MLK protector paves road for others to ‘accomplish more’

By Dwight A. Weingarten
Medill Reports

No one knew the building of Warren Avenue Congregational Church better than Rozell “Prexy” Nesbitt, whose first encounter with the church came as a 4-year-old in 1948 after his parents rolled him into the Sunday  school with a broken leg.

“In fact, the truth be told, I was the first black person in the building,” said Nesbitt, now 74, whose parents would join the church soon after Nesbitt’s inauspicious first visit.

Nearly two decades later,  the same church welcomed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1966 as the organization made the church its headquarters in their campaign to end slum housing.

Though the Voting Rights Act had been passed the previous summer after the Selma-to-Montgomery march, churches and government officials in Chicago were not eager to welcome King.

“The big black churches, and churches in general, were scared to death of [Mayor Richard J.] Daley,” said Nesbitt. “Daley did not want King in Chicago at all.”

While home for the summer from Antioch College, at his mother’s urging, Nesbitt volunteered with SCLC working out of the familiar West Side church, which was built in 1889 and now named the New Greater St. John Community Missionary Baptist Church.

Rozell “Prexy” Nesbitt (striped jacket) participates in a Sunday school lesson at Warren Avenue Congregational Church circa 1958. (Photo: Courtesy of Rozell Nesbitt)


“[King] sat and listened to me”

That summer, in a march for integrated housing through Marquette Park, Nesbitt served as one of King’s protectors.

“I was scared to death,” said Nesbitt, who recalls angry white women throwing dog excrement as well as a stone that passed by him and hit King, knocking him to the ground.

“Prexy, I thought you were this great football player,”  Nesbitt recalls King saying in reference to his career as a running back and co-captain of the team at Francis W. Parker School.

As King was whisked away in a car, Nesbitt and other marchers were put on buses by Chicago police officers, driven back to the safety of a black neighborhood.

Nesbitt’s volunteer work with SCLC included more than just protective services. He was used as a prospective homebuyer in an attempt to expose racially restrictive real estate practices.

His work for SCLC also came after his year abroad at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, a trip that served as a valuable source of knowledge to Rev. King.

“[King] sat and listened to me talk about Africa…for about an hour and a half, two hours,” Nesbitt said, “and from then on he would always call me ‘Prex.’ ”

King was one of many that Nesbitt, an adjunct professor of history at Columbia College,  has educated over the years about issues in Africa.

“Prexy really had an understanding based off his trip,” said Basil Clunie, who met Nesbitt nearly 50 years ago while working with Nesbitt in the Coalition for Illinois Divestment from South Africa.

Nesbitt also leads educational tours of Southern Africa and Latin America through his organization “Making the Road,” which he founded in 1980.

Audio: Rozell “Prexy” Nesbitt recalls the unrest that erupted in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. (Photo by Dwight A. Weingarten)


“Left the country on the run”

After graduating from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Nesbitt ended up back in Africa not by choice, but by circumstance.

While pursuing a degree on a fellowship at Columbia University in 1968, Nesbitt walked out of the library and found himself in the middle of campus demonstrations. Predominantly white students were protesting over the Vietnam War and many of Columbia’s black students were protesting the university’s expansion into Harlem.

“I was raised with a certain set of values and those values said you didn’t turn your back on stuff,” said Nesbitt, whose participation in the demonstrations resulted in the loss of his fellowship, causing him to leave school and be drafted.

“I totally opposed the war in Vietnam and left the country on the run,” said Nesbitt, who headed back to Tanzania where he began working in Tanzania for the Mozambique Liberation Front, called FRELIMO.

Despite not being willing to fight for the United States in Vietnam, Nesbitt expressed a willingness to fight with FRELIMO in the Mozambicans fight for independence from the Portuguese.

Eduardo Mondlane, the founder and president of FRELIMO, said no.

