Creating the right recipe of offerings for the families in your community isn’t an easy task, but that’s what Bright Star Community Outreach works to do everyday in Bronzeville. Providing everything from family service and parent education to workforce development, trauma counseling, and advocacy opportunities, Bright Star takes a holistic approach to their work and wraps their arms all the way around those who walk through their doors for support or service.
A born-and-raised Chicagoan, Bright Star’s Nichole Carter moved to Knoxville, Tennessee as a teenager, then, after acceptance into Spelman she moved to Atlanta. After graduation she spent time working in property management, specifically in mixed-income housing. Eventually, what she learned during her studies and work in the South would make its way to the South Side of Chicago through a position as the Director of Community Strategy and Development at Bright Star.
As the person at the helm of Bright Star’s community programs, she was the one who took a leadership role when Bright Star became one of seven community hubs for Envisioning Justice, a program initiated by Illinois Humanities that investigates the role that art plays in how we understand, educate, and intervene on Chicago’s criminal legal systems. In our conversation Carter shared a bit of her backstory, how that work shaped the work she does now, and the vision she has of justice and the roadblocks that slow down that progress.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
TH: Given your area code, it sounds like you might be from Atlanta, or that you spent some time in Atlanta. And now you’re in Chicago and have now been at Bright Star for a few years. What’s your background, what brought you to this work, and how did you end up at Bright Star?
NC: I am actually a native Chicagoan. I was born here and lived here until just after my freshman year of high school. And then my family moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, for my dad’s job. He’s in higher education and he was Assistant Vice Chancellor for research at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. So culturally that’s a big shift between Knoxville and Chicago. And during that time there was an even bigger shift than than there is if we were to make [that move] today. So, I was in Knoxville for three years. After that I graduated from high school and went to Spelman. And so that’s my Atlanta connection.
TH: Oh, I see.
NC: I actually lived in Atlanta for almost twenty years including undergraduate and working. After a while I felt like I needed a change and I went back to Knoxville and reconnected with someone that I knew in high school, got married, then I moved back [to Chicago]. So I’ve been here since May of 2015. In between I was always back and forth to Chicago. I had grandparents here and family here so I was never a stranger to the city. But it’s much different when you visit and when you live here. That’s a little about what I did prior to coming to Bright Star. For a while I actually worked in mixed income property management. Are you familiar with that at all?
NC: There’s a lot of it. So the first mixed model that everybody uses across the country, I actually opened the first one in the nation.
NC: It was around the time of the Olympics so they tore down all the housing projects outside of the [Atlanta University] Center which was also not far from the Georgia Dome cause that’s where a lot of the Olympics would be held. I was the first manager there during construction all the way through lease up. And while I was there I realized that no matter what the socioeconomic perspective of the whole was, whether you were paying $0 for rent or $1000 for rent, families were in trouble. So after being in property management for a number of years I actually went back and got a masters in marriage and family therapy. And I really wanted to help families. After graduating was when I went back to Knoxville and started working at the Knoxville area Urban League. I was a director of all of their youth programs.
So while I was not directly doing counseling work, I was still able to use a lot of what I knew from looking at systems and root causes to help address these issues through the programming that we would offer the young people.
Fast forward to moving back to Chicago, I have known Pastor Harris since I was eight or nine years old. We used to sing together. Following him on Facebook I saw the work that he was doing–at that time it would have been called the Bronzeville Dreams Center. That was work looking at trauma and violence but addressing that both through faith and community leaders. So I was very interested in this work and I reached out to him just to see what opportunities were available and to see if he could help me to get plugged into the sector and pass along my resume. As he was reading my resume to make sure he was going to connect me with the right people, he said, “I’m not going to send you anywhere, I want you to be with me!” So I started as the program director, and I worked on seven different programs at Bright Star. I’m currently the Director of Community Outreach and Programs. So my role is to basically take what we do at Bright Star in terms of our core values, which is looking at mentoring, workforce development, family programs, and advocacy to create different opportunities. [Our work is] to look at different opportunities to create programming that addresses some of those areas. So Envisioning Justice is under my purview because of what my role is.
