DePaul students canvass for Englewood


(Jonathan Ballew | The DePaulia)

Last Saturday morning, Alex Boutros, along with a handful of DePaul students, hopped on the Red Line and traveled to the South Side to knock on doors. The students looked out of place with their clipboards and flyers — on more than one occasion they were told to be careful by concerned residents. But Boutros was on a mission to let residents know about the Englewood school closings.

Boutros calls this work canvassing, and she believes that it is important to spread awareness about critical issues affecting communities in Chicago.

Boutros works for State Rep. Sonya Harper of the 6th district and is also the co-president of Students Against Mass Incarceration, a DePaul organization that focuses on fixing what they say is a broken penal system.

“Most people don’t want to knock on doors because they are afraid,” she said. “But once you start talking to people, you realize they are just regular people like you and me.”

(Jonathan Ballew | The DePaulia)

One of the students tagging along with Boutros was Nina Rodriguez, a foreign exchange student from France studying at DePaul. Rodriguez said that she was joining Boutros because she was hoping to learn more about the South Side of Chicago.

“I live in a poor neighborhood back home in France,” she said. “From what I have heard about the South Side of Chicago, I am expecting to see a lot of food and pharmacy deserts. I’m expecting to do a lot of walking today.”

Rodriguez was referencing the fact that many neighborhoods on the South Side have poor access to public transportation. This issue has been raised by several Chicago aldermen and state representatives. Recently, the city began plans to extend the Red Line further south to help address the disparity.

The group was canvassing Fuller Park and most of the doors they knocked on did not answer.  Many of the homes had cameras installed or bars over the door.

“People are definitely scared of the violence in their own neighborhood,” said Boutros.

People like Davonte Moore, who has lived in the South Side for his entire life. Moore is moving out of Chicago to escape the everyday violence.  He said that he is tired of waiting for the city to help his community, so he wanted to make a change.

“I’m leaving because of the violence,” he said.

Moore said that there are better opportunities in Michigan for African-Americans than there are in Chicago.  He believes that political canvassing doesn’t make much of a difference.

“It seems pointless to me,” he said. “Most of the politicians don’t really care.”

“You ladies are gonna show them something!” he said to Boutros and Rodriguez. “The ladies of the world are going to help the men straighten things out.  We need help.”

Sykes has lived in Chicago since 1952. During that time, he said that he has realized that racial differences have had a significant impact on his community.

“We get wrapped up in black and white,” he said. “Ain’t no such thing, we’re people.”

While Sykes was talking to the DePaul students, Rep. Harper showed up while doing some canvassing of her own. She said that she spends at least 50 hours a week personally knocking on doors and talking to residents.

“We have a lot of work to do to increase voter turnout,” she said.

(Jonathan Ballew | The DePaulia)

Harper said that she represents a district that is a microcosm of what “everybody thinks of with old Chicago.” Harper said that there are the “haves and the have nots.” 

Harper was not afraid to take shots at Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She said that during the time Emanuel has been in office, he has ignored the south and west side of Chicago.

“I can’t see a real plan to bring these communities up,” she said. “What I see is a plan to gentrify them and kick people out.”

Harper did say that Emanuel isn’t to blame for African-Americans leaving Chicago in large numbers. She said that the exodus is systemic and goes back decades.

“Half of my district has been neglected for the last 40 years,” she said.

Harper said that she is tired of Emanuel wielding so much power.

“I feel like we live in a kingdom,” she said. “Because it feels like the mayor just does whatever he wants.”

Harper said that Emanuel wasn’t paying proper attention to low-income communities and that other areas of the city often got special priority.

“He chooses to only invest in downtown or the South Loop,” she said. “When he wants to invest in a blighted community he does something like put a Whole Foods there.”

Harper said that canvassing is the number one way to reach out to residents.  She said that knocking on doors is the best way to learn about what issues are most important to her constituents.

“You get to see, look, feel, breathe, the exact environment that they are living in,” she said. “That way I can take their concerns seriously.”

Harper said that she works with DePaul students often. She said that grassroots work and volunteering from students is influential to enacting meaningful change.

At the end of the day, Boutros made sure to let all the participants know that their work was not finished.

“There is a Tuesday public forum at CPS to hear from the community about the Englewood school closings,” she said to her group of tired student activists. “We will absolutely be there.”