Mondlane, a Mozambican who had been married in Nesbitt’s Warren Avenue Congregational Church while pursuing his master’s degree from Northwestern University, told Nesbitt that he did not speak the languages needed to fight with FRELIMO.

Instead, Nesbitt worked for FRELIMO building schools and creating an educational program in Tanzania for the Mozambicans.

“He inspired us to accomplish more”

Upon his return to the United States, Nesbitt sought to educate people about the conditions in Africa, working with solidarity movements at campuses across the country.

“He [Nesbitt] inspired us to accomplish more than we thought we could,” said Anne Evens, who met Nesbitt at Cornell University, where she was active in the student anti-apartheid movement.

Sessy Nyman also heard Nesbitt speak about solidarity movements when she was a college student. After his talk at the University of South Carolina, Nyman applied for a job with the Mozambique Support Network in Chicago, where she worked with Nesbitt daily for several years.

“I consider him [Nesbitt] part of my family,” said Nyman, who has worked on early childhood education issues and as a community organizer after leaving the Mozambique Support Network.

For Nesbitt, educating others about solidarity movements did not stop with just college students.

Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, read Nesbitt’s book “Apartheid in Our Living Rooms: U.S. Foreign Policy and South Africa” “cover-to-cover,” according to Nesbitt, who worked in the mayor’s office for a year and a half during Washington’s tenure.

“The Southern African struggles were a great school for me. …” Nesbitt said, reflecting on his lifelong commitment to activism and the strategies and tactics he learned there.

“Take your time ‘Prex’ ”

“Take your time Prex, take your time,” King once advised Nesbitt, a college student at the time, who took the pulpit to address a large rally gathered to hear King in a South Side church.

In dedicating more than five decades of his life to activism,  Nesbitt has influenced change locally, nationally and internationally

Without an integrated Warren Avenue Congregational Church, King and the SCLC likely would not have had a Chicago headquarters, given the city’s political climate at that time.

While the Chicago Freedom Movement did not have the immediate success King and the SCLC might have hoped for, it did move the city forward.

“What King did do was to set this city up for the mayoralty of Harold Washington,”  Nesbitt said. “Harold wouldn’t have won that election and wouldn’t have been the mayor he was, had it not been for a lot of the groundbreaking stuff that Dr. King, SCLC, and the Union to End Slums did here in Chicago.”

Less than a decade after Nesbitt’s first Africa trip, in 1975 FRELIMO helped the Mozambicans gain their independence from Portugal.

The wisdom that Nesbitt learned in his life of activism across Chicago and the world: “Listen to people. [Good leaders] don’t talk as much as they listen.”

Photo at top: Activist-educator Rozell “Prexy” Nesbitt returns to the Chicago church that served as headquarters for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1966. Nesbitt, who served as the civil rights leader’s bodyguard, helped the organization in its campaign to end slum housing. Nesbitt has spent his life teaching, organizing others in both in Chicago and around the world. (Photo by Dwight A. Weingarten)

Chicago’s undergraduate transgender students face disparate housing accommodations

By Katie Rice
Medill Reports

Jennifer, an upper-level student at DePaul University in Chicago, has lived on campus for her entire university career. She was fairly happy with housing on campus until a minor change in her academic record nearly forced her to move dorm rooms.

Jennifer, who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity, is a transgender woman. Though she’s been out to family and close friends for a couple years, she started medically transitioning four months ago. Recently, to mark another milestone in her transition, she decided to change her preferred gender in the university’s academic portal — used to access information such as tuition, classes and grades — to female. A few weeks later, she got an email from the housing department saying the university would have to move her to a room with a female roommate.

This email came while Jennifer was busy preparing for an end-of-semester project and exam crunch at DePaul, so she wouldn’t have had time to move even if she could have. Besides, moving to a room with a roommate who identified as female since birth presented other issues.
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Tour a timeline of the Hoosiers’ undefeated Big Ten soccer season – and NCAA Tournament loss

By Nick Hennion
Medill Reports

It wasn’t the ending the Hoosiers hoped for to finish the 2018 men’s soccer season.

