Evanston Township’s racial achievement gap widens despite gains in elementary scores

Evanston Township High School has two fireplaces and several lush couches in its large marble lobby. It has eleven outdoor tennis courts, two swimming pools and a 15th-place ranking among Illinois public schools. But it also has a persistent achievement gap between white and black students that continues to widen despite efforts at the primary, elementary and secondary levels.

As the only Evanston high school and a separate entity from District 65, which encompasses the area’s k-8 schools, ETHS has become a melting pot of students of all races and economic backgrounds. The diverse student body, while celebrated at ETHS, also causes a number of social and academic disparities, feeding into a racial achievement gap that Associate Principal Marcus Campbell said is “virtually impossible” to close.

“People don’t like to talk about race, but these are racial disparities in achievement,” said Campbell, Associate Principal of Academic Affairs and Student Support at ETHS. “And No Child Left Behind made us focus on race. But in liberal communities like this, we don’t like talking about race. We’re all ‘very happy’.”

Though students of color are making gains in test scores at the elementary level, they still fall behind white kids as soon as they reach ETHS. Within their own groups, gains are increasing, but still minor when compared to the monumental gains being made by overachieving white students. 89.9 percent of white 11th graders met or exceeded expectations on the PSAE test in 2006. In 2012, there was about a four percent increase in meeting or exceeding expectations on the math portion of the test. Blacks however, only had a two percent increase in that time span, going from 36.2 to 38 percent.

For the reading part of the test, the percentage of black students meeting the passing score decreased, going from 35.4 to 28.4 percent. The amount of white students meeting the passing score increased again.

Some attribute the perceived lack of black achievement in high school to administrative failures, instructional attitudes or social stigmas, while others trace it back to inadequate elementary schooling, or even further to unsupportive home environments. While no one has a definitive answer, all parties accept the achievement gap as an ongoing problem, and continue to make efforts to close it. In the meantime, blame gets tossed from one party to another and the gap continues to widen.

Inadequate preparation is a constant struggle for elementary schools due to problems at home, said Churchill Daniels, Principal of Oakton Elementary School. An Evanston Community Foundation survey from 2012 showed that nearly 10 percent of Oakton parents did not send their children to any form of early education before kindergarten. Oakton has a transient population, Daniels said, which means they have to play “catch-up” with the kids who are behind.

“We always have goals we try to strive for whether the kids come in well prepared or not prepared at all,” said Churchill Daniels, principal of Oakton Elementary School. “70% of our kids are on free-reduced [lunch], but that’s not an excuse, we still have targets they need to hit. We are closing the gap.”

Leveling the playing field

In fall of 2011, ETHS made its first major move to close the gap by putting every freshman student, regardless of elementary performance, into the same honors-level classes. Now, students of all levels and races are taught at the same pace, and then separated into different tracks at the end of the year. Those who are reading below grade level are taught separately.

An analysis of state report cards from 2011-2012 shows little result for black students–just a decrease in Prairie State Achievement Test reading scores and a minor increase in math scores. More than anything, Campbell said, the policy ignited ‘mean and vicious’ feedback from white parents.

Jerry Specht, white father of three Evanston graduates and four-year treasurer of the Parent-Teacher-Association, said the change may have decreased the quality of the honors classes because instructors were unable to cater to diverse learning abilities.

“I wouldn’t say the inclusion of more students in the honors classes was an overwhelming success,” he said. “Differentiated instruction sounds nice in theory, but it’s very hard to do successfully. A good teacher can be successful in any environment. But for a lot of teachers, that’s pie in the sky. It’s not something that they can do for all of the students, or make it so everyone get something out of it.”

But Harriet Crosby, a black mother of a 2012 ETHS graduate, said the change had a positive effect on her son’s education. Trevor Crosby, who now attends Southwest Baptist University, had a partial learning disability and sometimes struggled to keep his grade point average over a 2.0. Even so, he was taking Advanced Placement classes by his senior year.

“They wanted to integrate students who were slower learners into honors classes, AP classes, and it gave them a chance,” she said. “There was a lot of negativity from parents who did not want their young adults interacting with kids that were not 4.0 students. There were some who threatened to send their kids to private schools. But actually it worked out good.”

AVID, a national program that began at ETHS in 1996, was one of the earlier initiatives the district took to encourage students to achieve, said Campbell. The program is designed to encourage students who test in the academic middle to take on a more rigorous course load. It involves tutoring, mentoring, and the facilitating the college admissions process. The program is 60 percent students of color, who Campbell said often struggle more with confidence issues than they do with the work itself.

“How do you get them to work hard and want the best, and how do we give them opportunities to demonstrate proficiency and still move them to higher level courses?,” he said. “It’s a struggle. It’s a struggle that involves race because most of those kids are kids of color…It’s not a question of intelligence and that’s something we’re trying to figure out.”

Self-segregation in social life, academics

The racial segregation between AP classes and regular classes is a commonly known fact at ETHS, said Carlos Taylor, a sophomore who identifies as bi-racial. He takes AP classes, but said other non-white students might be cautious about doing so because they feel more comfortable around minority peers.

“Some people don’t believe that they can do it,” he said. “Some kids feel like they’re not expected to. Based off of common stereotypes, you take certain classes. If people test high academically and go into the AP class but they feel alone, that might decentivize them to not take those classes… It’s more a psychological thing than an actual abilities thing.”

It’s the job of the instructors, Campbell said, to convince students of color that they can perform as well as any other student. In his mixed AP Literature class, Campbell said his black students told him he was being racist because it was too hard for them. Rather than change the material, Campbell convinced them they could do it. But some teachers do not follow the same philosophy, he said.

