Project: VISION

Chicago, Thoughts

Last week, I went to an open house hosted by Project: VISION, a local Chicago nonprofit that I began supporting this fall. PV provides after school programming to youth aged 12-18 in the Chinatown and Bridgeport neighborhoods; most of the students attend Chicago Public Schools and many are from first-generation immigrant families.

At the open house, I got to ask some of the students what they’d been up to over at the center. Some were receiving mentoring from Chicago professionals; others were being helped through college applications and FAFSA. A group of students told me about a recent exercise they’d completed that pushed them to think about their 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year plans.

“So what did you say was your 10-year plan?” I asked, curious to understand the mind of today’s 17-year-old.

“A stable job,” said one. “A doctor, lawyer, or a teacher,” replied another. “I want to be a father,” answered a third, as his friends laughed and elbowed him in the ribs. I noticed an easy camaraderie among them, three seniors in high school who were semi-anxiously awaiting the start of college admissions decisions. These didn’t seem like kids who just came to a center once a week to receive homework help; they seemed like friends, true friends.

“You guys said you go to different high schools, right? Would you say you’re better friends with your school friends or each other?” I wondered.

They smiled – somewhat bashfully – and all pointed at each other.

In that moment, I understood the power of a place like Project: VISION. It is a place full of resources to help middle and high school students navigate the next stage of life; it provides opportunities to learn, lead and serve – and yet it is so much more. Between the logistics of life that have to be completed, there is a space at PV – literally, and figuratively – that allows for relationships, for community, for belonging.

Some teenagers are able to find these friendships at school; others at places like Project: VISION. And still others are unable to find it at all. It could be due to a shyness that creates anxiety in social settings. It could be due to the lack of alternative opportunities like PV. It could be due to priorities like babysitting the family, priorities that take precedence because of the necessity to survive. It could be due to any number of different factors – but every young adult who wants the safety of community, who needs the comfort of belonging – they deserve a chance to have it.

I’m incredibly proud to support Project: VISION and all the work its staff does to provide students with the help and the skills they need to succeed. That the students I met at open house could point to each other as close friends is a beautiful testament to PV’s power in creating an alternative space for community. As these students begin their journeys to a stable job, a doctor / lawyer / teacher, and to becoming a father, I can’t help but smile knowing that they’ll have each other’s friendship through it all.

If you’d like to support the work at Project: VISION, click here to donate or message me to learn more! 

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Uber Driver

Chicago

We rushed along Michigan Avenue, dodging the tourists that milled about leisurely. I looked down at my phone, checking the license plate number of our Uber. “She said she’s in a silver car,” I told my boyfriend, scanning the road for our ride. We were cutting it close for getting to Ogilvie to catch the train that would take us to the suburbs. Finally, we found the Uber, slamming the door behind us as we breathlessly greeted our driver.

“How are y’all doing today?” she asked cheerfully. In retrospect, I’m not quite sure how, but the conversation veered away from generic niceties about the weather to specifics about her Englewood neighborhood. “I like Uber because it gets me out of there,” our driver commented, her tone matter-of-fact. “You could be sitting outside on your porch for 2-3 minutes and you’ll hear gunshots.”

My jaw dropped, unsure whether this was an exaggeration. I had heard that Englewood could get ‘bad’ – but I didn’t really know what ‘bad’ meant. “Are you serious?” I asked, and our driver continued talking. “Yeah, I’m serious. They rob people, too, but I would be pissed if they robbed me because I ain’t got no money. If they want the lint from my pockets, I’d tell ’em, ‘You can have the lint.'” We laughed with her when she said that, and the mood lightened.

She continued. “You know, I love driving Uber. I get to meet all kinds of people when I drive, from all over the world, and learn stuff. It gets me out of Englewood and I get to see parts of Chicago I never even knew about, which is crazy ’cause I’ve lived here my entire life.” I nodded, appreciating that sentiment – one which I’d heard from other Uber drivers as well.

“I never even knew we had two airports in Chicago before I started driving Uber,” she declared as she turned a corner.

“WHAT?” I reacted, failing to hide my shock. As an immigrant, I’d come by way of O’Hare; the airport was literally where I’d taken my first few steps in the Chicagoland area.

“Yep,” she nodded, her face breaking out into a grin. “Like I said, I love Uber. If I ever meet the guy who started Uber, I’d just go up to him and squeeze his little nubbins.” My boyfriend chortled next to me at the mental image of Travis Kalanick having his cheeks pinched.

I mulled over that conversation for days afterwards, unable to fully digest just how different my life was from that of our Uber driver. It was more than the differences found in our skin colors, in our jobs, in our current life stages (she was a mother, she told us; “I tell all my kids they gotta be good people”). These were obvious; loud, external contrasts that already carried whole hosts of implications – right or wrong – about our lives.

It was her statement about the airports that struck me: the tiny, specific fact that so clearly delineated the vast disparity in the ways we’d both experienced this journey called life. Chicago has two airports: a fact I didn’t realize I’d learned; just one that I’d “known” for as long as I’d been here. And yet here I was, talking to someone who had been in Chicago her entire life – much longer than me – who was, until the last year, unaware of this detail that I’d never given a second thought to.

The disparity makes me feel uncomfortable; I feel guilty that I fly for leisure multiple times a year while she’s just grateful to get out of Englewood driving Uber. It makes me feel spoiled and so out-of-touch with what “reality” might mean for another human being; it makes me feel like a hypocrite about the bubble I live in while I work for an organization that serves neighborhoods like Englewood. I should be more thankful for all that I have, that I’ve experienced – but the inequality makes me judge the parts of me that has taken everything in my life for granted.

But conversations like this are the ones that push us to grow: in understanding the most nuanced details that make us so different, we forge empathy. It’s only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s the tip of an iceberg that we must face head-on. Despite not quite grasping how that conversation impacted me, I know that it has at least forced me to pause and reflect; and for that, I owe that Uber driver from Englewood.