The Hoosiers fell to Maryland 2-0 in the NCAA Tournament semifinals, failing to reach the third and final goal of an NCAA title.

The loss followed a very successful season overall. The team picked up both a Big Ten regular season and tournament title and was the first Big Ten team to go undefeated in Big Ten play since 2005.

The Hoosiers finished with a 20-3-1 and an 8-0-0 Big Ten regular season record.

The timeline below chronicles the entirety of the Hoosiers’ season through the NCAA tournament.

Photo at Top: Indiana players celebrate the school’s 13th Big Ten Tournament title after a 3-0 win against Michigan (Nick Hennion/MEDILL).

‘We are survivors of torture not victims’ – Mario Venegas teaches others how to treat torture survivors

By Aqilah Allaudeen
Medill Reports

Mario Venegas knew the regime deemed him a danger to the state when he was detained, without trial, due to his role in the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, or MIR – a Chilean political organization. During dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile more than 40 years ago, Venegas spent more than two years in four different concentration camps where he faced torture – both emotionally and physically.

His country ultimately expelled him and he fled to the United Kingdom. But he couldn’t find work in the U.K., and he was rejected from countless opportunities because he was marked as a “communist,” he said. He moved to the U.S in the hope of getting a better job and starting life over.

Mario Venegas never gave up – he completed his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of London, and worked as a chemist in the U.S. while fighting with various organizations to end human rights abuses such as politically sanctioned torture. He is a long-standing member of organizations such as Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization focused on human rights, and the Chicago Torture Justice Center, or CTJC, a community center for Chicago police torture survivors, among others.

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ComEd’s green energy innovation is partnering with historic Bronzeville

by Jillian Melero
Medill Reports

Bronzeville, the South Side home of Chicago’s Black Renaissance and the birthplace of Black History Month, hopes to launch its next Golden Age with support from a smart microgrid being installed by utility ComEd. The microgrid will tap green energy to help power the community.

Once completed in 2019, the grid will have a load, or active consumption capacity of 7 megawatts, installed over two phases with the energy generated from its own resources including solar panels.

That’s enough generating capacity for the grid to serve approximately 1,060 residential, commercial, and industrial customers. Previous microgrids have served military bases or hospitals and the Illinois Institute of Technology operates on one as well. But the Bronzeville and IIT microgrid cluster will be the first of its kind to serve a community within a metropolitan area, giving the community a more resilient power grid to help withstand outages.

Representatives from ComEd, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Siemens Digital Grid North America met Dec. 4, to discuss the microgrid coming to Bronzeville.

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Chicago coalition gets ready for 100 percent renewable energy: A Q & A with Sierra Club Illinois’ Kyra Woods

By Aaron Dorman
Medill Reports

Kyra Woods intends to help move Chicago towards running on 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. She is in charge of the Sierra Club’s  “Ready for 100” commitment in the Illinois chapter to help the city do just that.

As part of a kick-off event on Tuesday at Uptake in the North Loop, Woods introduced a number of environmental and community groups  committed to being part of the “Ready for 100” collective.

Across the Midwest  St. Louis, Minneapolis, Madison and other cities have committed to “Ready for 100,” according to the Sierra Club.

This week Medill Reports spoke to Woods about the project, and how she plans to move the initiative forward.

Woods is an environmental engineer and a Chicago native who joined the Sierra Club in Illinois in 2018.

Medill Reports: Do you have any reaction to the Evanston City Council’s vote on Monday to pass a new Climate Action and Resiliency Plan?

Kyra Woods: That was very exciting! Evanston is the first city in Illinois to formally make this commitment. Chicago does not have a resiliency plan currently – we need an updated one. [Chicago released a Climate Action Plan in 2008, with a few progress reports since that time]. Hopefully ours is on the way. Definitely, within the environmental community, there is a lot of advocacy for an updated plan, just given the period of time we are in right now.