“To a certain extent, teachers really don’t see how they are supposed to move kids,” he said. “They say ’we don’t want to challenge the kids because they can’t do it.’ You get to the attitudes and beliefs around teachers- that’s why I say it’s an instructional issue…I believed in my heart that the kids could do the work, and I never compromised rigor. I taught to the top of the top. And they did it.”

But Crosby said she did not see that kind of encouragement with all of the faculty, especially those responsible for facilitating Trevor’s college applications.

“I really feel in all honesty parents have to step up to the plate and be an advocate if they want their child to get a college education,” said Crosby. “They gear African American young people toward vocational or community college or seeking employment. There’s no emphasis or encouragement to go onto college education… if I was not the type of parent who was very active and spoke up on his behalf, I don’t know.”

The Road to ETHS

Though the achievement gap is widening at the high school level, black student scores seem to be on the rise before that point, according to an analysis of scores from Oakton Elementary School and Chute Middle School. The percentage of students meeting or exceeding standard on the math portion of the Illinois State Assessment Test at Chute went from 62.4 percent to 75.6 percent in 2012?

For third graders at Oakton, the percent meeting or exceeding standards on the reading part of the test jumped from 41.4 percent in 2006 to 95 percent in 2012.

Oakton administrators attribute this to an equal-opportunity teaching philosophy and a variety of new academic support programs including extended school twice a week, Saturday school and ISAT tutoring opportunities, according to Jerry Success, Vice Principal of Oakton. He also said the first Wednesday of each month is only a half day of school because the other half is dedicated to teacher development.

The African Centered Curriculum, a special application-only program that caters to black students, was instituted in 2006 as a response to a trend of low performance among this group. Its effectiveness is evident in the 12 and 15 point increases in reading and math scores for black students in 2007, going from 41.4 to 53.5 percent in reading and from 65.5 to 81.4 percent in math. Oakton principal Churchill Daniels said he gives kids academic benchmarks to start from and new ones to hit in the winter and spring. He has also seen an increase in the number of black parents attending parent-teacher conferences.

“To speed it up, where it’s a sense of urgency… show the data, have community involvement, have a community discussion.”

But despite Oakton’s successes, Campbell said the high test scores are deceptive. He said the Illinois State Assessment Test, which is used to gauge progress from grades 3 to 8, is a very low measure compared to the more rigorous PSAE and ACT taken in high school. Hence, the learning students do in their early education does not necessarily prepare them for the challenges they face at ETHS.

Shawn Connelly, Psychologist at Chute Middle School, said students are dealing with a number of social and environmental issues that make it difficult for them to perform consistently well in school. Standardized testing, he said, is not the best way to gauge performance.

“Standardized testing is a one shot, one day deal,” he said. “You’re looking at how a kid did on a particular day. Those are not the most accurate reflections.”

Whatever the problem, be it flaws in testing or environmental factors, flaws in early education have a definite effect on performance in high school.

“It seems to me that a lot of the achievement level of a student is not completely under the school’s control by any means,” said Jerry Specht. “A lot of it has to do with what’s happened in their elementary education. You can’t take someone who’s had a bad experience in middle school and make them into a brilliant student… it’s hard for the schools to somehow compensate for that.”


Taking Charge: How transgender youth are trumping the medical system

Trans Youth - Stroger Hospital
Stroger Hospital, pictured above, is one of the only places in Chicago where trans youth can get assistance transitioning at an affordable cost as an alternative to self-medding. Photo courtesy of cookcountyhhs.org
**This article first appeared at chicago-bureau.org on Oct. 29, 2013**

For nearly two years Amelia, then 17, lived from package to package. They arrived, unlabeled, at friends’ houses, P.O. boxes and community resource centers, following her from city to city as she struggled to find permanent residence.

Each was small, containing only a few vials of pills, but their significance was monumental. Concealed within them were illegally purchased, non-prescription estrogen doses and androgen blockers — the magic ingredients that would give Amelia, a transgender woman whose real name is concealed here for legal reasons, the body she always wanted.

Do-it-yourself hormone treatment, or “self-medding,” as Amelia calls it, is an increasingly popular method by which transgender people acquire the hormones necessary for gender transition. It’s an alternative to professional medical care with its excessive expenses and deficiency of trans-knowledgeable providers. DIY, as many trans forums and online guidebooks see it, is the next-best solution despite associated health risks like blood clots, high blood pressure and liver damage.

Amelia, now 22 and living as a female trans activist in Chicago, called the self-medding issue a “big point of contention between the trans community and the medical community” because of a lack of understanding between the two groups.

“They don’t see all the hoops we’re forced to jump through as being really restrictive or bad things or in any way negatively impacting us,” she said. “So when they see us self-medding, they see it as us putting ourselves in unnecessary danger, when really it’s more like a response to inadequacies of the medical structure.”

Gatekeepers to Care

The sex hormones commonly used for transition, namely estrogen, testosterone and a variety of androgen blockers, are classified as prescription drugs by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. As such, acquiring them without a prescription from an online pharmacy or a street dealer is against the law, said Stephen King, FDA spokesperson.

Even so, transgender people sometimes pursue illegal hormones in lieu of accessible, affordable medical care.

A 2008 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that only 30 to 40 percent of transgender persons nationally utilize regular health care. When 100 trans subjects in New York City were asked why, they cited a lack of access to a provider with knowledge of trans issues (32 percent), followed by access to a transgender-friendly provider (30 percent), cost (29 percent) and access to a specialist (28 percent).

The study estimated the prevalence of unsupervised hormones to be more than 29 percent.

Trans Youth - Rob Garufolo, Director of Adolescent Health at the Robert and Anne Lurie Children's Hospital, gives a speech at the University of Minnesota about transgender health. He has worked with many self-medding adolescents to help them transition in a healthy way. Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota.

