The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) hosted its annual convention last Saturday at King College Preparatory High School on East 45th Street and South Drexel. Community leaders honored the accomplishments of the group over the last year and discussed problems the group intends to confront in the future.
The theme of the conference was “We are the leaders we have been waiting for,” and over the course of the event, speakers and audience members repeatedly came back to the topic of involvement and passion in local politics. The focus lay primarily on improving public schools, maintaining affordable housing, and the importance of continued community involvement.
After opening remarks, there was a brief panel discussion with experts on housing and gentrification, including Harold Lucas, CEO of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, and Janet Smith, professor of urban planning and policy development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Many meeting attendees were concerned specifically with the impact that the Obama Presidential Library will have on the area, as well as the continued influence of the University.
“I don’t need somebody from the University of Chicago to come and tell me what my neighborhood needs to look like,” said Jitu Brown, director of the public-school advocacy organization Journey for Justice Alliance.
KOCO is a community group that focuses on educating and engaging residents of the South Side in order to affect meaningful change in local politics. In the past, affiliates of KOCO have staged protests, hunger strikes, and rallies to ensure that authorities acknowledge the demands of the community.
“A lot of the things in the city are happening to us, not by us,” KOCO Deputy Director Shannon Bennett said.
After the panel discussion, the audience of well over 100 KOCO members and community activists split into four groups for workshops on sustainable schools, senior health, affordable housing, and youth leadership. The workshops were led by local experts in these subjects, fostered a more intimate setting for asking questions than the full-group panel discussion.
After the workshops, the crowd convened for two keynote speeches. The first keynote speaker at the event was State Senator Mattie Hunter of Illinois’ Third District. She discussed her current work in Springfield and the influence that activists can have on politics.
“Sometimes elected officials cannot say what they really need to say or want to say, but you all can,” Hunter said, reminiscing about her early political involvement as a protester. She went on to emphasize the importance for residents of staying active within the community, remaining informed of local elections, and being wary of candidates who make empty promises.
In addition, she told the audience not to accept financial difficulties as an excuse by politicians: “We have over 700 separate funds, and if you add up all of that money, you have over 20, 30 billion dollars in those funds. So they tell you that they’re broke? Never, ever believe it.”
The second keynote speaker was 20-year-old Tori Crider, a youth organizer involved with the trauma center protests and a member of Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) and Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP), two of the organizations involved with the larger group, the Trauma Care Coalition (TCC). She spoke about the work she had done to confront UChicago about the lack of trauma care, as well as the importance of black youth involvement in general.
“This trauma center was achieved from people like me, young, black, and the majority [...] female,” Crider said. “Young, black people made this happen—if that’s not Black Lives Matter, I don’t know what is.”
She then spoke about the origins of FLY. In 2007, she said, a group of teens on the South Side realized that the lack of trauma care was an issue in their lives and that it was up to them to organize and make their voice be heard. “They decided to take the leadership and to take the incentive and fight back against the University of Chicago and their racist policies,” Crider explained. “They said ‘We’re not gonna take this any more.’”
Crider and the rest of the TCC will be hosting a town hall meeting this Thursday where the community can discuss what it expects from the new trauma center and how the University can best suit their needs. The event will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Kennicott Park Field House.
“We need the community there to let the University of Chicago know that this is what we want to see when this trauma center comes here, this is what we need,” Crider said. “And like we’ve been doing for the past five years, we’re gonna make them listen!”
KOCO leaders ended the convention by thanking everyone involved with the organization and recognizing influential activists from the past year. They also encouraged everyone to stay active within the community and to attend the next general KOCO meeting, which will be held sometime next month.