Dominique Steward and I met at the first of several open houses to be held at BBF Family Services this year as part of the Envisioning Justice initiative. Entitled “Powerful Platforms: a Community’s Call to Action,” the open house was designed to bring awareness to the concerns central to Envisioning Justice, which invites Chicagoans from around the city to address the impact of incarceration in their communities. (I also met BBF Family Services President and CEO Rufus Williams at the open house, which included a roundtable discussion on police-community relations.) Steward moved from a longtime career at the College of DuPage to BBF Family Services in North Lawndale three years ago. After starting in development for the organization, she is currently the Envisioning Justice North Lawndale Hub Director.
I recently sat down with Steward on a quiet Saturday morning at BBF to discuss her vision for subsequent Envisioning Justice programming. I work for UCAN, another social service agency in North Lawndale, so I was particularly curious about her previous work on the agency’s development side, and how it dovetailed with the approach and ethical mandate of Envisioning Justice. She described adding the mantle of Hub Director for Envisioning Justice to her current work at BBF Family Services as a “natural fusion.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Eric K. Roberts: What did you do here at BBF before Envisioning Justice?
Dominique Steward: Before Envisioning Justice, I served as the Manager of Development and Institutional Advancement – basically fundraising, marketing, and community engagement. Making sure that we have the revenue to continue on with all of our programming and expanding that programming, making sure that information gets out to everybody that needs to know, and then making sure that we’re engaging the community. BBF has gone through several iterations of programming. We started off as the boxing club. Then it was all about adolescent programming for high-risk youth involved in some type of negative activity. We then moved into this after school space – educational programming and our After School Matters apprenticeships. And then, about three years ago, we expanded into this mentoring space, similar to UCAN. Now we’re like a fusion of different things. Our after-school childcare space we start from age 5 and up; we do re-entry programming, mentoring programming, educational programming; and then we do a lot that relates to health equity: what are all the elements that are needed for people to be healthy citizens? BBF serves with the National Academy of Medicine, and we are one of several different organizations looking at North Lawndale and other low-income areas around the U.S.
EKR: You’ve got your hands in all of that?
DS: Yeah, trying to move and facilitate and advance the institution and help to advance North Lawndale. I feel like the Hub Director was a natural fusion, because it’s looking at justice for folks in North Lawndale, looking at the high incarceration rates in North Lawndale and what we can do to help folks re-enter into the community, and having that community embrace them. I have been here since August of 2015. I knew that I was coming into an organization that had transitioned its leadership and transitioned its focus so that was exciting for me, to have that challenge. Before that, I was working as a grant specialist at College of DuPage. So it was a very different opportunity.
EKR: How’s that transition been, from working for a college?
DS: It’s good! My grandparents were South-Siders. So when I was deliberating taking the job on the West Side, my grandma was like, “Pray about it!” I’ve fallen in love with the North Lawndale community! The people here are excellent. They tell you exactly how they feel. I like that bare-bones honesty. You also see the lack of education and funding – and what do you do about that? What do you do when there’s a very low tax base but people need quality park districts? And land space? There’s environmental issues that folks have inherited over time.
Working for a community college, I had a sense of community and what a community needs. I think the difference in working in a traditional non-profit is that you learn how to collaborate and partner to get folks what they need. For instance, one of our mentees was shot and killed, and the family needed help with the funeral. While that may not be a direct service that BBF offers, you can see, “Okay, this community member has a need, so how can we facilitate and make that happen?” So we leverage a lot of different partnerships and relationships in order to get things done.
EKR: You mentioned infrastructural issues. I assume BBF is not exactly going out and building parks – that’s the city’s job. If you can’t fill a particular hole directly – if you can’t, say, make a school better – are you trying to come from a different angle to meet the same need?
DS: Yeah, we do. I’ll give you a Park District example. We have a youth police baseball league in spring and summer, North Lawndale Youth Police Baseball League. We work with Franklin Park. The quality of the park was just not up to par! So we talked to the regional manager, district manager, went all the way up to, you know, the city administrator, like, “This has to be fixed! Franklin Park does not look and is not maintained the same as Humboldt Park, as Douglas Park, as…” We went to at least five parks – “This needs to be fixed!” That’s not a tax base issue; that’s just regular maintenance and repair. We also worked with Cubs Charities – we applied for a grant so that the park could receive new benches, new water fountains, better lighting, cages. The benches, if you go over there, are bent, and the parents and families can’t even sit properly to watch their kids play games! This is wrong. So having that view of community, that kind of cross-section of community engagement and fundraising, is to say, “What does our community need, and how can we make that better?”