Rob Garofalo, Director of Adolescent Health at the Robert and Anne Lurie Children’s Hospital, gives a speech at the University of Minnesota about transgender health. He has worked with many self-medding adolescents to help them transition in a healthy way. Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Rob Garofalo, director of the Center for Gender, Sexuality and HIV Prevention at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, often works with teens and young adults who formerly used non-prescription hormones. Although he discourages DIY and steers clients toward more thoroughly tested methods, he understands the demand for self medication given the gap in care.

“If I had to grade the medical system, I’d probably give it a C-minus in terms of its readiness to help the transgender community,” he said. “There are a lot of institutional barriers … a lack of scientific evidence to support the safety and the efficacy of what we’re doing, the general access things. The ball is rolling in the right direction, but it’s rolling slowly and it’s requiring a lot of pushing.”

For some, the ball isn’t rolling fast enough, especially when the prescriptions themselves are difficult to acquire.

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) Standards of Care  document states that hormone therapy generally requires one letter of approval from a mental health physician, and genital surgery requires two. Acquiring such letters is no easy task, according to many of the trans community.

Amelia remembers her college years in Philadelphia as a series of referrals from one therapist to another, having already experimented with hormones and not getting real satisfaction from any of the therpists in terms of the advice or care she was given. She ended up on a six-month waiting list for an endocrinologist who, she said, turned out to be largely in the dark about trans care.

Meanwhile, she was already self-medding. She said she saw the many steps of supervised transition not as precautionary measures, but as a form of discrimination and professional gatekeeping.

“It’s this really formalized process that ultimately is centered around not trusting trans people for transitioning,” she said. “There’s still this myth around trans people who transition and then regret it, which is such a tiny fraction of the population which is already tiny.”

A USA Today story estimated some 5 percent of people who make the change end up regretting it, but the numbers are tough to pin down.

Yet some trans-sensitive providers contend that the formalized process exists for good reason. Dr. Margot Bell, director of Adolescent Medicine at the John H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County and founder of the recently opened Same-Gender Loving (SGL) clinic, which was created to serve uninsured LGBT youth, said she won’t prescribe county-subsidized hormones from the hospital’s pharmacy until she is sure the client is ready to transition.

Trans Youth - Dr. Margot Bell is one of few physicians nationwide providing trans-sensitive medical care. She recently founded the Same Gender Loving (SGL) clinic in Stroger Hospital, where she can provide sex hormones for youth she feels are ready to transition. Photo courtesy of cookcountyhhs.org

Dr. Margot Bell is one of few physicians nationwide providing trans-sensitive medical care. She recently founded the Same Gender Loving (SGL) clinic in Stroger Hospital, where she can provide sex hormones for youth she feels are ready to transition. Photo courtesy of cookcountyhhs.org

Reaching a level of certainty, for Bell, entails evaluation of a patient’s medical and mental health history, a physical exam, as well as thorough inquiries into what the patient knows about transition, whether or not they’ve taken street hormones or other drugs, their sexual history and how they envision their post-transition body.

In her work, Bell said, she has had a few clients who transitioned and were unhappy with their new bodies, which is part of why she takes the process slowly, often over several months. She has worked with youth taking illegal hormones and said the pace and dosage of a physician-monitored prescription process may be contributing factors to the prevalence of self-medication.

“It happens very frequently,” Bell said. “Not necessarily because they can’t get care, but because they want more of the medication than the doctor will prescribe. Because they want to transition as fast as possible, they look for other ways to augment that transition.”

Though the current pace of treatment seems slow to some, it has come leaps and bounds in the past decade, said Emma Joy Jampole, a 57-year-old assistant professor at Northwestern University who first attempted transition in 1975. Jampole always knew she belonged in a female body, she said, but being trans was almost unheard of and therapists denied her hormones for so long that she eventually gave up.

“They thought I was trans, but they also thought I was attracted to women, and said ‘If we allow you to transition we’ll be taking you from being straight in some way to being gay, and we’re not in the business of making homosexuals.’”

After living in what she felt was the wrong body for three decades, Jampole finally underwent hormone therapy and so-called bottom surgery, which can include the changing of genitals or or other alterations, in 2009. Her long journey puts today’s “rolling ball” in perspective. But current DIY-ers, especially youth, are still not satisfied with the progress.

“Patience is not in rich supply for many of these young people,” Garofalo said. “They’ve been waiting their whole lives to be who they want to be, and to face any sort of obstacle is just so painful and it feels so oppressive. I feel like I’m an oppressor sometimes. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it all better.”

High-Speed Delivery

The promotion of illegal hormones as the ‘magic wand’ for the new generation takes place mainly online, with all the virtual marketplace’s advantages of instant transactions, discreet delivery and anonymity of customer and vendor relations.

Anyone with a Yahoo! profile can join TsDoItYourself Hormones, a forum that currently serves more than 18,000 members worldwide. Within minutes of signing up, members receive one email containing the URLs for 24 different online pharmacies that moderators recommend for purchasing hormones, and a second listing six distributors of syringes and needles.Most pharmacies recommended on this forum distribute drugs that the FDA would consider illegal, and the backlash from officials may not be far off.

Participants also receive seven disclaimer emails stating that the group “does not promote or approve the personal exchange (buying, selling, trading) of any type of drug requiring a prescription or illegal drugs to any person whatsoever.” The same message appears in red on the forum’s homepage.

As some trans sites mention, online pharmaceutical consumers may be subject to fraud or may not always receive their packages, which can be stopped in, for example, U.S. Customs. The pharmacies referenced are largely based in Europe and the South Pacific.

But the heyday for online distributors may be waning. Just last October, the FDA joined Interpol’s Operation Pangea — a global effort to decrease the prevalence of illegal medical products — and with it shut down nearly 18,000 Internet pharmacies.

