On Monday, May 12, IMAN was one of over 1,000 venues to host a dinner and discussion as part of the Chicago Community Trust’s (CCT) “On the Table” initiative. On the Table was an event commemorating the 99th anniversary of CCT’s incredible service and philanthropy in Chicago and an effort to engage thousands of people across the Chicagoland area in a discussion about the future of their city. IMAN’s dinner and discussion focused on what it would take to transform neighborhoods such as the Marquette Park area into vibrant, healthy communities in light of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy in the area.
After viewing online footage of some of the race riots that took place in Marquette Park in the late 1970s, dinner guests separated into three groups based on the topics of access to health care and healthy food, availability of artistic and cultural resources, and local community organizing efforts. The groups discussed the root causes of some of the issues that plague our communities in these areas and brainstormed solutions to those issues, as well as thought through some of the possible barriers to success. The approximately twenty dinner guests were a mix of young people from the Marquette Park neighborhood and adult leaders from across the city, and each brought a different perspective on concrete ways to transform inner-city neighborhoods such as Marquette Park.
Some of the ideas surfaced at the dinner were to pair young people up with local rising artists as mentors, to develop inter-generational community sports tournaments to bring community members together, and to develop a community health hotline that residents could call to get answers to basic health questions.
CCT has been collecting the data from each of the over a thousand meal-time discussions to help inform the future of its work.
Over the last few years, IMAN’s Community Café has become a unique and powerful site where art and organizing come together to inspire and empower audiences on a regular basis. The May edition, Community Café: ReEntry, did not disappoint on either account. The Egyptian producer, composer, arranger and pianist Fathy Salama, who is the Arab World’s Only Grammy and BBC Awards Winner, and his band headlined the night with a set that layered their traditional Arabic and Jazz influences to create an eclectic soundscape. In the same manner, IMAN brought together music and stories from its Green ReEntry leaders and organizing partners to highlight this unique and effective solution to the problems of recidivism and unemployment faced by those re-entering society.
Honoring the long struggle against mass-incarceration and the week commemorating the birth of Al-Hajj Malik Al-Shabazz, this Community Café was dedicated to the artistic exploration of the multifaceted story of ReEntry; a story of struggle, redemption and in many cases an inspirational story of hope and transformation. In addition to Fathy Salama, it featured the always-powerful spoken words from Mark Gonzales, and music from Muhsinah, Khalil Ismail and the host, Maimouna Youssef. Live art by graffiti and fine artist, graphic designer, and professional television animator Slang was a special treat that night.
This Café was special for two other reasons: (1) Presenting the energetic “house band” that featured some of the talented brothers from the first Green ReEntry Home, and (2) Articulating important legislation that impacts thousands of brothers and sisters re-entering society. Leaders from IMAN and our partner organization, Target Area Development Corporation, spoke about the importance of citywide alliances like the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations (UCCRO) working to provide real solutions to unemployment, lack of dignity and recidivism that continue to be huge factors for many from the formally-incarcerated community across Chicago and Illinois. In addition to the music they performed, leaders from Green ReEntry spoke about an important piece of legislation that allows businesses to receive a tax credit for hiring ex-offenders, which IMAN helped to pass along with UCCRO.
The seven month training and development program for this year’s Green ReEntry cohort came to a successful close on Wednesday, May 14, when all five members of the group joined together one last time, dressed to the nines in their new suits and with family, to celebrate their accomplishments.
“The moment really exceeded my expectations,” said Levie Ibrahim Jackson who was the team leader of the Green ReEntry crew and who joined the program only months after his release from a 13-year prison sentence. Ibrahim attended the graduation with his mother. “It made her proud to see what I accomplished,” he said. Others from the crew brought sisters, brothers, parents and other extended family and friends to IMAN’s Youth and Arts Wellness Center for the event.
Each brother received a certification of completion from the program and another key training certification such as OSHA. They all reflected publicly upon their time in the program as more than just a “job-training” program. “This gave me my humanity back,” said Charles Yacoub Farmer who also joined the program only a few months back from a long prison sentence.
In addition to learning how to green retrofit homes, the Green ReEntry crew had a weekly course where they learned a host of critical “soft skills” and worked with Dr. Rolanda West to deepen their understanding and comfort with research, public speaking and team building.
“This was an amazing crew of brothers, and they had a deep impact on the community over this last seven months,” said Rami Nashashibi, IMAN’s Executive Director. “We are eager to continue to grow and to take this initiative to scale so we can see it happening all-year and with larger groups of the formerly-incarcerated.” Leaders like Ibrahim impressed the partnering general contractor so much that they decided to hire him for their next work project. Meanwhile, IMAN is still looking to help place the other crew members in stable positions that will allow them to use the skills they learned during the Green ReEntry initiative.