Chicago Dinners come to SSA

By Amanda Johnson

The School of Social Service Administration (SSA) and the Harris School of Public Policy will play host this Friday to “Chicago Dinners: A Night of Unity,” a semi-annual event that invites a keynote speaker to address issues over a free meal.

The Chicago Dinner program, to take place in the SSA lobby, is the fourth such event to be held on campus. The Human Relations Foundation (HRF), a group focused on the study of race relations and eradication of socio-economic inequality, started the dinners in 1995.

The HRF, an affiliate of the Jane Addams Hull House Association, works to examine policy and how it affects the underserved, according to Cheryl Zaleski, staff associate at HRF. The HRF co-sponsors each dinner with a different Chicago organization every year, in an effort to tackle the race relations issue from many points of view.

With an academic institution hosting this year’s event, the discussion will center on the issue of education, specifically the educational crisis facing black and Hispanic students in urban areas around the country.

Two University groups help sponsor this event: the Community and Economic Development Organization (CEDO), and the African-American Student Organization. Funding came from the RSO office and the student governments of the SSA and Harris School.

After opening remarks from the sponsoring organizations, the HRF will facilitate discussions at tables of strangers. Sponsors hope that by mixing the crowd, the guests will be exposed to new points of view in their discussions.

After hour-long table conversations, keynote speaker Phillip Jackson will talk on the disparity of educational achievement between whites and minority races, a situation that he argues perpetuates socio-economic inequality. Jackson is the founder and CEO of the Black Star Project, an organization aimed at helping minority students achieve higher education.

Jackson is also concerned with the breakdown of the family unit in urban neighborhoods and the effects these problems have on children’s behavior in school. “Parents must be the first, best and most important teachers for their children,” Jackson told The Star, a newspaper for the South Side and southern suburbs of Chicago.

He said that the prevalence of broken homes and absentee parents in urban communities has directly contributed to lower test scores among minority students, both locally and nationally.

Raised in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, Jackson understands the importance of education in escaping urban poverty. Before founding the Black Star Project, Jackson worked for the city, eventually becoming CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority.

No longer working for the city, Jackson is still active in community affairs and he approaches the subject of education with passion and urgency. “Many colleges require an ACT score of 21 or higher for college admission while the average score for Black students in Illinois is 16.2. This is apartheid,” reads the Black Star Project website.

The event is expected to be about two hours long and engage roughly 130 guests. These guests include students that accepted a campus-wide open invitation, as well as graduate students, faculty members, and local community organization members who were formally invited.