Ordering online exacerbates what was already a dangerous situation, Bell said. Even used under supervision, hormones can put users at higher risk for breast cancer and other serious illnesses. Acquiring the hormones from an outside source only amplifies those risks. Bell also warned against other DIY methods mentioned in online guidebooks, such as buying from hormone dealers on the street or getting drugs from Mexico.

“You really don’t know the trustworthiness of that company, so you don’t know what you’re getting,” Bell said. “That can certainly be a danger.”

Garofalo said he commonly sees transgender women who undergo fraudulent silicone injections only to have the treatments result in lesions, infections and, in rare cases, death. Additionally, online hormones typically come in oral forms, which are processed by the liver and can do damage to it. Most doctors prescribe patches or injections to prevent that damage.

Though many DIY-ers are aware of general health risks and most forums urge readers to seek medical care, self-medication remains the method of choice for some.

“The reason for taking this route is quite simple: it’s the only available path to transition,” said Sarah Gerace, a 48-year old transgender woman and moderator for the Yahoo! group.

She added, “For the vast majority, DIY is the preferred choice still, if not for the lack of a well-beaten path, certainly for the privacy and anonymity many feel compelled is absolutely essential in embarking on a course friends and family still see as unacceptable.”

Another Way

There is another way around the system. Some resource centers, notably the Howard Brown Center in Chicago, have launched hormone distribution programs based on informed consent, a process now acknowledged by the WPATH Standards of Care, through which clients can start hormone therapy without approval by a therapist so long as they are competent and at least 18 years old.

Redmond Lhota, a 20-year-old Northwestern student who started transitioning to male over a year ago, said he has heard about transitioning on DIY hormones but believes it to be too dangerous. He is currently receiving care through Howard Brown’s THInC (Transgender Hormone Informed Consent) program, where a healthcare professional provides him with a prescription for testosterone and monitors his hormone levels. Overall, Lhota, who studies engineering said he has been happy with his care, but emphasizes that transitions are difficult, even with medical supervision.

“When I was on a two-week cycle doing intramuscular injections, I had problems with a big spike at the beginning and a hard fall-off at the end,” he said. “These were accompanied by big mood swings. Because I was under medical care, my doctor was able to suggest that I switch to weekly subcutaneous injections, which work a lot better for me. Less swing and less scary needle.”

Baylie Roth, a trans patient navigator, or counselor, for THInC, said he would like to see the field of transgender medicine shift to a place of informed consent, where a client would drive the chronology for his or her own care.

“I’ve never encountered a trans person in my life who wanted hormones and wasn’t ready for them,” he said. “The dominant culture puts the idea of ‘being ready’ on trans people instead of letting them decide for themselves. My job is just to make them aware of the changes that might happen. We should shift the thinking away from when they’re ready to how we can help.”

More Competent Care

With more and more trans-positive clinics taking on the ‘informed consent’ model, the road to transition could be slightly less treacherous in the future, according to experts and trans interviewed for this story.

The key, according to Amelia, will be an increase in research on trans-medical issues and efforts to better inform healthcare providers about the population – which has been extremely difficult to gauge or count although NCTE estimates that between .25 percent and 1 percent of the U.S. population is transexual.

In the meantime, DIY-ers will likely continue to care for themselves.

“The trans community has compiled a lot of information about all of the medications we take,” Amelia said. “Usually trans people have to educate ourselves about the way everything works, and we end up having to educate our doctors about it, which has consistently been a frustrating thing.”

Ryan Sallans, a 34-year-old transgender speaker, consultant and author who presents his program “Scouting the Unknown” at universities and hospitals across the country, urges young adults to be patient and work with, not against, the medical system. He is currently working with Affiliate Risk Management Services, Inc (ARMS),  a New York-based nonprofit that creates LGBT-sensitive online courses and trainings for medical personnel.

“We always need to advocate for our own health,” he said. “If you are calling somewhere and they’re not giving you the right information or they say they can’t do it, do some research and get back at them. Don’t be scared to use your voice. When you do that, things happen.”

Budget cuts mean fewer mammograms for uninsured women

**This article first appeared at dailynorthwestern.com on March 27, 2012**

The Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program is now feeling the effects of the budget cuts that Gov. Pat Quinn made last July, causing the program to reduce the number of routine mammograms provided for uninsured women statewide.

There are 17 sites that previously provided free mammograms for all uninsured women but now have to work from a priority list, said Shannon Lightner, deputy director for the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Office of Women’s Health.

The new system, implemented Feb. 16, prioritizes women 50 or older who have never been tested, women with symptoms of breast cancer and women who are in the process of being diagnosed. Women who don’t meet this criteria are put on a waitlist and are pulled for routine screening after the priority list has been served, Lightner said.

Mammograms help detect breast cancer in its early stages, significantly increasing the chances of survival, Lightner added.

“What we don’t want to see happening is women waiting on a list to get a routine mammogram, and then while they’re waiting get a lump,” she said. “Later they’ll be more expensive to treat and their chances of survival will be lower.”

The program has been running out of funding due to cuts in the state’s 2012 fiscal year budget, Lightner said. In the fiscal year 2011, the program had $21 million – $14.5 million of which came from the state and $6.6 million from federal funding. This year, the program only has about $20 million, according to Lightner.

Lightner does not expect funding to be restored soon.

“It’s not a fun situation to be in,”‘ she said. “We’re looking at next year’s proposed budget, and we might have to have priority lists throughout the whole state. If we have to cut more women from the program, it will be devastating.”

The reduction of mammogram funding is just a small piece of a wider trend, said Lisa Currie, director of health promotion and wellness at Northwestern. Currie said a lot of recent legislative decisions, including recent attempts in the U.S. House of Representatives to restrict funding for Planned Parenthood, could be considered “anti-woman” because they limit women’s access to reproductive health care.