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Partnership between ComEd and Bronzeville creates new opportunities on the South Side

by Jillian Melero
Medill Reports

Paula Robinson has been president of Bronzeville’s Community Development Partnership, a neighborhood advisory group, for 29 years. She co-founded the Urban Innovation Center, a business incubator focused on tourism, technology, and transportation, with Bruce Montgomery in 2006.

Between her roles in community development and technology innovation, Robinson has been a key figure, advising on pilot projects that utility company ComEd is launching in Chicago’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood. The Community of the Future initiative is integrating smart city data collection, monitoring, and response technology throughout Bronzeville. And ComEd is installing a new microgrid, a community-based power grid, that will give the area more energy flexibility and security, providing opportunities to collect, store and transmit solar and wind energy.

Medill Reports spoke with Robinson about the community’s awareness of these initiatives, the opportunities they may offer, and how they are being received. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Paula Robinson addresses visitors at Bronzeville’s recent microgrid showcase and job fair, sponsored by ComEd, and held on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. (courtesy of ComEd)

Q: As far as the microgrid, is there an awareness in the community that this project is happening?

A: There’s an awareness on a variety of different levels. We have a whole effort around education and community engagement. And so, that engagement is showing through this advisory group meeting. I don’t even know how many people are on that team, it’s probably about 25-50 people, and they are very much the ambassadors and oversee this with community interest.

So, this is one example of outreach, where these meetings happen throughout the community. It’s community-based, education, faith-based, leadership, all the folks are involved and able to integrate their ideas and their self-interest.

There’s kind of a collaborative self-interest that’s going on here, and that’s a lot to navigate. In my capacity with the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, I’m a part of that advisory group, but I’m also a consultant. Sometimes I might even be at the meeting trying to see what’s in it for my church.

Q: – You just got out of a meeting before this interview?

A: Yes, our advisory group meeting for “Bronzeville, Community of the Future” was well attended. It was held over at my community church, Quinn Chapel, which is a very historic church here in Bronzeville. It’s Chicago’s oldest African American church. It was built before the city was incorporated.

Our pastor comes and attends those meetings. He’s making sure that that’s coming back to his congregation, and all of the other networks that he’s also involved in.

We have another pastor, for example, that’s also the president for the local school council. So, there’s never a meeting that is gonna go by that he’s not going to say, ‘What else can we do for young people, or youth, or STEM or STEAM?’ So that’s happening.

Q: It seems like there’s a lot of community involvement on the front end and some cutting-edge initiatives involved in all of this.

A: Absolutely. And that’s probably where ComEd gets a lot of engagement as well as grief from my organization because we are in some new territory. We are looking at opportunities where the community, beyond advising, can also be innovators. Where we’re co-creating in this new space as well.

This whole net-zero economy is very new. In this area of smart tech and sustainability, so many of the jobs that are going to be created don’t even have names yet. So as we are trying to do more to involve our schools and [initiate] programs for STEM and STEAM, we also have to recognize that many of these new opportunities have yet to be developed.

Q: What are some of these science, technology, engineering, and math initiatives?

A: We have something going on at one of our local high schools that’s called the Dunbar Energy Academy. We just kicked this off. This is brand new, it just started in September, and we have 23 freshmen students that are participating in this energy academy.

This is where we are developing and piloting a whole new curriculum.

The teachers had to attend workshops and conferences Dunbar has identified a number of industry speakers who are addressing these students. We’ve been going on field trips. The students that are involved are really excited, and I’m excited because a very nice number of these students are young African American girls who, you know, think this is great and fun, and they’re excited about it.