I’ve been very excited to work with what we’re doing. You kind of heard me mention Still Till–that’s actually something that we were doing in advance of Envisioning Justice. Bright Star Church is located at 4021 S. State Street, which is a historic property of the Roberts Temple Church Of God In Christ and where Emmett Till’s funeral was held. So we use that platform to bring to our community the memory of what happened with Emmett Till but to also discuss what kind of things in our community are Still Till. So we worked in that advocacy vein, looking at the criminal justice system and its effects, even before Envisioning Justice. It was just a seamless transition to bring that to the community as well.
TH: Thank you for telling that story. What were some of the things that you brought with you that translated well from your work in the South to your work on the South Side of Chicago? And what were some of the things that you found to be very different from the work you had been doing in Georgia or Tennessee to what you’re now doing with Chicago communities?
NC: Right. So, what I found that was similar was that there was no lack of need in either location. The inner city in Knoxville was very different from the inner city in Chicago and I would say that maybe the gravity of the situation that’s going on [is different, too]. So while there’s violence in Knoxville, it doesn’t rival the violence that’s here in Chicago but it’s still impacting in the same way.
In Knoxville there was an urgency to make a difference and to impact lives. I find there to be the same urgency here in Chicago. [Bright Star] is trying to figure out how to both prevent and intervene at the same time. So I think that that’s kind of where I am personally but also where Bright Star is as an organization. You can’t really choose to be on one side or the other. I don’t think. You have to try to prevent it so create things and structures that can help change the trajectory of the population, also while addressing the things that have already happened to them.
TH: I’m really interested in just the scope of the work that Bright Star does and the programs that are offered. And I’m really curious to know–from your perspective–what is the importance of having that kind of range? That kind of all-encompassing, one stop shop approach where you can go to Bright Star and get everything you need for all aspects of the family and different needs. It seems like Bright Star is the type of place that you can go, and you don’t really need to go too many other places. Or it’s gonna lead you directly to any other places you might need to go. That’s a huge thing to take on but it is also an important way to approach community. So, why that approach?
NC: I think that our approach is to really look at trauma and violence. We realized that the answer is not linear. When you’re thinking about trauma and violence there are many different ways that it can be addressed. I also think about when people are in need, it’s really important to be able to help that need without them having to go to many different places because they’re already vulnerable. I would also venture to say that in our Black and Brown communities we’re less likely to get help.
TH: I’ve also noticed that when explaining programs and how the organizations approaches its work, Bright Star uses and shares a lot of data to back up the ideas. Can you talk more about that?
NC: It’s been really important not only the way that we collect the data but the way we use the data [to inform] how we set up the work. The data that we’ve gotten is not just public data but also data we have gotten through intentional surveys. We’ve done surveys of sixth graders, eighth graders, tenth graders, and twelfth graders, as well as the population of 400 adult community members in the greater Bronzeville community. And the way that we’ve used that information has been to hear the voice of the community regarding what the community needs. It’s really important to us that anything that we do includes the voice of the community. Pastor Harris has a saying, “Nothing about us without us.” And we believe in that firmly.
That’s kind of how we look at programming as well because we can think that we have created an amazing program, even if it is based on data. But once you’ve asked for the voice of the community and asked them to sit down with you to dissect what the data is, and then you say, “Alright based on what you’ve heard, what should our next steps be…?” When you do that and you’ve included individuals, you get much better buy-in sometimes. And so that’s the principle that we have used.
Bright Star has really morphed over the years. We’re still pretty young. We’re in our tenth year and over the years we’ve added programming as the community has requested so that we can meet their needs.
TH: When I think of church and growing up in the church, I’m reminded of how much culture is infused in that kind of space. And when I think about Envisioning Justice and the focus on art’s incorporation into conversations around Chicago’s criminal legal system, the creativity in the work of an organization like Bright Star and the work you do in your position maybe not as clear. So I’m curious about where you see the creativity in your work. And how does that relate to your approach with the work that you’ve done with Envisioning Justice.
NC: Pastor Harris used to actually travel the world, singing gospel and jazz. So art is really ingrained in what we do and in the programming that we offer to young people. During the summertime we always have creative outlets for them–whether it’s music classes, whether it’s dancing, whether it’s art. I’m [also] thinking about culinary expression and other things we’re trying to incorporate. Our larger challenge is bringing that to our adult population. They may come to a concert, or they may do things like that, but in terms of having classes or any other engagement, that was different.
But also one of the things that we’ve been able to capitalize on is the history of the building that we’re in. So I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but she was actually a renowned blues guitarist.