“It sends a signal,” she said. “This is a concern not just for breast cancer, but for other women’s health issues. If we’re seeing services being cut to women that are critical for our healthcare, that’s a problem.”

Currie said changes in mammogram accessibility are not necessarily relevant to students, since women typically do not get tested at such a young age. However, if a young woman has a history of breast cancer in her family, the staff at health services can help direct her to the nearest mammogram location, which she said is probably Evanston Hospital.

Weinberg sophomore Christine Smith said she believes the funding cuts will ultimately be harmful. Smith serves as Zeta Tau Alpha’s philanthropy chair and helps organize the sorority’s breast cancer fundraisers.

“Breast cancer affects women from all social classes, and no woman should live in fear of not having access to life-saving cancer screenings,” Smith said. “It would be a step in the wrong direction if these resources became less attainable.”

Andy Buchanan, manager of public relations for NorthShore University HealthSystem, said the organization has not been significantly affected by the cutbacks, since most of its visitors are insured.

Students, staff push for full-time coordinator for LGBT Resource Center

**This article first appeared at dailynorthwestern.com on May 8th, 2011**

Students pushing for a full-time coordinator in the LGBT Resource Center recently gained the support of the Associated Student Government when Senate passed legislation in favor of their cause.

“ASG Stands with the LGBT Resource Center” was authored by members of Rainbow Alliance, Hillel Leadership Council, In Technicolor and ASG in an effort to draw attention to the resource center’s need for more staffing. It passed April 27, opening the door to a lengthy process that, if implemented, would involve restructuring the staff of the Center for Student Involvement.

The LGBT Resource Center was founded in 2004 and is located on the third floor of Norris University Center. It aims to create a safe space for members of the LGBT community and its allies while providing education and training about LGBT issues for the entire University, said Doris Dirks, coordinator for the center.

Dirks said she currently spends half of her time working with the center and the other half with about 15 groups she advises as coordinator for Student Organizations for Social Justice. Dirks said with the University’s increasing demand for LGBT resources, the job can no longer be done satisfactorily by one person.

“People know. Everybody knows,” Dirks said. “And the message I’ve received is it’s worth working on, it’s in process. And it’s not about me. It needs to make a transition. We’re at a point where I used to say yes to everything, and I can’t do that anymore.”

The Resource Center is the only designated “safe space” on campus where students can go for help with LGBT issues, Dirks said. Additionally, the center is responsible for providing ally training to campus organizations, providing free HIV testing, co-sponsoring events and holding panels. Dirks said she was recently asked to provide training for the School of Law on the Chicago campus but had to decline due to lack of time and resources.

Dirks, as well as a member of the center’s student staff, voiced complaints that a lack of budget and a lack of physical space prevent the center from providing LGBT support for students, staff and faculty who need it. Their newest publicity campaign, displayed on posters and on a banner at Norris, states that though 10 percent of Northwestern students identify as LGBT, 100 percent are served by the LGBT Resource Center.

“If you asked most administrators, they’d say they were supportive of the LGBT community,” Dirks said. “But it’s one thing to say that, and it’s another to put your money where your mouth is. I think it’s an issue of institutional priorities. It seems to me that when the University deems something important, they somehow come up with the money, resources and staff.”

Creation and expansion of coordinator’s role

Though the resource center was founded in 2004, it did not have an official supervisor until 2006, when Dirks, who was already on the staff of the Center for Student Involvement, was asked to be the center’s part-time coordinator.

Natalie Furlett, assistant director for the Center for Student Involvement, said it was an experimental position created before the University knew what the resource center would become.

“I think the amount of work that has sprung out of having that person has created more than what we had budgeted for,” Furlett said. “It now seems like we could use someone who could do it full time.”

The resource center is not considered a student organization but an entity of CSI. Dirks compared it to being of similar function to the Women’s Center or the Multicultural Student Affairs office.

Cara Tuttle Bell, director of programs at the Women’s Center, said her office has five full-time staff members that enable it to serve faculty, staff and students on both campuses.

“I think they’re spread thin right now,” Tuttle Bell said of the LGBT Resource Center. “In terms of what we do, they could do a lot of the same things if they had staff and resources available.”

In order to allow Dirks to work with the LGBT Resource Center exclusively, CSI would have to redistribute the other 15 groups she advises to other members of CSI staff, Furlett said. This would mean putting organizations like College Feminists, College Republicans and College Greens under new leadership.

Furlett said she is in favor of the change, but it would have to be done with careful consideration for the groups in play. She said the process would start with a talk among CSI staff and then with Rick Thomas, executive director of Norris, but starting discussion would not be plausible until next year.

Thomas said the resource center is not unique in that it operates on limited resources, as many organizations could also use more space or staffing. He also said redistributing Dirks’ other responsibilities would be complicated, given that the other CSI staff members have equally demanding responsibilities.

He said the center is a clear priority of the University, which was why administration decreased the pool for student offices in 2003 to make space for it and why a part-time coordinator was put there in 2006. He said he can see a full-time position as a reality down the road and will bring it up at the fall budget meeting.

“We make decisions about what we’re able to do and what we’re not,” Thomas said. “If there is demand that is there, and a legitimate need that needs to be addressed, that’s part of the argument I use to justify more resources to be able to meet those needs.”

LGBT centers at other schools

The LGBT Resource Center has a library of books, magazines and DVDs relating to LGBT issues, but resource assistant Chris Garcia said no one knows about it.

Garcia, a Medill junior and co-author of the Senate legislation, said due to the center’s small physical space and location, it gets minimal traffic and does not fulfill its function as a safe space in which people can “hang out.”

