrichment class exploring hip-hop and social-emotional health as part of our school’s service learning initiative. Though I had many of the same students in my math class, I saw the students and they saw me in new ways.

My students shared many struggles, including harassment from police, anxieties about body image, fear of crossing into other neighborhoods for fear of encounters with gangs, and trying to develop their own identity as teenagers. I’ll never forget the day we studied research about the power of forgiving those who’ve hurt us. As everyone wrote letters of forgiveness to someone who had hurt them, some that couldn’t even be delivered, I sat with one student and we cried together as she struggled to forgive her absent father for just one layer of the harm he had done to her and her family. That letter became a poem that she now performs throughout Chicago with power and confidence. Seeing her bravery and pain, never again could I measure my success as a teacher simply by a student’s performance on a test. Schools must be so much more than that! For me, I see this struggle as part of Christ’s reconciliation of this system back to himself.

As teachers we want fair compensation for our work, but we also want working conditions that create good learning conditions for our students. I want class sizes that allow me to be effective and give each student the attention they deserve. I want wraparound services, like counselors and social workers, to serve the holistic needs of my students. I want equitable resources for all Chicago students so that all have the same opportunities to learn and become successful citizens. I want schools where parents and families have a say in what happens in their school — not just some politician Downtown, or in Springfield, or Washington.

Our students were created in the image of God and they deserve a lot better than what they’ve gotten from this broken system.

The Struggle Continues

Though the Union voted to end the strike today, our fight for better schools continues. As I write this, I look ahead to struggles at my own school. Even after we officially settle the details of the contract and head back to the classroom, we face the threat of a school takeover that began before the strike. Less than a week before our students came for their first day of class, the system removed our principal without warning and without offering a reason. Our new interim principal was introduced to us that same day, even while they changed the locks on all the office doors.

MORE THAN A MONEY MATTER: From the beginning, the Chicago Teachers Union has maintained that their work stoppage goes beyond matters of wages to include issues of job security, teacher evaluation, and school conditions. (Photo by Jen Morales-Crye)

On the first day of classes, students and teachers showed up to school to find three Advanced Placement (AP) classes had been canceled and that their schedules would be different from what they were originally told. Since then, office staff and our English department have been fired; teachers and students have been reassigned into remedial classes without curriculum; several classes have been taught by substitutes because of the holes created in the schedule; and we continue to fight the effects of this destabilization every day.

On the third day of classes, almost the entire student body participated in a sit-in demanding reinstatement of their AP classes. At a full community forum and several Local School Council meetings, parents have demanded answers for these actions, but have heard almost nothing. Now, a group of parents have written a petition and are collecting signatures demanding the reinstatement of our principal and a return to August 6th, the day before all the destabilization occurred.

But despite these obstacles, I know there is hope. As a result of pressure from students, parents, and the Union, our English teachers have been reinstated and the return of the AP classes has been promised.  These victories embolden us to still push for the complete restoration of our school.

The battle for better schools, shaped by the voices of our community, continues. And I am honored to take part in this struggle alongside parents, students, and my fellow teachers.

Intentional Acts of Kindness

Intentional Acts of Kindness

LITERACY MISSION: With his tour across the nation, Acts of Love founder William E. Hall hopes to improve the lives of urban kids one book at a time. (Photo by Amanda Edwards)

How do you measure the impact of an act of kindness? Is it by the words that are spoken or perhaps by the response that you elicit? Or is it something subtler?

For William E. Hall, pastor and founder of Acts of Love, the measure of his organization’s effectiveness comes by counting the number of smiles he sees each time he hands out books to children.

Based on the mantra “Extending a Hand and a Heart to the Next Generation,” Acts of Love is a community-based, non-profit campaign founded with the goal of collecting and distributing 1 million books to marginalized and underprivileged youth. “Our ultimate hope is to improve the reading and comprehension skills of students across the nation,” said Hall.

Birthed four years ago on DePaul University’s Chicago campus, Acts of Love is an outgrowth of Hall’s civic outreach organization, Communigize. Along with several of his closest friends, Hall launched Communigize as a community program centered on educating, mentoring, and inspiring urban youngsters.

Hall was born and raised in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. He grew up like any normal teenager, having fun and exploring the city and all that it had to offer. But he discovered early on how random acts of kindness can transform a person’s life.