About two years ago, we worked with the principal over at Penn Elementary and with I Heart Media to have a town hall in their auditorium and talk about gun violence. Going to that auditorium – the chairs need repair, the internet infrastructure is not up to par! “What can we do to make this better?” Whole communities of people are being left behind. You cannot have this digital divide and be competitive in a global marketplace, be competitive in careers, even be competitive in the quality of work that you’re able to submit for high school and to move on to a quality four-year institution. That’s not okay! So we use our efforts and our knowledge to make things happen outside of this building. And I’m very proud of that work.
EKR: Do you have a sense of why these inequities exist? I can think of some reasons why, if not a tax base issue.
DS: You know, a lot of these things are, quite frankly, structural racism – social justice issues. It’s where funding is allocated throughout this city, and [which] community areas are determined as places for economic development. So you see this big boom in Englewood now, you see this in sections of Garfield Park. There’s even additional revenue and tax credits applied to specific parts of North Lawndale. And so, we have to help to make people care about all the spaces.
EKR: It sounds like you’re describing a sieve. If you’ve got a boat, and it’s leaking from multiple spots, how do you and how does BBF determine what to prioritize?
DS: Good question. We look within our programming priorities. “Where’s the bleeding?” You stop the bleeding first – that takes priority. Thankfully there’s enough staff and volunteers to be able to do that. And we leverage our partnerships. So if it’s not something that we directly can do, if we’re not functioning in that space, we make a call, we send an email – “Is this something that another organization can do?” I think that is the beauty of understanding that we are one entity in the midst of a landscape of entities that can do greater and better things. So there’s not this sense of competition. Like if the after-school programming here doesn’t work for a kid, you know what? There’s tons of after-school programs that might be better for that kid, so let’s suggest some! We send kids over to UCAN! You may not connect with the staff here or the volunteers here. That’s fine! But let’s see where you do make those connections so you’re not lost, falling through the cracks of a system that should be able to work for all.
EKR: It’s funny, I took a Lyft over here even though I’m not far – I’m just over in East Garfield Park – but the driver, who was probably 60 years old, was like, “Oh, BBF. That place played a role in my childhood.” And then he said, “If not for BBF…,” and also, “If not for Franklin Park, if not for Garfield Park – if not for those places, who knows where I would be?”
DS: Absolutely. It’s so important. Some of our mentors take the kids to G.A.P. to use their gym, or the old BBR Chicago Youth Center gym. Right now they’re doing flag football over at Franklin Park with Franklin Park’s programming. And so you have a sense of, “Okay, we don’t need to build a gym, because there’s quality gyms around North Lawndale! So let’s just make a phone call and see, ‘Hey, do you have space in your gym?’” And maybe that connection can be a lifelong connection for career development, or economic development, or financial literacy. And then, you know, it’s great, it’s a win. It’s a win for North Lawndale, it’s a win for humanity.
EKR: How do you get people involved? How does recruitment happen? How do you get people to want to come here? This is a lovely facility, but that can’t be the only thing that’s bringing people here.
DS: Tons of different ways. The staff does a lot of recruitment. A lot of word of mouth, a lot of relationships that have been developed. Our Education Manager goes to the different schools to let them know we have after-school-based programming. BBF is on several different listservs. We’re a licensed DCFS child-care facility, serving school-age [children], five to 17. And then the After School Matters-based programs – we’re listed there. We’re listed with the Department of Family and Support Services. We’re listed with Illinois Action for Children. We’re in all these different spaces, so people can go online, put in that they live or work around North Lawndale, and we come up on a listserv. That’s the child-based programming.
Then there’s the athletic programs: we work in partnership with all the local park districts. If it’s something we don’t directly offer, then we create these pipelines. So if kids want to take swim, they can take swim at Franklin, they can take swim over in Little Village, and because BBF has those buses, we’ll provide bus transportation to those services. We are listed with the U.S. Tennis Association, so coaches come in and they provide the kind of tennis “basics.” They will set up nets in the streets and in the parking lots and they’ll learn how to play four-square tennis, etc. And we try to list ourselves with, you know, Major League Baseball and NFL and all the big national and international organizations to create a pipeline of opportunities that kids – and adults – would not otherwise have.
We work with the local nursing homes to bring seniors in for programming or to make ourselves available for seniors to have additional programming. We literally go from five all the way up. We even offer parenting classes through partnerships with Saint Anthony’s or Sinai [hospitals]. We consider ourselves to be a hub of services, so we don’t need to offer [certain services], but we do offer space in our building. For instance, Chicago Urban League – they’re going to do some smoking cessation workshops here. They’re located on the South Side but they’re coming over to the West Side to provide this. We work with – and I serve on the steering committee for – the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, and that organization comes in and offers workshops or has classes. New Covenant Development Corporation, they’ll offer small business workshops, etc. Neighborhood Housing Services will come in and do stuff. We have this great facility. It was our founder Joseph Kellman’s vision to be able to have this place where people could fulfill their dreams and not have that sense of hopelessness about the future trajectory of their lives. Our facility is owned by the Kellman Family Foundation and they want to see it utilized for the betterment of the community, and we work to facilitate that.