“We need an office and position that can grow and can have a stable trajectory,” Garcia said. “We don’t have a good response for hate and bias incidents. We don’t have good resources for trans individuals. The resource center is so small, and for any practical purpose, it’s too small to be effective.”

At the University of Michigan, the LGBT Resource Center, now called the Spectrum Center, has just celebrated its 40-year anniversary. The center was the first of its kind in the U.S. when it was founded in 1971, and its assistant director William Sherry said it is still going strong, with four full-time staff members.

Sherry said the Spectrum Center is centrally located and equipped with computers, printers, a refrigerator, couches and bean bag chairs. He said having a full-time staff is an integral part of the center’s success.

“Having people students can develop relationships with makes all the difference,” Sherry said. “Having a full-time staffer makes students more comfortable. They know who they’re going to be talking to. It allows for safety and consistency.”

About two weeks ago, the dean of Harvard College announced it would hire a full-time director of LGBTQ student life, according to an article in the Harvard Crimson. The change was the result of an extensive administrative review of the LGBTQ experience at Harvard.

Garcia said he and the presidents of Rainbow Alliance are writing a long-term plan to address the needs of the NU LGBT community, but that the process should start with a full-time coordinator.

“For the University to prove that it cares about LGBT individuals, you need to have someone in the administration that has LGBT in their title and can commit themselves to working with sexual orientation and gender expression exclusively,” he said.

A house of art offers inner-city youth a creative out

**This article first appeared at chicago-bureau.org on June 3rd, 2013**

In a two-story brick residence in Humboldt Park, three teen artists sit around a table discussing their plans for an original neighborhood mixtape. There’s a tripod and a can of spray paint on the table, as well as a pile of paperwork, including grant proposals. The walls are covered in painted portraits.

Miguel Rodriguez, founder of the Graffiti Zone, sitting outside the program's home

Miguel Rodriguez, director of the Graffiti Zone, sitting outside the program’s home/Photo by Samantha Caiola

When these three turn 18, they’ll have the opportunity to live in this house as part of Graffiti Zone’s Artist-in-Residence program, which pays young artists a weekly stipend to hone their passions and, they hope, beautify a neighborhood too often making headlines for its violence.

The teens – currently ages 16 to 17 – were commissioned to the house by Miguel Rodriguez, who at 20 is the director of Graffiti Zone, a Chicago nonprofit that helps at-risk teens express their talents. His teaching, though structured, allows boys and girls as young as 8 years old to experiment freely with such alternative mediums as graffiti, sound mixing and slam poetry.

Rodriguez understands troubled youths’ need for self expression. At just 13, he turned to graffiti in order to out his frustration with the chaos of city life and a lack of family support. Mostly using spray paint – something that strictly regulated in this city because of the gang life associated with it and the millions spent by City Hall to remove it time and again – he scrawled on walls throughout Humboldt Park.

It was a short career, and one that ended with a bust by the cops for criminal defacement of public property – for which he was locked up in Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center for a week.

“Graffiti really communicates that we have a lot of youth out here who are really passionate about what they’re doing, to the point that they’re willing to get arrested for it,” he said. “It also speaks to them saying to the world I’m here. I exist. I live in this community. That’s the most basic thought that goes through a graffiti writer.”

After his brief stint in locked up, Rodriguez joined Graffiiti Zone and other programs like Kuumba Lynx, a non-profit that empowers youth through hip hop – where mentors started to call him an “artist.” The title took. No longer was his work dismissed as criminal; it was encouraged and embraced. Just like that, he was more than just a kid who wrote on walls. He learned techniques of graffiti writing, such as making block letters, bubble letters and wildstyle, as well as creating personal portraits.

After that, he started bringing spray paint and canvas to block parties around Humboldt Park and teach youth about primary colors and get them involved with Graffiti Zone in an effort to keep them out of street life. Now, he uses the same methods in the after-school classes he teaches at Cameron Elementary School and West Town Academy.

Last summer, Graffiti Zone created eight murals in and around Humboldt Park on walls that were donated by local businesses. The murals, which are vibrant, and express themes like peace, love and friendship, have received only positive feedback from the community, Rodriguez said. No RIP stains scribbled to honor slain gang members in a city so warped by shootings and murders it has drawn international attention.

The door to West Side Chicago church donated to Graffiti Zone/Photo by Samantha Caiola

The door to West Side Chicago church donated to Graffiti Zone/Photo by Samantha Caiola

“There’s no reason for you to go out there and write on walls when we have space for you to do it,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not going to be worth it for you to get arrested- on your side or the community side.”

Rodriguez, like many grass-roots leaders working in alternative art forms, struggles with the inaccessibility of government funding. He currently runs Graffiti Zone on private grants rather than city money, which is tough to get because of the small pool and the large number of artists reaching for their share.

“It’s been hard to balance offering programming and dedicating time to write grants,” he said. “I’m sure the money is there. It’s all about how to get it and really having the connections and sitting at these meetings when the decision makers are at the table and making sure we’re at the table.”

Last year, the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs awarded cultural arts grants to 522 profit and non-profit organizations as well as individual artists, said Allyson Esposito, director of the grants program. Of those grants, only 25 were in the form of project-specific funding for organizations with robust programs for the elderly, children, people with disabilities, or low-income people, Esposito said. These organizations received between $8,000 and $15,000, with a few getting $25,000.

Esposito said she believes that art education for youth is important, and needs to be more prominent than it is right now.

“Youth is the audience that absolutely should be reached,” she said. “In our city there are areas that have more arts education than others…involving youth in after school and out of school intervention keeps them engaged and pairs them in meaningful relationships with adults. Allowing them creative expression can lead to less violence.”

More commonly, the grants go to more established, more structured programs like The Merit School of Music’s Communidad strings program. The Merit School, a large conservatory in Pilsen offers subsidized musical training to students of diverse economic and racial backgrounds.