“For me, it was always about how can we make lives better, for real and that’s no cliché,” he said. “As a kid, I saw so many examples of that right next door. My grandma and grandpa would wave or talk to strangers walking down the street and make their day.”

Hall added that his grandfather was especially interested in encouraging young people.  “He just lived to see young people walk by, and encourage them by giving them pencils and raisins, and little cookies for afterschool treats.”

He carried those ordinary examples of kindness with him as he grew into adulthood. Now as a youth pastor, one can see how those principles have helped shape his ministry.

WORDS OF LIFE: At urban schools around the nation, Hall shares with young students about the importance of reading, learning, and making good choices in life. Here he meets with students at a Chicago grade school.

At DePaul, Hall always had those principles in mind as he pursued his studies as an economics major. While on campus, he was instrumental in starting several student organizations that shared that focus. Groups like Soul Food and Communigize were organizations designed to positively impact students’ hearts through the Word of God.

But Hall quickly realized that by only working with kids while in classroom settings, his outreach was limited. He remembered a specific field trip where he and his friends took several students to Navy Pier.

“As a youth pastor, we used to bring young people up and would allow them to run around on campus. We would just mentor them and expose them to places they probably wouldn’t see. When driving past [Chicago’s] Navy Pier, one of the kids in the car did not know what it was, and looked at the big Ferris wheel and was like, ‘What’s that?’ And that’s when I knew how important it is to really love young people and to really help them.”

Over the course of the next four years, he would yearn to do more. Hall realized that although he had touched the lives of numerous young people, God had placed a greater mission field in mind that would extend far beyond his reach with Communigize and the city of Chicago.

He completed his bachelor’s in 2007, and then went on to further his studies at McCormick Theological Seminary, where he received his master of divinity degree in 2011. It was during his years in school that he says God inspired him to take the message of love and inspiration across the country.

“I told my friends, let’s do this. Let’s organize and begin to look at ways we can strategically build something to help young people,” Hall said. And that’s how Acts of Love was born.

“[We are] living out what’s required of us as Christian people created by God, and that is to love others,” he said. “When we do a kind act, that’s really saying to someone I’m giving you the joy and happiness that comes from God, abounding love.”

This summer, Hall and his team of volunteers hope to inspire 700 or more adults to join the “Love Young People Tour” in going door to door, visiting some of the nation’s poorest communities in cities like Chicago, Gary, Detroit, Miami, and Washington D.C., and handing out 7,000 or more books to elementary, middle, and high school-aged students.

THE POWER OF BOOKS: Hall loves counting the smiles that come as he and his volunteers hand out books to young people. After getting their books, these young students in Columbus, Ohio, were eager to start reading.

Hall says he wants to make love tangible, and wants young people to “fall in love with knowledge” and the wisdom that can be discovered on the written page. He believes that when a difference is made in a young person’s life, the world can be changed. That’s why he and his staff of volunteers have partnered with Chicago aldermen Pat Dowell and Roderick Sawyer in hopes of counteracting literacy rates in the Windy City. And he hopes to duplicate this in other communities around the nation.

He added, “We never know how the seeds of knowledge that these kids find in books or just in the art of reading will impact them 10 or 15 years from now.”

In addition to the ambitious goal of collecting a million books, Hall also plans to join with other community partners to provide new books for urban libraries, build 50 reading rooms centered on growth and development, and supply 50 urban schools with a comprehensive extracurricular reading curriculum to aid them in improving student reading skills.

With more than 6,000 books already collected and nearly 500 people that have already pledged their support, Hall and his team are seeking additional supporters willing to make the commitment of sowing a seed of knowledge into the lives of the next generation.

“I want people to understand the power of love, and the need to love young people,” he said. “That’s what I was created for. We want a million people to make that commitment; to take that pledge, participate, and pass the word.”

If you would like to partner with the Acts of Love campaign or the Love Young People Tour 2012, please visit the www.millionactsoflove.org for more information.

Black to the Future

Black to the Future

NBEA President Rev. Dr. Walter A. McCray

Today when the world hears the word “evangelical,” it often associates the term with a white, politically conservative brand of Christianity. Those within the evangelical movement, however, know the reality is far more diverse. In fact, defining the identity of the movement and sorting out its many theological and cultural dimensions has been the subject of countless books and conferences over the past 200-plus years. One group that has helped assert the existence and valuable contributions of non-white evangelicals is the National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA). Over the years, the group has provided intellectual community and spiritual support to a who’s who of Black scholars and preachers — influential leaders such as Tom Skinner, Tony Evans, Howard Jones, Clarence Hilliard, Carl Ellis, and Melvin Banks (founder of UrbanFaith’s parent company, UMI).