EKR: I got a sense at the open house event that there’s a core group of people who are here often, who are familiar with BBF. Is that true?
DS: There’s the core classes: one middle school class, one high school class, and one community-based class. Some of the kids who participated [at the open house] were what we would consider “BBF kids,” meaning that they participate in BBF core programs. And then we had seniors that we brought over from the nursing homes who were here to participate in the community engagement classes.
One thing that we were really adamant about was having this kind of intergenerational community-based class, where seniors and kids – a wide scope of age ranges – could learn how to work together. That’s important in African-American communities, historically. It’s also important to rebuild that kind of fabric that has degraded over time, where young people listen to older people and older people aren’t afraid of younger people. Out of that came this core group, working on the thought of, “What happened? What happened in the fabric of our community as it relates to justice?” They were sharing what was happening over at BBF and were talking to other folks. Other nursing homes were saying, “Oh, we want to be a part of that.” So our hope is – and kind of alluding to what the next phase of programming is going to be for Envisioning Justice – that we’re sharing across the various hubs, so that we can kind of get some inter-hub, cross-community kind of collaborations.
EKR: If there are so-called “BBF kids” – kids that avail themselves of the services here – would you say that there are parents or other family members who also make up the local fabric of this organization? I’m also curious about staffing here, whether they’re Lawndale-based or –
DS: Yes. I’d say, in terms of hiring from within the community, it’s probably at least 70% of folks who are North Lawndale- or West Side-based: North Lawndale, Austin, Garfield Park. We hire lots of ex-offenders, and that was important to us to give community folks a chance but also to give folks a chance who had been in the system. To be able to give people second chances is really important. Rufus [Williams] grew up in North Lawndale and Garfield Park, so he has that kind of North Lawndale community lens. There’s a core group of staff that really understand the framework of the West Side historically and currently and what happens in terms of people getting arrested or getting into trouble. And they have made that their life’s work – “I may not have had that adult influence when I was a young person, but I will be that adult influence to a younger person” – which drives their activity. We have parents whose kids participate in programming, who volunteer. That’s not necessarily a requirement of the program but they just give of their time and their efforts and their influence. They’ll come and they’ll clean up after events and set up and raise money and get in-kind donations and work registration tables. They either grew up in BBF programming and now their kids go to BBF programming, or they have a stake in BBF somehow.
EKR: Now that you’ve taken on these responsibilities as the Envisioning Justice Hub Director, I’d be interested in what you’re seeing as you move forward, what you’re trying to do.
DS: I’m going to give you a little bit of background. I was involved with the [Envisioning Justice] conversations from the beginning, when I was working on the development side, because it’s a grant-funded program. There’s two parts: the arts programming and the humanities programming. There’s three tiers: middle school, high school, and community-based programming. The first session, we focused on visual arts. B’Rael Ali came in as our visual artist to teach drawing and working with pastels, and really that artistic expression. And we had everything from seniors talking about gentrification and how the community area has changed over time, to the Great Migration, to young people trying to identify a career – “What do I want to do and how do I want to get there?” North Lawndale has a very low literacy rate, so one of the components we were developing in our programming was addressing this literacy rate as it relates to justice, because as folk get caught up in the system, they don’t know what they’re reading, they don’t know what they’re writing, people are telling them to do stuff and they’re just going about it without understanding what’s happening and how they’re getting caught up.
In the second session, they really focused on spoken word. The community program moved outside of BBF and went into Franklin Park (with Urban Gateways and UCAN). They talked about North Lawndale’s sesquicentennial celebration which is coming up, so working on artistic programming to develop artworks for the 150th anniversary. The youth-based programming was focused on the griot – the griot is like an African kind of historian and storyteller – so kind of making sure that these stories – the Lawndale stories – are told and heard and passed on through oral traditions. They got a chance to highlight all of the things that they were working on and to be able to tell their stories, their North Lawndale stories and their conversations about justice.
EKR: And these were all under the Envisioning Justice aegis?
