Sunday, October 15, 2017

Plant aims to build new future

Plant aims to build new future
Congregants launch robotics training, facility
Trista Bonds talks with robotics apprentice Thomas Phelps. Bonds sees a path to salvation in modern industry. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune )
By Manya Brachear Pashman Chicago Tribune
Trista Bonds, a robotics engineer, once felt a twinge of guilt for helping companies replace factory workers with machines. Living on Chicago's South Side, where industries have come and gone, she saw the debilitating effects of unemployment firsthand — drug abuse, poverty and crime.
So when the pastor of Bonds' 20,000-member congregation asked people in the pews to help empower the community, she embarked on a 10-year journey of recompense.
Last week, Bonds and other members of Apostolic Church of God in the Woodlawn neighborhood opened a manufacturing plant on the campus of Chicago State University on the Far South Side, staffed by 25 newly trained and certified apprentices.
The social enterprise, dubbed BSD Industries — Building Self Determination — last month began training an additional 40-plus students to hire at its own factory or help place in manufacturing jobs elsewhere.
"There's so much opportunity here for everyone who wants it — everyone who is willing to get down in the trenches and fight for it," said Bonds, who moved to Chicago in 2004 and joined Apostolic three years later. She believes that preparing people for modern industry is a path to salvation for downtrodden neighborhoods and their residents.
While the plant — which manufactures plastic forks, knives and spoons — provides a future in plastics, it also gives trainees hands-on experience in robotics to help them land jobs in factories across the country. The education is free.
"I have a passion for industrialization," said Bonds, pointing to the Industrial Revolution as a turning point for the nation. "I think it's the way to empower communities."
Demand for the program was evident from the start. When the church last year offered the first 40 training slots to people in the pews, 196 candidates applied. Since then, 25 have graduated and started their apprenticeships. Another 40 started robotics courses last month that will eventually prepare them to do computer-assisted design, program software and run machinery. The program hopes to produce up to 120 professionals a year.
Bonds credits her pastor, the Rev. Byron Brazier, for bringing the project to fruition.
The church backed the initiative by giving $100,000 to the Arthur M. Brazier Foundation, the factory's owner. It also received $500,000 from JPMorgan Chase & Co. as part of a three-year initiative to invest in the city's struggling South and West sides.
The Chicago Housing Authority also provided a $2 million grant to assist with job training and development for residents and voucher holders, as a way to "help them on their road to self-sufficiency," a CHA spokesman said.
"BSD industries is a win-win — it will provide critical job skills training for today while supporting a strong future for manufacturing on the South Side of Chicago," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement.
Brazier also recruited an initial customer base to help turn a profit in the first year. Registered as an LC3, the tax code for social enterprises that redistribute their profits, BSD appeals to socially conscious companies and institutions, Brazier said. Customers include the University of Chicago.
Brazier said the enterprise is also looking into a new product line to help meet its social investment goals through 2019.
By the end of 2018, Brazier said, BSD intends to give more than $2 million to five elementary schools and one high school in Woodlawn and to fully fund the safety initiative of 1Woodlawn, the pastor's communitywide effort to redevelop the neighborhood.
The 1Woodlawn effort is the sequel to a development effort started by Brazier's father, Bishop Arthur Brazier, who, along with other developers in the 1990s, purchased properties along 63rd Street at a discount with the intention of building new housing and spurring retail development. The housing market crash largely halted that effort. Many of the parcels serve as church parking lots.
Over the years, Apostolic also expanded its church on 63rd Street and Dorchester Avenue to accommodate its growing membership.
But after his father retired in 2008, the Rev. Brazier announced a different approach from the pulpit.
"I wasn't going to invest in any more buildings. I was going to invest in people," Brazier said.
For Bonds, the shift coincided with her own reassessment of her priorities.
"I always kept God in my life and I always put him at the forefront," she said, "so whatever decisions and whatever directions I go in, I always try to make sure it's directed and guided by my faith."
She came to Chicago in 2004; among her employers was Grantek Systems Integration, which specializes in optimizing manufacturing operations.
While visiting a plant in Michigan to learn about a new kind of robotics technology, she asked the technicians where they got their training.
They pointed her to Focus: Hope in Detroit, an initiative launched by a priest and a nun after the 1967 riots that provides job training and jobs in one of the city's most blighted neighborhoods. She imagined a similar endeavor would work in Chicago and heard Brazier's declaration as an invitation to pitch the idea.
"Its origination takes place from people of faith who have a desire to support others that find themselves in difficult situations," Brazier said. "There are things we can do that have looked impossible ... that are being done at this time."
Wesley Mack, 54, grew up in the Englewood neighborhood. He considers himself lucky to have escaped the neighborhood and built a lucrative career in construction. But he also fought a drug addiction.
A Narcotics Anonymous meeting led him to Apostolic 17 years ago, he said. He returned the following Sunday and has been sitting in the same front pew ever since. Not long after he was seriously injured on a job site, the church announced BSD was accepting applications. He saw an opportunity to make a change for himself, but also for those he left behind. He hopes to return to Englewood and recruit others to give it a try.
"It's a chance to start over," he said. "They're trying to show the people in the neighborhood I grew up in (that) it's another way. A lot of people got stuck there. Hopefully I can give them another chance."
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Monday, September 4, 2017