Next week in Chicago, the NBEA will host its forty-ninth annual convention. Rev. Dr. Walter A. McCray, author of several books, including The Black Presence in the Bible, has been president of the NBEA since 1999. UrbanFaith recently spoke with him about the history of the organization and why this year’s conference has a special focus on missions and Christianity’s African roots.

URBAN FAITH: Give us some brief background on the NBEA. How was it formed and what’s its purpose?

REV. WALTER McCRAY: In 1962, Black evangelical leaders prayed. They were praying in different locales across the nation. They prayed in California, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other places. They prayed about themselves and how they could reach their Black communities with the Gospel of Christ. They prayed earnestly, and they prayed for their unity and cooperation in the ministry of Christ. Women prayed, men prayed, ministers prayed, laypersons prayed, young prayed, old prayed. And God answered their prayers in an exceptional way. He gave them an idea, and an organization through which they found Black Christian fellowship and empowerment to accomplish their goal — reaching the lost, making the wounded whole. So in 1963, in L.A., the National Negro Evangelical Association (NNEA) was born.

The co-founders of NNEA, which later became the NBEA “National Black Evangelical Association,” composed an impressive gathering of dedicated servants of Christ, who were committed to the Lord’s church. It was a small but powerful group that included the likes of Rev. Aaron M. Hamlin, Mother Dessie Webster, Rev. Marvin Prentis, Bishop Holman, and the host pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Rowe. Others joined this number at the inaugural convention: Rev. William H. Bentley, Missionary Ruth Lewis (Bentley), Rev. Tom Skinner, Rev. Howard Jones, Rev. Charles Williams, and others.

So, this new association of brothers and sisters, which also included some white believers, formed around three important values: fellowship, ministry, and networking resources. Their overriding passion was to win the lost, and to provide support for churches and leaders who were attempting to do this amidst the revolutionary times of the 1960s. It was no small task, but their God was not lacking the necessary greatness and power for the challenge! So they marched forward.

You’ve been leader of the NBEA since 1999. In your view, what is the state of black evangelicalism and the wider evangelical movement today?

The state of evangelicalism today, as intentionally labeled and defined, is one that has a changing face. Due to its emphasis on “diversity,” its face is changing from white to other ethnic groups. Yet, it maintains its centeredness and dominance in maleness, and White and Western culture. I recommend Soong-Chan Rah’s book The Next Evangelicalism for an overview of where things are going. The next evangelicalism in America is discoverable in immigrant and indigenous ethnic communities. Evangelicalism is growing in areas of the Southern hemisphere. Black evangelicalism, of the intentional variety, is undergoing redefinition along cultural and theological lines. There is a reawakening of Black consciousness and its theological applications within the socio-political sectors of White evangelicalism, and especially as a pushback against politically right-wing evangelicals. Some White evangelicals also are pushing back against their very socially and politically conservative counterparts. When it comes to the implicit side of African American evangelicalism, vis-à-vis the Black Church, we see a state of flux, wherein traditional Black Christian faith, amidst pressing social challenges, is grasping to reconnect with the core cultural and social values of their African-descended peoples.

I believe Intentional Black evangelicalism must wed with implicit Black evangelicalism to serve the best interest of African American people, and to fulfill our divine purpose in God’s world. This is something that I explore in my next book, Pro-Black, Pro-Christ, Pro-Cross: African-Descended Evangelical Identity.

The annual convention convenes next week. Could you tell us a little bit about what you have in store for those who attend?

The theme is “Looking Black to Move Forward: Reclaiming Our Heritage, Fulfilling Christ’s Mission” (Psalm 68:31). This is our second meeting of a two-year emphasis on missions. We will emphasize looking back into our past, so that we can see how God has historically used Black people in His redemptive work. We will also look into our present so that we can appreciate the Black spiritual contributions and other resources that the Lord has placed at our disposal to do His work. We have jam-packed our program with a wealth of speakers, and topics that can benefit local Black communities, as well as Africa and other places to which Christ calls us to serve.