“This is creating that net-zero tech talent pipeline. It’s not about saying, ‘Well, how are you going to do this? Are the teachers trained? How can you start with a group of students and then they can integrate into their curriculum places?’ — we stepped right in. We started.” Paula Robinson

Something we’re doing again that we tried for the first time last year was really successful. We call it an Ideathon. Basically, we’re looking for mentors to work with all of the high schools involved in Bronzeville.

Initially, ComEd said, ‘We’ve got X number of science and math schools that might be interested in this type of Ideathon,’ but the community said ‘No, we want it to be in all the schools.’ This is another area where the community has to push. There were over 12 high schools present, so all of the high schools were involved.

The winners from last year ended up being from [King College Prep High School]. King has a strong curriculum in these basic math and science curriculum, but it’s not necessarily a specific tech or STEM school. So, I think that proves the point too, they won, they had never done anything like that. Really did not necessarily have any exposure to it, beyond this.

They also had to learn how to really do a pitch. And so, their skills, of being able to stand up, communicate, answer questions, communicate their whole project in the same way that you see professionals do it at these pitch contests — they were so excellent in their presentation. But it was really a sidebar of them being introduced to the science, to trying something new, saying now they think even want to look at these kinds of careers.

Q: What are some of the other components of this initiative that people can benefit from?

A: The city is doing smart lights. They’re on these polls that have a little solar panel and wind turbine as well [to power them]. And we began testing some of these around State Street off the IIT campus and some other housing developments and all kinds of data sets to make decisions on where these smart lights, with wind and solar can go. Then we realize, we can also add some sensors, for environmental and health data. Our community, we are dealing with issues like asthma. Recently someone was telling me, ‘Look, we had to move out of the city because my kids’ asthma does so much better in the suburbs.’ And I certainly know people who have asthma, but I hadn’t thought about that.

And then, as much work as we have done on the data set, figuring out where to place these polls or for testing, something that came up in terms of the deployment, is that we realized, ‘Oh, we’re doing this and we see this sign and this is actually one of the walking paths for school safe zones.’ So where we’re putting these polls that have wind and sensors and all of this is also along a [Chicago Public School] safety zone.

I think that now, the community is starting to recognize how all of these things can integrate and becoming more interested in the data collection and results for other uses. Yet to be determined in some cases.

Q: From the community’s perspective, is there a perception that the microgrid, or smart grid, or clean energy is going to lower their bills or raise their bills?

A: I would say, in honesty, what people probably understand the best, and not just from ComEd, but from a variety of things, is that  solar as a backup source and potentially [for energy] savings, a cheaper source. They get that.

When we say, “Oh, they’re deploying the microgrid.” It’s like, well where is it? Is it in the ground? Where is the controller switch? What does this ‘resilience’ mean?’ What people can see, is solar panels on roofs, people having jobs to install panels, understanding solar as clean energy.

The broad majority has an expectation from the standpoint of solar energy, that whole sense of this is something that’s an investment that’s going to, make available a clean, renewable energy source, I think that that is really our strongest point of entry.

Q: What do you think ComEd’s responsibility is to the community and how can they meet that responsibility?

A: As a public utility, I think that they are meeting that responsibility and I think that they are doing something that we don’t necessarily — I didn’t have an appreciation for what they were doing until I attended a microgrid conference.

I went to the microgrid knowledge conference, this year out in Rosemont. I was on a panel talking about the Bronzeville microgrid, and a number of people came up and said, ‘We are really watching this, you know, this is so unusual for a utility company to be doing this.’ And I don’t think that I had an appreciation for that. It wasn’t until several people, and I sat in on some other panels, that I had an appreciation that this really hasn’t been done this way. Not only is this Department of Energy contract for having a clustered microgrid new, the fact that a utility company is focusing in on this pioneering aspect is different as well.

I’m in a session with, [National Renewable Energy Laboratory] NREL, and they throw up this map of all the microgrids around the country. And on the map, I would say there was like eight of them. There’s only eight microgrids? I’m thinking, ‘That can’t be right.’