DS: Exactly. This third session that’s coming up is focusing on re-entry, and the community’s response to those who are returning to citizenry. We’re going to have some focus group discussions with different age groups – young people, seniors, community organizations – and ask, “How do you feel about folks coming back? And how do you feel about this whole concept of ‘restorative justice’? Can you restore when someone has an infraction against you and against the community? What does that mean when a person has sold drugs and they’ve been caught and now they have to be restored to the community? Who does that restoration? Who do they need to apologize to? Really, is there this great understanding, or is there going to be this ongoing conflict?” A couple of the perspectives that rose up in that large group discussion at the open house was this concept of, “Well, it’s the parents. And parents need to raise their kids,” and all this other stuff. So we have these ideas of what is supposed to happen in the home and in the family structure because of the way that we grew up, but everybody doesn’t grow up the same, so we want to be able to have those conversations.
Then, the culminating experience will be a simulated experience at BBF, going through different rooms, and having each room represent a different location. This is based on a poverty simulation that Adler has run – Adler University with the Cabrini Green Legal Aid group – which is run by women who have been ex-offenders who have come back into society. So they understand, “What does it mean when you have to try to go to a government office and get an ID? What does it mean when you have to try to buy food? When you have to try to get transit? When you have to get a job? When you have to go for housing? And when you have this background, what does this mean?” And taking you through these simulations. “Okay, now you have to go for an ID? What does it represent if you’re both an immigrant and an ex-offender?” So all these people from various walks of life and various generations who have opinions about it can then go through that simulation, come out of it, and have the same conversation again and see how they feel.
DS: So that you can get a sense of, “Now you know what it’s like!” And this has nothing to do with the offense. This is about being a human being and being a citizen and being a resident and trying to re-engage or engage in full. Because if you went to juvy at 13 and then you just kept going through the system, what do you know about being a citizen? You know nothing! And, you think, “Can the people around me – the people that I have some knowledge of and who knew me – have compassion for me? Because I made a mistake, I understand that I made a mistake, or maybe I don’t understand that I made a mistake. What’s still available to me?” That’s what we’re looking at for the third session.
EKR: What would like to see transpire in the community as a result of Envisioning Justice?
DS: I would like to see this conversation go into – on the individual level and the community level – “How are we functioning as human beings?” I think we as African-Americans have kind of gone through the motions, of slavery and Reconstruction and migration and Civil Rights, and so there are just things that we do out of rote and from history or things that we’ve learned, and haven’t stopped to question. I believe that artistic expression and that the humanities conversations and other programming really helps to do that, so that people can feel like, “Okay, I’m just expressing myself,” and have the ability to get deeper along the way, understanding their value and their worth on an individual level, as well as on a community level. I think that that’s a part of what we’re missing here in North Lawndale.
EKR: Is engagement with the arts and humanities about generating discussion? Is it fostering intellectual activity? Is that what it’s about?
DS: Mmm hmm. And I can show you how children in [our] arts classes were able to unpack some of the things – how they were able to express how they felt about losing their home, and their neighborhood changing, and being shot, or watching their friends get shot, or school violence. In a way that people are thinking, “Oh, I’m just drawing,” or, “I’m just writing a paragraph.” Well, it’s really therapeutic, and it opens up the discussion in a way that they may be shy or reticent to talk about it, but at least the notion is out there to discuss and to work through.
EKR: One more question. Do you have a sense of what kind of internal changes this kind of programming is having on young people, or older people, for that matter? Where do you derive confidence that the programming’s doing good work?
DS: I had a conversation with a grandmother after the first session was over. And she came and was like, “Can I talk to you guys about some services that my family needs? My granddaughter really loved the arts programming during the first session. And I watched her personality unfold like a flower, because she was very shy. But she’s having some trouble at home. And she expressed it in her poetry – you guys just weren’t aware of what she was talking about. But we need some help.” And so we were able to connect her with our family services manager, and family services was able to connect them to DCFS and to some parenting resources because she was able to go through that artistic programming and express herself in poetry.
And she – the granddaughter – was incredibly shy. When she first came in, she wouldn’t look at anybody, she wouldn’t talk to anybody. And, you know, going through parents being divorced, and a new person coming along, and now getting ready to have to move out of the community that she grew up in. She didn’t really have a place to talk about that. But then she started to interact with other young people and be confident in something that she – an incredible artist – didn’t know she had the ability to do before.
EKR: Thank you for your time.
This article is published as part of Envisioning Justice, a 19-month initiative presented by Illinois Humanities that looks into how Chicagoans and Chicago artists respond to the impact of incarceration in local communities and how the arts and humanities are used to devise strategies for lessening this impact.
Featured Image: A portrait of Dominique Steward suffused in sunlight coming through large windows in the background. Steward has curly hair with highlights, purplish glasses, and matching lipstick. She is wearing a black and gray baseball jersey-style t-shirt that reads, “KNIGHTS.” Photo by Eric K. Roberts.