Could you talk a little bit about the African American church’s relationship to local and global missions?

The African American church needs more intentional involvement in missions. Pressing needs among Black Americans have served to capture the focus of our churches — sometimes to the abdication of our responsibilities of spreading the Gospel of Christ throughout the world. Our people must recapture the missionary fervor of Black churches and missionaries of previous generations. We must be both indigenous and international in our mission endeavors. For instance, we must work to redeem our imprisoned men especially and others from “the New Jim Crow” that Michelle Alexander talks about in her important book. At the same time, we must send bi-vocational workers to the mission fields of Africa to dig wells for clean water and stem the tide of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Then, we must rescue women and young girls who are enslaved in sex-trafficking. Black believers and churches have a “both and” responsibility. Validated “charity” begins at home, but it must then spread abroad in the true fashion of the divine love of Christ, whose giving and sacrificing continues to manifest itself beyond the sectors of one’s immediate group or culture.

The African roots of Christianity will be one of the topics discussed at this year’s convention, and I understand the theologian Thomas Oden will be addressing the event via Skype. Could you talk about the importance of this and what the church needs to understand about the church’s historic African connection?

So-called Black evangelicalism has existed for over two-millennia. Those roots are found in the Black/African peoples of the New Testament, and in the early African church of the second century A.D. and beyond. Tom Oden and the Center for Early African Christianity have been doing a premier, paradigm-shifting work in demonstrating, in the words of Oden’s book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.

As Black peoples, we must look back to the earliest stages of the Christian faith to discover how God worked through and used African people and African Church Fathers in His work of salvation and redemption. We must discover how they wed their faith to their culture in ways that were positive and made tremendous contributions to the Christian faith worldwide. From the second century onward, the Christian faith first spread from south in Africa to north in Asia and Europe. NBEA’s Institute for Black Evangelical Thought and Action will explore these topics and more at the convention.

What else can people look forward to at the convention?

Prayer, fellowship, food, networking, information, celebration, book signings, workshops, preaching, teaching, mission-opportunities, and much more happen next week. We invite all: Blacks and non-Blacks, women and men, youth and young adults, pastors and laypeople, churches and organizations, professionals and non-professionals, missionaries and sending agencies, community workers and global partners — we invite all who desire to strengthen themselves in holistically sharing the Gospel of Christ with their Brothers and Sisters in the Christian faith. Together, we want to “Reclaim Our Heritage” as we “Fulfill Christ’s Mission.”

The NBEA convention takes place April 25-28 at the Chicago/Oak Lawn Hotel. Click here for more information.

Twin Art

Twin Art


Twins are undoubtedly cut from the same cloth, and it’s not uncommon for twins to be genetically predisposed with similar inclinations. But creativity is a subjective thing. So, how possible is it for twins to duplicate their creativity occupationally?

Aaron and Alan Hicks, identical twins from Chicago, have found a way to use their dual passion for art to honor God and celebrate their African American heritage. With virtually identical styles, the Hicks brothers create unique and inspiring images of favorite and lesser-known Bible characters, as well as wholesome, true-to-life depictions of African Americans of all ages. Through their company, Twin Hicks, the brothers provide illustrations for several of the Sunday school publications produced by UrbanFaith’s parent company, Urban Ministries Inc. (UMI).

UrbanFaith caught up with the talented brothers as they launched their newest art offering — the 2012 Faith and Hope calendars from UMI.

UF: What inspired you to become artists?

AARON HICKS: Our uncle Warren Hicks inspired us. I saw my uncle draw a picture of Muhammad Ali on a paper bag when I was in the 4th grade. I liked what he did and tried to recapture that. So I started drawing on paper bags, too. I did a little drawing in school, too.

ALAN HICKS:My uncle inspired me too, but when I saw what my brother did, I started copying him. I’d draw cartoons, comic book art—like what we saw in Marvel comics.

Jesus loves the little children.

UF: Having been raised in Chicago it would seem likely that you’d grow up seeing a lot of art around the city, with all the museums and such. So what kind of art did you experience as you grew up?

AARON: We grew up in the South Suburbs and didn’t really see a whole lot of art growing up. Our uncle was our mentor. He had posters, and some of the black light posters. Nobody talked about art history and such.

ALAN: We weren’t really aware of other types of art until we went to high school.

