General Interest

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.
Continue reading

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)

O

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.
Continue reading

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

Coats and booties protect dogs from winter’s sting

By Stephanie Fox
Medill Reports

Slideshow: Chicago dogs sport their winter clothes. (Stephanie Fox)

There’s nothing more adorable than a dog dressed up for winter. Even before the first big snowfall of the year, social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook are plastered in photos of French bulldogs wearing fuzzy holiday sweaters and videos of greyhounds wobbling across tiled floors in their winter booties. But, do canine winter clothes really serve a practical purpose, or are they just a cute addition to the holiday season?

The benefit of wearing a winter coat depends on the dog, but all dogs could benefit from winter booties, according to veterinarian Dr. John Hanover. Continue reading

Toriano Sanzone runs for alderman of his North Lawndale “hometown”

By Stephanie Fox
Medill Reports

Slideshow: (Stephanie Fox)

With his locks pulled back into a ponytail, and his ears and nose decorated in jewelry, Toriano Sanzone exudes his own style as a businessman and a candidate running for office to give a stronger voice to his community. Sanzone believes he could be exactly what Chicago’s 24th Ward needs in a new alderman.

“You have a lot of different people living in these neighborhoods. They’re going to require super diverse leaders,” said Sanzone, 44, owner and president of the dog training facility Wolfkeeper University. Continue reading

Senior housing facilities in Chicago: Creating communities for LGBT elders

By Colleen Zewe
Medill Reports

When searching for a senior housing facility, most people ask the standard questions: What are the meals like?  What are the costs?

But for LGBT people, the process becomes more complicated because they have to consider how LGBT-friendly the home is. Luckily, new diversity trainings for senior homes can help staff treat LGBT residents with respect and dignity.

Older LGBT people often face discrimination, especially in senior housing. LGBT senior Marsha Wetzel said she faced harassment and violence in her Niles nursing home and is now seeking legal redress. And in 2014, the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging Found that 46 percent of same-sex couples confronted adverse and differential treatment – ranging from gossip to violence- in their senior housing facilities.
Continue reading

Solitary confinement: A human rights issue within U.S. borders

By Aqilah Allaudeen
Medill Reports

Gabriel Guzman spent three years of his 10-year prison term locked up in a small box-like cell for more than 22 hours a day. His time in solitary was broken up into stints of about four months each. Some were brought after he took part in fights but others, he said, were unwarranted.

He had next to no freedom and prison guards controlled almost every aspect of his life, he said.

“Your life becomes dictated by rules, regulations and other people controlling it,” he said. “It’s not the same in all prisons, but in Lawrence (Correctional Center in Sumner, Illinois) they handcuffed us and escorted us to the showers. We had no freedom.”

Released about three years ago after completing his sentence, Guzman, 33, now volunteers in Chicago to help other inmates. He  washes laundry and rugs for a living.

At any given time, some 61,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the United States. While this marks a drop from an estimated 80,000 prisoners in solitary in 2014, many experts and activists argue that solitary confinement is unnecessary as there are better and more humane alternatives.

Continue reading

Scientists investigate how the “ocean pump” is slowing global warming

By Karyn Simpson
Medill Reports

Scientists are taking a serious look at ocean biological systems that temper carbon levels in the atmosphere and trap them in the ocean depths, a way to slow global warming and put off the 2° C temperature rise that would trigger disastrous levels of sea level rise, extreme temperatures, rainfall and drought.

Climate scientist Jennifer Middleton calls these systems the ocean’s biological carbon pump and explained how it works at the annual Comer Climate Conference in southwest Wisconsin this fall.

Middleton, a post-doctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is studying these systems in the hope that scientists can find ways to use them to help mitigate the effects of climate change related to fossil fuel emissions.

Continue reading

What can we do to slow climate change?

By Karyn Simpson
Medill Reports

Columbia University geochemist Wallace Broecker, one of the founding fathers of climate science, laid it on the line. The two ways we know of to bring down civilization are nuclear bombs or carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, the driving force of climate change, he said this fall during an interview at the Comer Conference on abrupt climate change. “It’s got the seeds of really terrible chaos on the planet and we’ve got to start to respect that.”

Within days of the conference, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cautioned that even raising the global temperatures by 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) could have disastrous effects on sea level rise, extreme temperatures, rainfall and drought. And we’ve already raised temperatures 1 degree globally.

What needs to change to mitigate the accelerating threat? Scientists sharing their latest research at the 2018 conference say we need to move swiftly toward a sustainable energy system and  trap the carbon dioxide emissions from continued near-term needs for fossil fuels. Meeting the challenge offers wide-ranging opportunities for innovation and economic growth, said Penn State climatologist Richard Alley at the conference. Continue reading