We met Nikki Patin around this time last year on Chicago’s South Side. My friend Jin J. X had introduced us online. It was a lunch meeting at the Currency Exchange Cafe, which sits on Garfield Boulevard, next door to the Arts Incubator Gallery. Nikki works at the gallery as Community Arts Engagement Manager for the University of Chicago’s Art + Public Life program. That’s impressive-sounding, but only a small piece of the work this brilliant woman is doing in her world. I could list her accomplishments – about how she came up from the streets to complete an MFA, raise a son as a single mom, win a Peabody Award, appear on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, and teach young people how to reclaim their neighborhoods – but she can tell the story way better herself. What a force. Impossible to ignore.
Since the community projects had begun, Nikki said police calls on their corner had gone from over 400 a year to around a hundred. That’s not just sound and fury; that signifies something. That’s tangible reward for deep investment and hard work. We parked a half a block from that corner when we arrived that Tuesday. Two young guys from the neighborhood leaned against the wall as we walked by. “Damn, Becky,” one of them said, checking out Betsy head to toe. Despite the unwelcoming welcome on the street, the air in the Currency Exchange was contagious with energy and invitation, and Nikki seemed to be a proprietor of this happy virus. People were busy, connections were being made, stories were being told. This is what hope looks like. I confess it affected me emotionally.
It was inspiring to hear this woman talk about her neighborhood where murder had become such an epidemic mothers had taken to sitting out in front of their houses to visibly confront offenders on the streets and shame them into better behavior. This is a place where survival is the game and creativity is the play. I asked her what the young people in the neighborhood thought about our current political division. She patiently replied, “People in communities in crisis don’t have the privilege to dwell on political upheaval…until they line us up to take us to the camps.”
She went on, “People are focused on working and making it work…they feel less affected by political changes.”
It was an idea that had crept into my white, middle-class brain, but hadn’t really taken hold. Dwelling on political upheaval is a function of privilege. It’s a subject that saturates cable news and social media, where advocates and academics wring their hands and bemoan our broken discourse, while millions of their fellow citizens simply try to stay safe and make rent. But when you’re not seen or heard, you tend to lose interest in the conversation.
No matter who we elect, no matter whether the progressives, pragmatists, or populists triumph in the midterm elections, all our talk about building new bridges don’t mean shit to people with no roads.
Let me be clear about this: I still think it’s more important than ever to address our broken discourse and figure out how to mend our cultural divides. If we don’t work for more social cohesion and healing, we’ll all suffer more in the end. But everyone has their own load to tote. My cultural advantages make it difficult for me to understand the experiences on the margins, but I will keep working on it and making it part of the larger discussion. I’m thankful Nikki is doing what she’s doing, remaking the world in her image.
I got a little lost as I tried to drive our shiny, dark van out of the South Side, and I’m not proud of the fact that I was a little scared what would happen if we broke down or had a flat, but what I learned that day has affected me…for good.