Obama Foundation puts new spin on South Side Short videos released on social media highlight communities, not president

Obama: Short videos released on social media highlight communities, not president Using social media to benefit all

Obama Foundation puts new spin on South Side
Short videos released on social media highlight communities, not president
Margo Strotter, second from right, works at her Bronzeville restaurant, Ain't She Sweet Cafe, on Thursday. She took part in an Obama Foundation video about the South Side. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune )
By Lolly Bowean Chicago Tribune
It's only a 58-second video, but for Jahmal Cole, it was a chance to change some minds.
So in the short clip now circulating on social media, Cole boasts about the long legacy of African-American homeownership, block clubs and neighborhood activism in Chatham — the South Side community he calls home.
"What you always hear about the South Side … all you hear about is the violence," said Cole, who runs the nonprofit organization My Block, My Hood, My City that takes teenagers to tour neighborhoods across the city. "But we have great architecture, great food, great culture. People need to see that. They need to see people on the ground getting it done. A limited mindset is what's holding our community back."
As plans to construct the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park are being sketched out, the Obama Foundation still has to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the construction, obtain city permits, select contractors and hire staff. It has to win favor from a community that has an inherent distrust of large, outside institutions.
But the organization also has to tackle a larger issue: the national and international perception of the South Side at a time when the city is being branded by President Donald Trump as a center of violence, poverty and strife.
Indeed, in Woodlawn, the community just west of where the center's campus will be located, per capita yearly income is $18,900 and the unemployment rate is 1.5 times the rest of Chicago, according to census data. Along with other communities on the South and West sides, it has experienced a disproportionate amount of violence.
Yet, foundation leaders say, media coverage and the national conversation has overshadowed success stories.
Recently, the foundation released a series of short videos on its Twitter and Instagram pages that pushes back at that narrative and presents a different story. For some, the move illustrates one of the tougher challenges the organization faces, and that is convincing outsiders to not only travel farther south than most of the popular tourist attractions, but to stay and patronize the rest of the community.
"(The foundation seems) to be trying to see beyond just President Barack Obama and see the whole community," said Benjamin Hufbauer, a professor at the University of Louisville who is an expert on presidential libraries and museums. "That's somewhat different than how other presidential centers have engaged the public."
The video series is also unusual because rather than spotlight the president, which is what nearly all the other centers do with their social media pages, this effort highlights ordinary residents, he said.
"The center will probably have a certain amount of spin and will brand Obama in a certain way — all presidential centers do," he said. "But Chicago is a complicated and tough city — the residents there probably wouldn't accept a center that is just PR or ego boosting. There has to be more there."
The social media push comes about two years after the foundation's chair, Martin Nesbitt, told a group of civic leaders and elected officials that the city needed to get its house in order before the center is constructed. By deciding to place the center in the midst of a low-income, African-American community, the president and first lady wanted it to have an impact by bringing money and jobs. But with the world watching, Chicago needs to demonstrate it can fix its own problems, Nesbitt said at the time.
The release of the short videos came just before officials announced the creation of a new nonprofit charged with helping spur economic development in the nearby neighborhoods of Woodlawn, South Shore and Washington Park.
Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and advertising executive Sherman Wright were selected to lead a 25-member committee made up of community activists, business owners, University of Chicago executives and clergy. The group was organized, in part, by the Chicago Community Trust.
