Social Justice

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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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

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.

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After facing violence in her senior living home, LGBT woman goes to court

By Colleen Zewe
Medill Reports

After grieving the loss of her partner of 30 years, Marsha Wetzel, 70, moved into Glen St. Andrew Living Community, a senior housing facility in Niles in November 2014.

Wetzel signed a tenant agreement that guaranteed her three meals a day, laundry services and access to a community room. It also asked that she refrain from “activity that [St. Andrew] determines unreasonably interferes with the peaceful use and enjoyment of the community by other tenants” or that is “a direct threat to the health and safety of other individuals.” All other residents signed a similar agreement, binding them to this code of conduct.

Wetzel, who identifies as lesbian, was open about her sexuality with staff and residents. But instead of a warm welcome, she received hostility, she said. Other tenants called her derogatory slurs and made violent threats against her and these threats soon became reality, as other tenants spit at her and struck her in the head.

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Standing in solidarity with Yemen, Chicagoans rally to end the U.S.-backed war

By Aqilah Allaudeen
Medill Reports

Some 70 people rallied in  Federal Plaza in downtown Chicago recently to end the war in Yemen. Chicago Area Peace Action, or CAPA, a grassroots organization that works to reduce and eliminate the danger of nuclear weapons and militarism, organized the rally.



Hassan El-Tayyab, the policy and organizing director at CAPA, emphasized the need for citizens to call Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), to urge her to co-sign a bill that would end U.S. military involvement in Yemen.

The U.S. Senate recently passed a resolution 63 – 37 to debate ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. The wide margin reflects growing discontent with U.S. involvement in the war, and the Trump administration’s handling of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis in the Saudi embassy in Turkey.

“Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in remarks in Geneva earlier this year.

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Pittsburgh aftermath: Evanston religious leaders consider active shooter responses

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

The thousands-year-old nightmare of anti-Semitism erupted again on Oct. 29, when 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue died in a shooting, likely the deadliest attack against Jews in U.S. history.

Illinois religious communities, like so many faith groups around the world, recoiled in response, condemning the attack and gathering at solidarity events to mourn the victims. “It was a wake-up call that this could happen in our communities,” said Andrea London, the senior rabbi at Beth Emet, a reform synagogue in Evanston.

Evanston’s interfaith group of religious leaders who routinely work together discussed active shooter responses at a recent meeting, London said. She said  religious leaders are considering  programs such as active shooter training.
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A new wave of Islam: Masjid al-Rabia welcomes women leadership and LGBTQ acceptance in Islam

By Aqilah Allaudeen
Medill Reports

To some imams, a mosque that promotes LGBTQ-affirming beliefs is almost unfathomable. Homosexuality is shunned by many conservative Muslim communities in the United States and abroad.

Kifah Mustapha, the imam and director of The Prayer Center at Orland Park, supports the conservative view. A mosque that accepts homosexuality and actively promotes acceptance of it, is not following the Islamic faith, Mustapha said.

“Homosexuality is a major sin in Islam,” he said. “To walk around and to tell everybody your sins and to ask them to accept these sins is not okay. We will not accept someone coming in and saying that this sinful act (homosexuality) has to be a part of the mosque, it doesn’t work like that.”

But a rising trend is welcoming LGBTQ members in Muslim communities.

Mahdia Lynn, a 30-year-old bisexual transgender Muslim activist, saw the need for a safe physical space for LGBTQ Muslims to practice their faith in Chicago. She founded Masjid al-Rabia, a women-centered and LGBTQ-affirming mosque in 2016. It is the first mosque in Chicago to openly welcome LGBTQ Muslims and part of a growing movement of progressive Muslim activists who are trying to open Islam to the LGBTQ community.

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Illinois embraces indigenous legacy through ethnobotany

By Katie Rice
Medill Reports

When Gina Roxas was about four years old, she was hospitalized with a diagnosis of pneumonia.

Heartbroken at being separated from her family, she ripped the IVs out of her arms, cried and refused to eat while in the hospital. Her condition deteriorated, and doctors had to restrain her.

One day, her father came to visit her and told doctors he’d see what he could do about his daughter’s illness.

“He grabbed me, wrapped me in a blanket and walked out the door,” Roxas said. “And he [carried me to] my great-grandmother’s (house) and gave me to her. And she healed me. She healed me with her prayers, with her teas and with her herbal rubs. It’s not scientifically proven that I was healed, but I’m still here, right?”
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Masjid al-Rabia leads nation’s first LGBTQ Muslim prison outreach program


By Aqilah Allaudeen
Medill Reports

Hannah Fidler – a Chicago-based musician, teacher, activist and organizer – spends time writing letters to incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims across the United States every week, as part of Masjid al-Rabia’s prison outreach program based in Chicago.

She writes to them about their favorite colors, commiserates on the tendency of many Muslim communities to reject those who identify as queer, and discusses their personal hajj pilgrimages. Fidler also tells them about current initiatives run by Masjid al-Rabia, Chicago’s first LGBTQ affirming mosque.

“There are a lot of people who have expressed that the letter writing program with Masjid al-Rabia reflects the first time in their entire lives that someone was willing to hold space for both their queerness and their Muslim-ness,” Fidler said in an interview.

“Whenever someone says something like that, it makes it all worth it.” Continue reading

Puerto Rican superhero wrestles hurricanes and empowers her culture in comics

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

SAN JUAN – The typical comic book thriller culminates with a superhero fighting an evil villain. In Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez’s “La Borinqueña,” the title character fights not a mere villain but, rather, a hurricane.

An art director, designer, and most recently a graphic novelist, Miranda-Rodriguez created La Borinqueña, a female Afro-Boricua superhero who represents Puerto Rican culture and identity. His comics also address hurricanes and other environmental issues threatening the island.

“We live in an era where people are consumed by popular culture, and have more conversations around it than they do around the real world,” said Miranda-Rodriguez. “So I said, let me create a superhero, and use that as a vehicle to address real world issues—the problems affecting real people.”

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