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How Chicago Activists Organized To Get An Adult Trauma Center

Above Photo: JOHN R. BOEHM

University of Chicago Medicine didn’t want an adult trauma center. What caused its change of heart? In part one of our two-part series, we examine how activists and their allies upped the pressure on the prestigious university health system.

From 61st and Cottage Grove, above still-leafless trees, you can see the complex where University of Chicago Medicine will house its future trauma center. It didn’t exist when Damian Turner was shot at the corner almost six years ago.

The random victim of someone else’s vendetta, the 18-year-old was hit shortly after midnight on Aug. 15, 2010, just three blocks south of U of C’s medical campus. He struggled to his sister’s apartment, his back bleeding, and collapsed in front of his young nieces and nephews. A neighbor called 911.

Despite a national reputation for excellence, U of C Medicine hadn’t operated an adult trauma care center in more than 20 years. So the paramedics chose the nearest option, driving 10 miles north to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Turner died at 1:23 a.m., leaving friends and family haunted by a question: Could treatment at a closer facility have saved his life?

Two weeks later, about 30 members of Fearless Leading by the Youth, a community organization Turner helped found in 2007, clustered in the community room of a Woodlawn apartment complex to rage and grieve. That’s where group leader Brittany Blaney spoke up: FLY should campaign for a new trauma center, to help prevent other deaths and spare others the pain they felt.

“That hit home,” says Darrius Lightfoot, Turner’s best friend. That was the beginning.

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It would take five years, but the three-hospital health system eventually would reverse course and announce plans to offer the highest-level trauma care at its Hyde Park campus. The racial dynamics of Chicago would shift over that stretch, with the national Black Lives Matter movement drawing attention to police shootings, and activists here opposing closures of mental health clinics and neighborhood schools located predominantly in poor, minority neighborhoods. After last November, when a judge released a video showing a Chicago police officer firing 16 bullets into teenager Laquan McDonald, the trauma center organizers would be joined by other protesters in the streets.

That a group of young, black community organizers built enough power to reckon with one of Chicago’s most formidable institutions is “significant and unprecedented,” says Elizabeth Todd-Breland, an assistant history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied black political organizing in the city. While the campaign echoes earlier town-gown struggles, its youthful leadership and strategic nimbleness make it an example—not just here in Chicago but nationally—that activists can emerge victorious.

“One of the chants you constantly hear among young black people is, ‘I believe that we will win,’ ” Todd-Breland says. “When you actually have wins like the one that happened with the trauma center, you have every right to believe that you can.”

LINGERING RIFT

The University of Chicago, which sits between 55th and 61st streets, and Woodlawn, the community that borders it to the south, have never been comfortable neighbors. In the 1960s, the university clashed with Bishop Arthur Brazier and the Rev. Leon Finney Jr., community leaders trained by legendary Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky, as it sought to expand its territory. Eventually the two men secured a written promise from U of C that it would never extend south of 61st Street.

Today, Hyde Park, the university’s home, is a racially mixed community of 27,000. Forty percent of households earn $25,000 to $75,000 annually; 30 percent earn more. Meanwhile, the population of its southern neighbor has shrunk from more than 81,000 in 1960 to just under 22,000. Nearly three-quarters of Woodlawn’s residents are unemployed or have stopped looking for work, and half of families there make less than $25,000, according to data from the 2013 American Community Survey. Of Chicago’s 77 community areas, Woodlawn ranks in the top third for deaths caused by firearms or kidney disease, and near the top third for diabetes.

To understand why Turner’s death was such a catalyzing event, it helps to know more about him. He grew up in Woodlawn’s Grove Parc Plaza with his mother, three sisters and a brother; his father visited the family every week. In 2007, the summer he was 15, he and Lightfoot got jobs through an inaugural youth program at community organization Southside Together Organizing for Power. The 12 junior organizers were determined “to make this into something real,” recalls Lightfoot, now 24. They chose their own name, FLY, and their first campaign: improving conditions at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, historically called the Audy Home.

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With Turner at 6-foot-4 and Lightfoot nearly a foot shorter, they were a mismatched pair but tight as brothers. When teenagers at the Audy Home said they had no clean underwear, the duo—who had collaborated on a rap about the conditions at the center—delivered underwear to the office of Todd Stroger, then Cook County Board president. They helped form a tenants association at Grove Parc Plaza. Turner even considered a campaign for a trauma center, says his mother, Sheila Rush, after a friend was shot and killed.

“Damian was a leader,” Lightfoot says. Though young, he “moved with the heart of a full-grown soldier. He stood his ground.”

Darrius Lightfoot, FLY co-founder and Damian Turner’s best friend

But it wasn’t all organizing. Turner was a neighborhood fixture who played basketball in a league run by Dr. Byron Brazier’s Apostolic Church of God and danced with a hip-hop troupe. After attending three high schools, he struggled to graduate. He was applying to Job Corps when he died.