The strings program follows the Suzuki method of music and has a very strict student and parent attendance policy, which instructor Lesley McCool said causes some students to drop out preemptively if they are not completely engaged.

“The difficulty with string playing is that it takes a very long time just to get the basics set up,” she said. “It takes a few years to really develop ones own voice, because they need to be technically proficient to do so. But it will lead to personal expression in the future.”

When it comes to music, Graffiti Zone affords a lot more creative license to its participants. The organization hosted an open mic on Wednesday at a community church, where neighbourhood youth were able to perform music and poetry and display visual works.

One of Graffiti Zone’s musical artists, Destiny De la Vaya, is a 16-year-old Clemente High School student on Chicago’s heavily Hispanic near West Side who appreciates creative license. A lover of music and signing, she did not participate in the school choir. Instead, she works with her friends to record covers and put them on YouTube.

“It’s really hard to get your name out there,” De la Vaya said. “I want to be seen everywhere. The school has a talent show at the end of every year, but that’s about it.”

Ulysses Diaz, a Chicago-area visual artist and counselor at Waubonsee Community College, which is in Aurora, said individual expression is key for organized art programs that target at-risk youth.

“It’s important with young artists to allow them to explore without any rules,” Diaz said. ”If there would’ve been some type of structure that an organization wanted to follow, it would take away from the authenticity of the artist and the ownership that the young people feel they’re contributing. Which to me is the main piece. To think you can give something that someone can look at and connect to.”

He said that he was an introvert who enjoyed working alone, but was able to find community with Youth Struggling for Survival, a now-retired youth empowerment organization. Louis J. Rodriguez, founder of the organization and author of the novel “Rushing Waters, Rising Dreams: How the Arts are Transforming a Community,” said he founded YSS from the ground up, starting with a basement in Humboldt Park, in order to give underserved youth an outlet for hip hop and slam poetry.

“Presently, too much art (and arts funding) is being concentrated in museums, orchestras, tourists spots and removed from poor urban communities,” he said.

But despite the roadblocks, Miguel Rodriguez and Graffiti Zone continue to carry the banner (and the canvas) for urban graffiti artists, music producers hip hop dancers and slam poets. He hopes to participate in the Humboldt Park Arts Festival and create many more murals this coming summer.

“Using the arts as a way of self discovery and building identity and leadership, as well as being able to put some money in their pockets, can be the substitute for wanting to join gangs,” said Rodriguez. “It’s a whole identity and sustainability issue. It’s an alternative to having to get your hands dirty with drug money.”

A mural created by members of the Graffiti Zone, working with Rodriguez/Photo by Samantha Caiola

Gay youth struggle against schools’ ignorance and communities’ intolerance

**This article was first published at chicago-bureau.org on June 25, 2012**

As thousands in the LGBT community took the streets over the weekend in places such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco to parade pride before a nation that considers itself tolerant, research shows gay youth still grapple with painful issues during perhaps the most pivotal stages of their lives.

Take, for example, a recent report by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights advocacy organization. The report stressed the prevalence of bullying and discrimination toward LGBT youth, a problem Chicago-area experts say is caused by intolerant and unsupportive systems in schools and communities.

HRC’s national survey of 10,000 LGBT-identified youth, called “Growing Up LGBT in America,” recently found 51 percent of participants had been verbally harassed at school, and 48 percent felt excluded by peers because of their sexual identity.

One seeming remedy is forming Gay-Straight Alliances – extracurricular organizations that aim to create a safe space for LGBT youth and their allies. However, few GSAs exist in Chicago-area schools. While 47 percent of students nationally reported having a GSA at school, only 41 of 158 Chicago public high schools are listed in the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance’s GSA directory, according to an analysis of Illinois Safe Schools Alliance data.

Alexis Wieselman, who has advised GSAs at both Eric Solorio Academy and Phillips High School, said running these clubs is particularly difficult without the support of administration and the surrounding community.

When she advised the club at Phillips two years ago, she said the administration “put up barriers whenever possible” by delaying the start of the club and subjecting them to additional paperwork.

“The problems that I have run into with GSA’s in inner city Chicago schools is that administration doesn’t have an understanding of the importance of visibility for LGBT youth,” said Wieselman, a science special education teacher. “They don’t view it as important that teachers be out and that there be communication in the handbook that LGBT students exist.”

A Gay-Straight Alliance, when permitted, can provide a place for students to speak openly about their identities, which may work to combat the rise in LGBT youth suicides that led to the viral “It Gets Better” campaign from 2010. But a recent report from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center indicates that it is not getting better. LGBT youth attempt suicide at a rate of two to four times higher than that of their heterosexual peers. They struggle to “cope with developing a sexual minority identity in the midst of negative comments, jokes, and often the threat of violence,” the report said.

Spencer, a 16-year-old attending a public high school in New York, was initially afraid to share his identity with friends, family or teachers. HRC reported that one-third of LGBT youth feel they do not have an adult to whom they can talk.

Spencer said his parents, who were unsure how to handle his questions, arranged for him to speak to a therapist about his identity. Through these sessions and a few friends, he learned to ignore people who probed him about his identity with malicious intent and brushed off “certain remarks, certain looks and just people being rude.”

“During 8th grade I had identified myself as a homosexual, but never publically,” he said. “I never talked about it. People would always ask me and I would deny it, not because I wasn’t proud or I wasn’t comfortable. It’s just that I didn’t know what that meant. I wasn’t positive, I wasn’t sure. There were so many questions floating around. It was not a hard time but it was just confusing.”

And even with a supportive administration, a club’s success can hinge on the attitudes of the school’s neighbors. According to the HRC report, four in 10 LGBT youth say the community in which they live is not accepting of LGBT people.

