Trustee addresses community relations in MLK Day speech

By Emily Alpert

Over 1,000 people crowded into Rockefeller Chapel yesterday for “Still Realizing the Vision,” the University’s annual service in commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On the first year that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been recognized as an official University-wide holiday, University President Don Randel announced that it was “not merely another excuse to take a day off,” but rather “a holiday dedicated to the great work that remains before us.”

Keynote speaker Valerie Jarrett, a University trustee and managing director of the Habitat Company, chose to focus her remarks on “the progress of this institution and our community over time.” Jarrett recounted the “tensions bubbling within the University” during the 1960s, when she grew up in Hyde Park, noting the controversial urban renewal program and the poverty of the University’s surrounding neighborhoods.

“We cannot help but be disappointed” that these issues are unresolved, “but there are signs of progress,” Jarrett said. She pointed to strong community-based organizations, including student groups, and the leadership of Mayor Daley, whom she praised as “unwaveringly committed to revitalizing our neighborhoods.”

Jarrett lauded Randel’s understanding of “the symbiotic relationship” between the University and its surrounding community. “President Randel challenged us to open our minds, hearts and doors…to destroy the figurative barriers” that remain between the University and its neighbors, Jarrett said.

Any candidate to replace him, she added at the reception, must share Randel’s commitment to that task.

Jarrett also spoke favorably of educational initiatives such as the Chicago Public Schools Scholarship Program—which grants full scholarships to qualified public school applicants to the College—and of the University of Chicago Police Department’s recent northward expansion “at the request of the community—that would never have been considered a decade ago.”

Referencing the “straight-thuggin’” party held in May House last quarter, Jarrett said that “when racial tensions erupted last fall, we faced them head on.”

However, challenges remain, according to Jarrett. Among the issues she cited were the recruitment and retention of students and faculty of color and the preservation of the area’s affordable housing.

The Southside Solidarity Network, a University student group, and the Student-Tenant Organizing Project (STOP) distributed half-sheets criticizing the Habitat Company, of which Jarrett is managing director, for its management of Grove Parc Plaza, a subsidized development on Cottage Grove Avenue between 60th and 63rd Streets. Members solicited signatures for a “letter of concern” to Jarrett asking her to address the “neglect and disrepair” of the units.

“Habitat’s past management of Cabrini Green is a case in point,” said STOP member Alex Goldenberg, a fourth-year in the College. “They’ve been aggressively against tenant participation in the redevelopment of housing.”

“I wish they’d come and met with me” before writing the materials, Jarrett said. She agreed that “Grove Parc is woefully underfunded by its owner, WPIC (Woodlawn Preservation and Investment Corporation)” and that “additional resources need to be brought in.”

After Monday’s talk, Jarrett agreed to meet with students at the STOP office in Woodlawn.

Others thought Jarrett’s remarks oversimplified the current state of University community affairs. Jocelyn Moore, a graduate student at the School of Social Service Administration, said that Jarrett “didn’t address some of the issues at hand. Some of the phrases she used—‘seamless integration’, for example—might convince someone less knowledgeable about the politics of the University and the community that things are better than they are.”

“The tone of her speech was a little don’t-rock-the-boat,” said Caroline Buddenhagen, a fourth-year in the College. “She set up her speech in terms of all the good things we’ve done, and there wasn’t really a ‘however.’”

Beverly Bennett, a Hyde Park resident, found inspiration in Jarrett’s remarks: “I was very impressed with all of the accomplishments of the University in the past, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it in the future,” she said.

Likewise, Chavunduka, a Woodlawn resident for over 30 years, said, “Jarrett was right on in her keynote. I’m really concerned about the gentrification of the neighborhood. We want better services, but we don’t want to see ourselves and our neighbors getting pushed out.”

The memorial service also featured readings from the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah, a reading of King’s sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” performances from the East Indian fusion ensemble Funkadesi and student gospel choir Soul Umoja, and a tribute to Rosa Parks from Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle.

The event was one of a 10-day series, sponsored by the Office of Minority Student Affairs (OMSA), in honor of Dr. King’s legacy. The commemoration will conclude Thursday, January 19, at the School of Social Service Administration with the panel discussion, “Revisiting the Dream in the Aftermath of Katrina: Race, Class and Politics.”

“The very large turnout affirms the University and the community’s recognition of the importance of this day,” said Waldo Johnson, Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. “What Valerie tried to do in her speech was keep it local. As we anticipate Don Randel’s departure, it’s important that we remain steadfast in the commitment to Martin Luther King’s dream and to think of ways the University can be a good citizen.”