NC: And her start was at Roberts Temple. So we’ve been very fortunate to be able to use our history to bring awareness as to what’s already in the community as well as use that as a bridge for some of the arts programming that we are endeavoring to do.
The community conversations [as part of Envisioning Justice] were actually a much stronger part of our programming. But the arts piece gave us another backbone to begin to strengthen that so that we have a greater voice concerning arts in the community.
TH: That’s an incredible history to tap into. Between Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Emmett Till. So, along those lines, Envisioning Justice is about art but it’s also about that justice piece, right?
TH: What does a vision of justice look like to you? What is justice? Whether it’s in the work that you do, or your history, the work that you’ve done across the country. What is justice?
NC: That’s such a great question and that’s probably why you asked it. In some ways, if I’m really honest it’s hard for me to define because it feels almost impossible. With the kind of climate that we’re in now and in terms of the lenses through which people are seeing, justice seems like a fleeting thought. If I were to change the lenses, it would be so that everyone is seen on equal footing. And so regardless of your gender, regardless of your race, everyone is allowed to tell their story. And that their stories matter in terms of what the ultimate outcome is for them.
The other thing–I definitely believe that there is a system where there should definitely be consequences for actions. I think that those consequences should be equitable. And I think that people should be allowed the opportunity to serve whatever term or to be held responsible, but it doesn’t need to weigh them down as they go forward. Those are the two things that I see or would like to see as I think about justice.
TH: What do you think are the biggest roadblocks on the path to a more just, or a more equitable system or world or city or society?
NC: The structure of systems, which I think are informed a lot by levels of systemic racism, is probably a big influence in why there is injustice. And if we were to take away racism, I could replace that with opportunity. I think that there is a level playing field for the opportunities that individuals have, and thus creates, I think, a pipeline into those systems, if that makes sense.
TH: Yeah. And then, finally I think, well my second-to-last question is, when it comes to Bright Star, and for someone who might be here now reading your words, and getting a hint as to what Bright Star does, can you speak to who is Bright Star for? And I know it’s a community organization for Bronzeville but does it does it speak beyond that? What kind of people could turn to Bright Star if they needed the kind of things that you’re able to offer?
NC: Our initial scope is the greater Bronzeville community and the city of Chicago.
For instance, we have our own toll-free number so anybody across Chicago, really across the country, can call in if they’ve been a victim of trauma or violence. And anyone who feels that they could benefit from our services is welcome to be a participant in what we offer. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a certain socioeconomic group–it can just be anyone. So if the parenting classes that we offer could be of benefit, anyone can come. Most of the services that we offer are free. And that’s so there isn’t that barrier there [for people]. But really we’re available to anyone who feels that they can be helped by anything that we have to offer.
TH: Finally, is there anything that we haven’t discussed that’s on your mind that you want to talk about?
NC: About the initiative as a whole: just to even begin to think about what we imagine the criminal justice system could look like has been such an uplifting and rewarding experience. And I teased with Elliot and Slater the other day I said, “We will find funding to continue this and I’m looking forward to it. But all of us at Bright Star feel that whether or not we get that formal funding from Illinois Humanities, we’re going to look for ways to continue this work.
TH: Yeah, that’s incredible. And that’s always a challenge, right? You have initiatives that happen to spark something. And then the question is, what happens next? But it’s been wonderful to see how groups like Bright Star have come into a kind of community or make deeper relationships with this cohort of folks doing this work in so many different ways. It’s been great to watch from my perspective. So I just want to say thank you for your time.
NC: Well, thank you.
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: Portrait of Nichole Carter, standing in front of a tiled, white and grey wall with arms folded across her chest and looking directly into the camera. She’s wearing a black and pink dress with horizontal stripes and a layered pearl necklace. Photo courtesy of Bright Star Community Outreach.
Tempestt Hazel is a curator, writer, and director/co-founder of Sixty Inches From Center. Her writing has been published by Hyde Park Art Center the Broad Museum (Lansing), in Support Networks: Chicago Social Practice History Series, Contact Sheet: Light Work Annual, Unfurling: Explorations In Art, Activism and Archiving, on Artslant, as well as various monographs of artists, including Cecil McDonald, Jr.’s In the Company of Black published by Candor Arts. You can also read her writing in the upcoming Art AIDS America catalogue for Chicago and the online journal Exhibitions on the Cusp by Tremaine Foundation. Find more of her work at tempestthazel.com. Photo by Darryl DeAngelo Terrell.