UF: It’s fascinating that you had limited exposure to art back in the early days, and yet you both developed a talent for art. How did that happen?

AARON: I never realized that I had a talent for art or that I was getting better at it until friends and other students mentioned it. They’d tell us that our work was really good. Even our teachers in grammar school mentioned it. We just picked it up really fast.

UF: Tell us about another great influence that has affected your art.

ALAN: I would have to say that John Cash, our high school art teacher, was a great influence as well. He really opened my understanding and enlightened us to other things. He took us to the next level and got us to create, instead of copying. We also got into art competitions because of Mr. Cash and developed accountability. Because of him, we took a class at the Art Institute [of Chicago] and eventually went on to win some art competitions.

AARON: I once did a portrait piece against 20,000 other entries and won 1st Place.  It was a scholastic art contest and it really made me push to improve my skills as an artist.

UF: So things really started to take off for you in high school. How did you decide to study Biocommunications/Medical Illustrations in college?

AARON: I thought, what kind of job can I get with this talent? Mr. Cash told us about the program at the University of Illinois and it seemed right.

ALAN: Coming out of high school we got a lot of negative feedback, but we wanted to continue creating art. Biocommunications was a growing field at the time and we believed we could find work in the field and still do art. Our training showed us that what some people think is not important, it really is important. After we got our bachelor’s degrees in 1985, we worked at Richard Rush Studios. And then we created art in health halls at the Field Museum where we worked on large 3-D exhibits of the heart — painting, sculpting and doing touch ups. It’s a joy to see our art go all across the U.S. in exhibits that teach children, in trade shows, and in murals. We also teach and that inspires children to pursue art.

Moses parting the Red Sea.

UF:  You went from creating medical art to biblical and more personal, everyday images. Tell us how your faith moved you into this type of artwork.

ALAN: Faith is our base on everything we’ve done. We’ve been in church all our lives and came to Christ at age 13. I thought it was exciting to get visual images of what I read in Bible storybooks. When some commercial art companies started downsizing in 1998 we decided to freelance. God was in it and steering us from the beginning and we believe that God does everything well. In all our ways we acknowledge Him and He’ll direct us.

AARON: We’ve been in church all our lives and have never really seen many biblical images depicted at this level (from an African American perspective). Then people started approaching us about doing images from the Bible.

UF: Your art is unique and the depictions are so life-like. In your new calendars for 2012, we get to see images that may not have been done before, such as the woman with the issue of blood, found in the Gospels from Luke, Matthew and Mark.

AARON: We’re very excited about putting on canvas the stories that people talk about, but never have seen. Like Jesus walking on water, and Daniel in the lion’s den. The woman with the issue of blood is on the cover of the Faith calendar.  We had been selling our prints to a company years ago and they put them into calendars. They liked them so much because they said our art looks more photo-realistic.

Hearts of worship.

ALAN: We’ve always wanted to portray images that inspire, uplift, and images that are positive. This is why we chose children as the subject in the Hope calendar. We created art that shows children pretending and playing dress-up in positive ways. We’re all about family. You can put these calendars up in a child’s room or anywhere. It reminds you of when you were young. We like artists such as Vermeer, Van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Thomas Blackshear and others that influence how we capture images of real people.

UF: What’s in the future for Twin Hicks art?

AARON: Teaching art to children and maybe do a one-man show in a gallery. I’d like to paint more anatomy and fantasy, surrealism—using real bright colors— and some realism. I have to do some soul searching first!

ALAN: We’ll continue painting for the market’s needs to make a living, especially because there’s greater flexibility in airbrushing. But I’d like to get back to drawing with pencil, oil painting with brushes and creating more classic art.

UF: And as we close, what would you say to other aspiring artists?

ALAN: Continue doing what you’re doing. Don’t stop and practice every day. LeBron James and Michael Jordan practiced every day so you should, too. Keep cultivating your art and explore other mediums. It’s important to stay open.

AARON: I would say keep after your passion and don’t let anyone deter you. The more you do, the better you become. And remember, it’s good to experiment with different things to find your strengths and weaknesses. That’s why we did 3-D art; because we never really had experience with sculpting and shaping, so we learned.

For more information about the Faith and Hope calendars, visit Urban Ministries Inc. To find out more about the Hicks brothers, visit them at their website.