BUILDING MOMENTUM

On Sept. 28, 2010, which would have been Turner’s 19th birthday, about 250 members of FLY and their allies marched from the site of the crime to a point near Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine on campus. They carried a 4-foot-high white cardboard cake with red trim covered with photos of the teen, whose killing remains unsolved.

From that day, it would take seven months to get a meeting with anyone in management at U of C Medicine. When they did, Lightfoot recalls one of the vice presidents saying the health system’s brief foray into running a trauma center, from 1986 until 1988, “did not work out” and that a new one on the South Side would “not save lives.”

In all, it would take five years to force a meeting with Dr. Kenneth Polonsky, the executive vice president for medical affairs who reports directly to U of C President Robert Zimmer.

The activists’ strategy: become a problem the university couldn’t ignore. FLY organizers recruited students, religious leaders and other nonprofits to unify under an umbrella, Trauma Care Coalition. They chose strategic moments for civil disobedience—signing up, for example, for a public tour in January 2013 of U of C Medicine’s new $700 million Center for Care and Discovery. “The optics were kind of absurd,” given the university had argued it lacked the funds to operate a trauma center, says Alex Goldenberg, executive director of STOP, FLY’s parent organization. “They never saw us coming.”

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Four activists were arrested that day, including a U of C graduate student. University police used batons to sweep the demonstrators out of the lobby. Overnight, a petition asking the university to drop charges against the protesters had 600 signatures. Three days later, administrators called for a “faculty-led dialogue” that culminated in a May 28 open meeting where, for the first time, Polonsky publicly supported a “regional solution” to the South Side’s lack of trauma care.

The comment registered as progress. The campaign advanced, with organizers occupying a construction site in 2014 until police dragged them from it. They prayed in a hospital lobby, and when police kicked them out, they returned weekly to pray on the sidewalk. When Dr. Paul Farmer, an expert on medicine for the poor, came to speak on campus, they won his support by slipping a briefing paper into the car collecting him from the airport. They blocked traffic on Michigan Avenue.

In an interview with Crain’s, U of C Medicine officials downplay the effect the organizers had on the institution’s decision. “This isn’t an issue that can be looked at in a silo,” says Cristal Thomas, the community liaison for the health system. “We are engaged with our community, we assess their health needs, we listen to what they want and need from our hospital. We heard the voice of the trauma coalition; we heard the voice of many of our stakeholders.”

But no other stakeholders staged die-ins on the medical campus or carried coffins through the streets.

A significant shift in the campaign came in spring 2014, when the organizers zeroed in on a particular weakness: the U of C’s bid for Barack Obama’s presidential library. “No trauma, no ‘bama,” they said, making national headlines.

Their first tangible victory came soon after, on Dec. 9, 2014, when U of C Medicine agreed to raise the age for admission to the trauma center at Comer Children’s Hospital from 15 to 17.

INCREMENTAL PROGRESS

One of the leaders to emerge from the campaign was Veronica Morris-Moore, 23, a Hyde Park Academy High School graduate who had been drawn to activism through a friend at FLY. After writing a senior English paper on young, black revolutionaries, she adopted the motto of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther activist killed by police in 1969: “Living for other people, struggling for other people and dying for other people.”

In the runup to alumni weekend last June, Morris-Moore, now a staff organizer at FLY, was among nine who used U-locks and plywood to barricade themselves in Edward H. Levi Hall, the Ellis Avenue building housing the president, other administrators and, ironically, the Office of Civic Engagement.

“I honestly thought they would give us what we wanted,” Morris-Moore says. “That’s not what happened. About two hours into it, we started hearing banging on the walls.”

JOHN R. BOEHM Veronica Morris-Moore is one of the crucial voices from the front lines.

Firefighters were hacking a hole in the wall. When that failed, they broke in through a window. Morris-Moore and the others were arrested and banned from campus. Police took them to lockup, where they waited 46 hours in the gloomy chill. The sound of slamming bars, she says, is a noise “that you don’t ever forget.”

Two months after the sit-in, Morris-Moore and Goldenberg, of STOP, finally got what they wanted: a meeting with Polonsky, brokered by the Rev. Julian DeShazier, a socially active senior pastor at University Church in Hyde Park.

A month later, the university announced that it would partner with Sinai Health System to open a trauma center at Holy Cross Hospital in Marquette Park. University officials hadn’t mentioned the deal in their two meetings with the organizers—Morris-Moore found out the night before the Sept. 11 announcement. When she and other organizers tried to attend the news conference, Sinai representatives stopped them at the front desk. She’s still banned from U of C’s campus.

It looked like victory, albeit a bittersweet one, since the surprise of the Sinai announcement had deepened the organizers’ distrust of the university. Almost a year had passed since administrators agreed to raise the age for admitting patients to the children’s trauma center. And while paperwork was filed with the Illinois Department of Public Health, the health system still hasn’t fulfilled the promise.

On the one-year anniversary of that announcement, the organizers held a news conference calling on the university to keep its promise. Another message, unspoken, was broadcast, too: We’re not going away.

READ PART 2, THE REVERSAL: The financial and political calculus that finally tipped the scales.

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