Travis, 39, is the executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, which focuses on public policy.
I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. I have not lived anywhere else. My family lived in Kenwood-Oakland in the 1950s and ’60s, shortly after restricted covenants were outlawed, and many of the challenges that working folks and low-income folks face now are similar to the issues my family faced back then.
My grandmother always shared stories with us about how she, as a teenage mother, had to stand up to slumlords in this neighborhood and withhold her rent and went to court to assert her right to live in clean and decent housing. Back then a lot of people were residing in rooming houses or the large graystone mansions that were divided into rooms. But the notion that you could use your own power to stand up for yourself—and that you could win—captured my imagination.
My mother’s family came from Mississippi and my dad’s family came from Tennessee. They lived in North Kenwood until the early 60s, and as fate would have it both families moved into the newly developed Robert Taylor homes. That’s where my parents met.
On my maternal side, my granddad did everything from drive cabs to work at factories. My grandmother didn’t work initially because she had a lot of young children. Then she worked at area nightspots. She was known in the community as one of the toughest bartenders you’d ever come across—and at four-foot-nine. She had a saying: “The good Lord might have seen it fit to give some folks more money than me, but he definitely didn’t make anybody any better.”
My father had a lot of interest in movements and movement building, African-American history and culture, so I had that sort of racial consciousness. I don’t think I was aware of how segregated the city was until my high school years, when I began to meet people who had connections with folks in different parts of the city and I actually got out into different neighborhoods.
I was a student at Columbia College in the early 90s when some other students and I came here to intern. A lot of the work that we did had to do with youth who were seeking to bring African and African-American history into their school curriculum. That’s how I came to know a lot about what organizing is—working with people to identify issues that they care about and moving those folks to work collectively using their own power and agency to win change.
A few months ago I had the pleasure of taking a walk through Operation PUSH with Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., who was the first senior executive director at KOCO, and just hearing his perspective on the value of grassroots organizing during that period. I came to work at KOCO when the organization was led by Robert Lucas, who also had deep roots in the civil rights movement. It was a time when there was a much larger number of low-income and working folks but people were beginning to get a sense that this area was going to receive a great deal of development. Actually, a lot of the interest in Kenwood and Oakland was generated by those families working with folks like Mr. Lucas to say that this area deserved investment.
But they definitely wanted to see low-income and working families benefit. The development has pushed out some of the very people who fought to bring it in. We’ve witnessed the displacement of many people and families due to the demolition of public housing. And housing costs from the early part of 2000 to roughly 2008 went up around 110 percent in some parts of Kenwood and Oakland, so gentrification is the issue that undergirds a lot of the other challenges families are facing here. It should not be a foregone conclusion that in order to develop neighborhoods you have to move out people at the lower part of the income spectrum.
Also, being in a hypersegregated city, some of our predominantly African-American and Latino communities have not received the level of investment they should have over time, and that’s part of what we’re going through with schools. We work in about seven schools in the community. There are quality public schools in the city of Chicago, so we can’t pretend that they don’t exist. We unfortunately have not had a lot of the investment and resources that we need to develop our schools here.
Recently, we challenged the Chicago Housing Authority around plans to drug test all CHA residents and renters in mixed-income developments. We came to that issue through work with families who are KOCO members and reside in CHA developments. They were told that it was a done deal. Our members wouldn’t accept it. Our organizers wouldn’t accept it.
Now that was a difficult fight. We reached out to other groups and sat down with our members and high-level folks at CHA. We listened to their premise for this policy, and our tenant leaders exposed the fact that it didn’t have a lot to do with safety as much as it was a punitive measure that could later be used to evict people. People who are homeowners and receive tax breaks on their houses don’t have to be drug tested in order to get that form of government subsidy.
While our collective efforts stopped the CHA from implementing the policy throughout all of their developments, the CHA continued to implement the policy in some of the mixed-income developments. The ACLU recently announced plans to sue the CHA over this.
I think if I had to say why I stay involved with organizing, it’s because I don’t think people should have to accept unfair treatment with substandard living conditions based on their race and economic status. If you couldn’t accomplish it through organizing, I wouldn’t stick with organizing as a strategy for change. You might not get everything you want the first time around—often we have to live to fight another day—but you are able to engage people in taking action and working collectively. —As told to Mick Dumke