Light from a Dark Night


Image from istockphoto

We met in the middle of the night in a nearly empty parking garage at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.  My boss and I were returning from a weeklong business trip to the West Coast, laden with materials and personal stuff.  Our flight landed at about 11:30 PM; it was approaching midnight when my boss offered to escort me to my car.

After picking up loads of stuff from the baggage claim, I rented a pushcart for the trip to my car.  You were standing in the deserted elevator vestibule of the parking garage.  I assumed that you were among those who scrape together the round trip train fare to O’Hare for your night job of collecting  $.25 for each baggage cart you returned, hustling for tips by assisting travelers, or just hustling.

You were a teenager at the time; I’d guess about 16. We didn’t acknowledge each other when we met.  I noticed that you wore the uniform of a Black urban youth when you waited for my boss and I to empty my cart so you could claim its bounty. I remembered to put my car keys in my pocket – handy for a quick retreat.

I first heard your voice when you yelled to us, “Hey!” I didn’t argue with my boss when he said, “ Just keep going.” We did, moving a little faster. You moved faster, too, then summoned us again,“Hey!” Once more, I ignored your call. I felt better about having my keys handy and remembered their potential as a self-defense tool from my street safety class. We moved fast, but you moved faster. Your call never changed, “Hey!”

I remember my relief when we reached the safe harbor of my car, followed by fear when I looked in my rear view mirror to see you directly behind my car. It was my boss who first noticed that you were pointing something towards us. I was the one to recognize this object as my briefcase. You were following us to return the briefcase I left in the luggage cart.

I can’t remember the words exchanged in our only conversation.  I muttered something like “ Thank you” as I pushed a few dollars into your hand in exchange for my fully intact briefcase. But I will never forget the way you looked at me the only time we made eye contact. It wasn’t with resentment or anger or hostility. These would have been easier to accept than the resignation I saw. Your eyes expressed what you expected. Of course, you’d ignore me. Of course, you’d run away. Of course, you’d be afraid of me. Of course.

I think of you sometimes. I thought of you this weekend.  I think of you every year when I listen to the Youth Award Winners from UCAN. Some of these remarkable young leaders look like you. They’ve been labeled. They’ve watched people cross the street when they come by. They’ve lived in danger.  They’ve suffered trauma. They’ve been written off before they’ve even started. And, they are determined to prove doubters like me wrong about them.

I hope you’ve had a good life. Like our future leaders from UCAN, I hope that you’ve opened your heart to forgive and give the world another chance. And, if necessary, to give yourself another chance.  Because we need you to live the meaningful life you deserve. We need your hope. We need your talent. We need your dreams. We need you to make a future where we do better.

The People Who Could


Slowly, the cars began to move. Slowly, they climbed the steep hill. As they climbed, the little blue engine began to sing: I Think I Can! I Think I Can! I Think I Can!…

Watty Piper –  The Little Engine That Could 

 In Chicago, the city where I live, 298 children have died as victims of violence over the past three years.  If nearly three hundred children had died in one horrific incident, it would justifiably draw our outrage with demands that something be done to ensure the horror never happens again. But because we’ve lost our children’s lives in single incidents as casualties of angry fists, retaliation shootings and stray bullets, our reaction comes in the slow drip of sadness and shaken heads. As the news moves on to sports scores and weekend weather forecasts, so does our attention. Those who miss the bright eyes of their babies never forget, but the rest of us move on.

Questions about how this tragic déjà vu continues evokes a complicated knot of responses that often include conditions of poverty, poor education, broken families, bad choices, the prevalence of drugs and gangs as communities of choice. It becomes convenient to think that it’s too much to change – too intricate, too entrenched, too overwhelming.

 Starting Up the Hill

Last week, five remarkable young Chicagoans proved to me once again just how remarkable we can be. Eric Parks, Davina Bridges, Brian Lane, Britney Evans and Da’Angela Shepard reminded me that gifted, strong, future leaders live in our urban centers. A loss of their talent would be a tremendous loss to us. Eric, Davina, Brian, Britney and Da’Angela are the 2012 Youth Leadership and Scholarship Awardees from UCAN, a social service agency who lives its mission that children of trauma can be our future leaders.  These young ladies and gentlemen have recently graduated from high school (several near the top of their class), are active, positive leaders in their community, and are on their way to college next fall. Watch them tell their stories to understand why so many see leadership potential in Eric, DaVina, Brian, Britney and Da’Angela.

So, what do these young urban leaders, and hundreds more striving UCAN clients, have to teach us about life, leadership and change. Plenty. These are the lessons they share at a young age gained from their remarkable stories:

1. Believe that you have greatness in you. You do. Regardless of the circumstances you did not ask for or those that you earned, you can still make positive use of your gifts. There is something in you that your loved ones, your community and the world needs. Let it shine.

2.  Think big and have goals.  It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or where you are, it matters where you’re headed. Set goals and watch your habits change. When your habits change, your decisions change.  When your decisions change, your life changes.

3.  Surround yourself with people who believe in you. Make your posse your cheering section. Hang out with others trying to make the same good choices that you are. Support each other, encourage each other, and love each other. There are people who believe in your greatness and long for your happiness. Find them. Nurture them. Listen to them.

4. One person can make a difference. The award winners from this year, as in past years, name the people who, in reaching out, sparked the flame of hope in their lives. We often think of societal solutions in terms of institutions, but I’ve never heard an award winner thank an institution. It’s not for lack of exposure. Instead, they thank people.  They name parents, relatives, teachers, coaches, clergy, UCAN caseworkers|counselors and mentors who initiated an outreach toward something that sparked their interest.

This is where you come in. If you want to make a difference, let your imagination be your guide. With minimal effort, you can find worthy organizations in your community, like UCAN, dedicated to building our future treasure. Get involved in any way that you can. Trust me, if you have something to offer – they will find a way to use it. You may never make a better investment of your time, dollars, talent or interests. If your experience is like mine, it’s an investment that pays back many times over. Often, it’s unclear to me who helps who more.

Getting to the Other Side

The long, hot summer is just starting in Chicago. Reports of more senseless loss will fill the space in the news between the headlines and the sports. These are no longer anonymous names to me. My mind will wander to the hundreds of UCAN clients who are working hard this summer to improve their lives and the dedicated UCAN employees who walk with them every day.  My heart will break that the treasure lost could not have been reached soon enough. My hopes will soar that leaders like Eric, Davina, Brian, Britney and Da’Angela will change not only the trajectory of their lives, but of others they inspire.

And they did! Very soon they were over the hill and going down the other side. The little blue engine could pull the train herself. And, she went merrily on her way, singing: I Thought I Could! I Thought I Could! I Thought I Could!…..

Watty Piper- The Little Engine That Could