But the videos do something different than spur community development, said Pepper Miller, a Chicago-based marketing consultant who is not affiliated with the foundation. They highlight a segment of the community that often feels overlooked while at the same time promoting the area as ripe for investment, she said.
"From my view, it looks strategic, it seems intentional. But it's much-needed," she said of what she sees as a rebranding effort. "The black community has always embraced Obama. This seems like a way to try to include us and think about the way he can have a bigger impact."
When he was president, Obama couldn't focus specifically on Chicago's black community, Miller said. But with this social media push, his foundation's staff can promote and make sure diverse voices are included in the overall vision and gains of the center, she said.
"The Obama Center is not just for Chicago, it is a national and global destination, so the entire community has to be viewed as attractive," she said. "This strategy can work if they are consistent with the message. There has to be a long-term message that builds momentum and reveals a whole other side that people outside don't see."
Michael Strautmanis, the vice president for civic engagement with the Obama Foundation, says the new messaging is neither an attempt to recast the South Side or create allies among stakeholders in the community. Rather, it's the foundation's way of using its platform as a megaphone for others who have been organizing years before the center was even launched.
"The prevailing narrative is inaccurate and incomplete," he said in a recent interview. "It paints the people as doing nothing and not caring about their lives or their destinies. It was important for us to give voice to the people we've met and talked to and use their stories to shed light."
The videos simply allow South Siders to speak up for themselves, he said.
"This is part of what the president has said he wants to do in the next stages of his career," he said. "He knows he can use his platform to inspire people to help create solutions to our problems and be the solution. These are the people who are doing that here, now."
Residents didn't get paid to participate in the videos. It took only hours to tape them and edit them into minute-long packages, both the participants and foundation officials said. The clips take the foundation's nearly 1 million viewers into Pilsen, Englewood and the Grand Boulevard section of Bronzeville — areas that are miles away from where the center will be located.
Emile Cambry, who runs the nonprofit tech incubator Blue 1647 in Pilsen, said he got an email inviting him to be profiled. He thought it was an exciting way to reach a new audience.
"Chicago has gotten a bad rap nationally," he said. "When you talk to outsiders, they don't know about all the good people who are combating the negative. I always say there are a lot of creative people here doing work, and we just need our platforms elevated."
Since the clip was released by the foundation, Cambry said he has seen the response.
"It's the most viral video we've ever had," he said. "More people are getting to hear my story and see the space. I'd like to think they see the authenticity of what we do and our reasons."
With the development of the center, change is going to come to Bronzeville, said Margo Strotter, the owner of Ain't She Sweet Cafe. She wanted to tell her story to spur the type of investment she made 11 years ago.
"I've always been about providing jobs for people in the neighborhood — hiring folks like me that grew up on the South Side and found it difficult to find work," she said.
"That's what we think the center will do: bring jobs to a place that needs them," she said. "They approached me to tape, and I'm on board," she said.
In Cole's clip, he walks down a residential block and the camera captures him among the handsome brick bungalows set back from the glowing, manicured lawns. Like the others who were profiled, he never refers to Obama and doesn't talk about the center at all. He talks quickly about the work his organization does and his motivations.
"The video not only highlighted me, but the community," he said. "My followers went up by a few hundred people and I got words from people all over the world."
But there's another reason besides changing the minds of outsiders that Cole is excited about the videos, he said.
"This is good for us here too — to see these videos," he said. "It's a good look … it reminds us what we already have."