Spencer, for example, said the community in which he grew up focused more on racial diversity than sexual diversity, and being gay was still a taboo subject, especially for his parents’ generation.

Emily Tongue, who advises the GSA at Collins Academy High School in North Lawndale, said establishing the club was easy; retaining membership proved more difficult because of the stigma surrounding it. Students sometimes referred to the organization as “that gay club,” and parents approached her insisting that their child remain uninvolved, she said.

“Commitment is really hard in high school in the first place, especially with something like a GSA,” said Tongue, who, like Wieselman, teaches science special education. “We’re [North Lawndale] a mostly African-American  area, drug ridden, low income, and very homophobic. So it’s big-time needed there. But it’s just a matter of students feeling comfortable enough to show up.”

Tongue said a few of her GSA seniors were victims of bullying last year, but chose to mediate the situations within the club rather than take it to administration. The club provided support for the targeted students but encouraged them to handle the situations on their own.

“This was their chance to start standing up and being the voice they needed for the rest of their lives,” she said. “We were lucky to have only a few bullying cases, but the students learned to know that the world was mean, and they would have to be bigger person and move on from it.”

Even when bullying cases are brought to authorities, the “three strikes you’re out” policy typically used in Chicago schools is not conducive to LGBT mediation, said Bonnie Wade, associate director of UCAN, a Chicago-based program for LGBT. The perpetrator gets a slap on the wrist and the victim gets set aside, without further effort to create a safe space, she said. Often, Wade said, the complaints of LGBT students are overlooked by teachers and administrators who blame the students for drawing in violence with their appearance and behavior.

“Our social structures are not set up to support gender variance or gender nonconforming young people.” she said.  “So when young people fall outside of the mainstream…that is seen as deviant or is stigmatized…It’s still pretty uncomfortable for people, especially when it comes to teenagers. Our schools, our community groups and churches, we’re in the process of catching up.”

FEMA denies appeal for tornado aid to Illinois Town

**This article was originally published at dailynorthwestern.com on March 26, 2012**

In the wake of the tornado, rated an E4, Gov. Pat Quinn asked FEMA to help with damage assessment on the ground in Harrisburg. Quinn submitted a request for federal funding on March 7, but it was denied three days later, said Patti Thompson, communications manager for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Quinn appealed the decision, but it was denied last Wednesday.

FEMA spokesperson Sandy Jasmund said the damage in Illinois was not severe enough to warrant their assistance since other aid agencies were already in Harrisburg and there was a number of people covered by insurance.

Harrisburg residents, such as Mona Crim, expressed disappointment with FEMA’s decision. Crim is the director of the Christian Community Compassion Center in Harrisburg, which also serves as a homeless shelter and food pantry and has provided assistance to tornado victims.

“There are a lot of people that don’t have insurance that were affected by this storm. They don’t have the money to rebuild,” Crim said. “Our plea now is for different communities to send building materials. It’s disappointing, but we’re pulling things up by our boot strings.”

After the storm, FEMA joined state and local officials for a preliminary damage assessment and then decided not to provide federal assistance based on the guidelines in the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, Jasmund said.

“It’s based on facts,” she said. “They felt that when looking at the damages, it was not beyond what the local and state government could provide along with the voluntary organizations.”

There are currently two FEMA employees assisting state officials in Harrisburg, Jasmund said, one helping disabled victims and the other working with local volunteer organizations. They will stay in Harrisburg as long as they are needed, Jasmund said.

However, some directly involved in the recovery said they feel the officials’ presence isn’t enough. Thompson said her organization supported Quinn’s appeal by providing documentation of damage after the initial denial. Last week, IEMA was coordinating the delivery of resources, equipment and personnel to the Harrisburg area, Thompson said.

“Obviously we’re disappointed because we see the need for the types of federal assistance that are available only through FEMA,” she said. “We certainly would have liked to have seen that approved. In the meantime, we’re not giving up on any hopes of helping the people.”

If FEMA did assist, it would be able to provide individuals with grants to cover temporary housing, medical bills, funeral arrangements and other post-disaster expenses, Thompson said. After the denial from FEMA, Quinn requested a Disaster Declaration for Illinois from the United States Small Business Administration. The declaration was issued March 22, and the administration opened an office in Harrisburg the next day, said Jack Camp, an SBA spokesman.

The SBA can provide low-interest loans for renters, homeowners and businesses, Camp said. Individuals can apply for loans by visiting the office, calling or completing a form online. Thompson said the people who are not eligible for SBA loans would benefit from FEMA grants, which do not have to be paid back like the SBA loans.

In addition to the SBA money, Harrisburg has received help from volunteer organizations who are collecting donations, rebuilding homes and providing shelter for those made homeless by the storm. The high level of volunteer activity is one of many reasons why FEMA denied Quinn’s request, Jasmund said.

But Dave Skoblar, director of a national nonprofit called Project 195 that has sent over 200 volunteers to Harrisburg so far, said FEMA “threw up its hands” on this project.

“Their initial story that we have enough volunteers is nonsense,” Skoblar said. “There’s never enough volunteers. With the FEMA budget constraints, it would not be financially smart for them to drain their account in March. They’re being pragmatic, which is no relief to anyone at all, especially in Harrisburg.”

Jasmund said FEMA was “not the team” but only “part of the team” managing the Harrisburg recovery, which she said was progressing well.

“Everything went according to local responding first,” she said. “We’re working together at the state and local level.”

Still, Crim said tornado victims are “just trying to get by” and that the local community is holding nightly informational meetings to keep everyone on the same page as they rebuild their town.

“I just want people that are not here to know that it is time for them to be praying for Harrisburg and to send money and help,” Crim said. “That’s what we need.”