From Microgrid Cost Study: Data Collection and Analysis of Microgrid Costs in the United States. Golden, CO: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL/TP-5D00-67821. Oct. 2018

They’re like, “Well, there may be some energy [storage sites, some research sites.] But there’s two full microgrids in Illinois and this is one of them.” I’m thinking there’s hundreds of microgrids. But again, we’re in Bronzeville, we’re in between two major research universities. IIT [Illinois Institute of Technology] has had a microgrid. We have a Bronzeville sustainability tour, which showcases the IIT microgrid, and smart homes. So sometimes you don’t have an appreciation for it.

“I didn’t see it as all that until I got to the microgrid conference, and people outside of Chicago started making me appreciate how closely they were watching this to make a case. It’s a case study in itself, not just being the nation’s first clustered microgrid, but that a utility company is saying, ‘Yeah, this is for off-the-grid strategies, and yes, we’re investing in that.’” Paula Robinson

So I think that what is happening that we’re not appreciating, is that is not necessarily a utility’s responsibility. It’s not legislated or mandated, ComEd is seeing the future, saying ‘Hey, here is our responsibility as a public utility company, to be a part of innovating these alternatives and to educate, and engage the public.’ So, I think, in fairness, that ComEd has gone above and beyond.

For more information on the organizations and initiatives mentioned visit:
Bronzeville Community Development Partnership
Dunbar Vocational Career Academy
ComEd Ideathon

Photo at top: Ashton Mitchell and Breshaiya Kelly of King College Preparatory High School showcase their winning innovation at ComEd’s 2017 Ideathon. (Courtesy ComEd)


How AI can help you make better sense of the world

By Xiaoyi Liu
Medill Reports

Artificial intelligence (AI) is on the cusp of materially changing our own intelligence and decision-making ability. Just as we saw the replacement of human labor with machines during the Industrial Revolution, plan on a similar revolution in the modern workforce. AI will also bring economic opportunity, societal disruption – and lots of mixed feelings.

The definition of AI, a buzzword in computer science and digital marketing, can vary depending on who is answering the question. For Kristian Hammond, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, if a machine is doing something that we think is intelligent when a human does it, give the machine credit for AI.

With mind-boggling amounts of data drowning people as they try to make decisions, AI offers a cool head and clear analysis. “I was struck by the bad relationship that people have with data,” Hammond said, and that is a motivation for him. “In general, every single day, the data that we generate – that moves one way to the other through the computer, is roughly equivalent to about 500 hundred books,” Hammond said. “Some of them are really valuable, we can get a lot of insight from them.”  Hammond makes tools to craft those insights for easy understanding.
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Fight Club: Women sweat, punch and kick their way to fitness

By Stephanie Fox
Medill Reports

Chicago area women gather at Studio DelCorpo, 1115 W. Armitage Ave., every Thursday evening for Girls Fight Club to sweat, punch and kick their way toward healthier and stronger selves. During the sessions, women of all ages learn a blend of martial arts and boxing from Rachel Lavin, a national and international winner of several competitive fighting events.

Lavin also has extensive competitive experience in Judo, tennis, triathlons and more.

The self-defense and workout class is all about building the confidence of women. Continue reading

Volunteers write holiday letters to LGBTQ inmates

By Aqilah Allaudeen
Medill Reports

The cards expressed caring, the joy of life and the “the possibility of miracles.”

Some 40 volunteers gathered at the Chicago Freedom School in downtown Chicago Sunday to write letters to incarcerated LGBTQ members across the nation. The “holiday card party” was organized by Black and Pink, a prison abolitionist organization supporting LGBTQ prisoners. This is the seventh Black and Pink card party organized by the Chicago chapter.

The holiday card party in Chicago, part of a larger national movement across the United States, involved autonomous Black and Pink chapters working to send letters to every incarcerated LGBTQ person who is in the Black and Pink network. The Chicago chapter aimed to send out 685 cards.

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