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Wake Up Calls

Eric Hudson tries to bring the outside world into focus for inner city kids



By Ben Joravsky

It's only a few miles between Eric Hudson's sixth-floor office in the Loop and Lorraine Marchman's African-American history class at Robeson High School in Englewood. But they might as well be on opposite sides of the universe, so great is the difference between the world each represents.

Hudson's the Ralph Bunche fellow for Amnesty International, a human-rights organization firmly rooted in corporate America. The students at Robeson come from one of the city's poorest and highest-crime neighborhoods; few are expected to graduate from college.

But once a week Hudson rides the Dan Ryan line south to 69th and leads a discussion with Marchman's students on recent African history. His ambitions are grand: "I want them to see how they're not alone in their powerlessness and isolation. I want them to take pride in Africa the way Irish kids take pride in Ireland. I want them to see how their lives are influenced by the greater world outside of 69th Street, starting with the corporate world downtown."

If anyone can bridge the gap, it's Hudson, who at age 30 seems at home in both worlds. Raised on the south side, he graduated from Lake View High School and earned an undergraduate degree at Georgetown University. As a teenager, Hudson was arrested while protesting apartheid outside the South African consulate. After working for various politicians and organizations throughout the city, he joined Amnesty last fall, determined to bring it closer to working-class and poor black communities.

At first, most of his phone calls went unreturned. Many black activists are apparently still upset at Amnesty over a discrimination lawsuit filed a few years ago by Toni Moore, an African-American former employee in Chicago. (Moore eventually settled her suit.) "I know Toni Moore--she ran a 'youth in law' program for at-risk minority students at my high school," says Hudson. "Despite the problems that she had with Amnesty, I know that she would be proud of what I'm doing. I'm doing exactly what she did for the next generation of kids like me."

Hudson also faced resistance from black leaders who did not share what he calls "the spiritual link" with Africa. "Sometimes I think you have to visit Africa to understand it," he says. "I was never treated better than when I was in Egypt. They called me 'my cousin, my brother.' I never felt so warm, so unthreatened by police. I played them tapes of Coltrane and Miles Davis, and they played me Egyptian music. These Egyptians were poor, but there's a moral poverty of black folks in America, where we're isolated from our souls and need to be reconnected with our African heritage.

"But it's tough. A minister, who shall remain anonymous, told me, 'I have to deal with enough savages on the west side without worrying about the savages in Africa.' I said, 'I don't hear Italians talk about Italy like that.' He just said, 'Can't help you, son. God go with you.'"

After many calls and letters, Hudson put together a board for his outreach program whose members include Robert Lucas, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor of In These Times, and Robert Starks, a professor with Northeastern University's Center for Inner City Studies.

"I think they share my belief that it's critical for oppressed people in Chicago to form links with people who are oppressed in Africa," says Hudson. "In Africa as in Englewood, people live in isolated communities filled with hatred. When you recognize you're oppressed, you stop taking it out on your brothers and sisters and you start organizing with those who are also oppressed to change the dynamics of your community. What's happening at Robert Taylor isn't much different than what's going on in Africa. It's people pitted against one another. They're tearing down housing, selling Taylor to developers, while gangbangers are fighting each other out of a sense of inferiority."

In November Hudson convinced Phillip Jackson, chief of staff to schools CEO Paul Vallas, to endorse his program. Jackson helped arrange for Hudson to give workshops at four public high schools: Wells, King, Near North, and Robeson. "I told Phil I didn't want middle-class schools--I wanted kids who usually get overlooked, kids who are struggling academically," says Hudson. "These people are key to making changes. I'm convinced that it was the everyday, rank-and-file black folks--as Jesse Jackson put it, 'the black folks who take the early bus to work'--who were the key in the fight against apartheid."

Hudson also found an ally in James Breashears, Robeson's principal, who thinks students at a school named for Paul Robeson should be familiar with their ethnic heritage. "I welcome this program because the one thing our students need most is exposure to the bigger picture," says Breashears. "Their lives are what they see right here at 69th and Normal, and they need to get an opportunity to see and compare what other nations are doing. They need to see where they came from. They need to understand why their world works the way it does. Why there's currency exchanges in Englewood, for instance, and banks in Hyde Park."

So once a week Hudson rides the train to 69th and the Dan Ryan and walks two blocks west to Robeson, where some 25 students in Marchman's senior-level class await him. If they're happy to see him, they don't show it.

"Today we're going to discuss Rwanda," Hudson began one recent class. "How much do you know about Rwanda?"

"Is Rwanda on 39th Street?" one kid cracked.

"Rwanda's in Africa," said Hudson, ignoring the snickering.

"I ain't goin' to no Africa, man," the same kid said. "They got voodoo pins they be stickin' in dolls."

"You don't see white Irish kids talking about Ireland like that," said Hudson. "They're proud of Ireland--"

"I ain't from Africa, man--"

"You are too," called out another student. "You got a bone in your head."

The class cracked up. Hudson cut off the chatter by telling a parable about powerful forces using money to turn friends from poor neighborhoods against each other. This, he said, has been happening to Rwanda's Hutu and Tutsi.

With that he turned off the lights and put on a video in which Danny Glover narrated the horrible tale of genocide and civil war in Rwanda.

For years, Glover said, Belgians and other Europeans manipulated differences between the Hutu and Tutsi, leading the Hutu to feel superior because "they looked more European." The screen filled with wretched images of the slaughtered, wounded, and orphaned. In 1994 over a million people were killed in Rwanda as the world stood by, Glover concluded.

When the video ended, Hudson turned off the TV and turned on the lights. Six or seven students had their heads on their desks, apparently sleeping.

"Hey, man," one student said as he squinted to get used to the light. "Why'd you have to turn on the lights?"

"Ain't no big deal, babies dying in Africa," one girl said. "Babies be getting killed around here all the time."

"Why do you think the Europeans didn't intervene in the slaughter?" Hudson asked.

"'Cause they wanted them to kill each other," a girl said.

"Right," says Hudson. "You know what Public Enemy says--'If you don't stand for something you fall for anything.' What about your prisons? If they lock you all up isn't that a way of killing you? Even though we're only 14 percent of the population, we're 60 percent of the prisons."

There was silence. The six heads remained on their desks. One young man was practically snoring.

"I'll be willing to bet that while this was going on, folks in Africa were also sleeping," said Hudson.

"I'll still be sleeping," came a voice from the back.

"I'll be willing to bet folks downtown aren't sleeping. While you're sleeping, folks downtown will be figuring out how to tear down Robert Taylor. And when they've succeeded, what are you going to say?--'Oops, I was sleeping!' You have to decide whether you want to sleep or whether you want to get involved."

He promised to return the following week with a young Kenyan art student who had been exiled for standing up for human rights. And on the train heading back downtown, Hudson remained determined. "These are the kids I need to reach. A kid puts his head down and sleeps--that's a serious problem. You have to wonder what he was doing last night that he's so tired today. I give them credit 'cause they survived so much just to be in this class. So many others don't make it this far. But it's no good if they're just sleeping. The kids in the suburbs don't have their heads on the desk--they aren't sleeping. You have to ask yourself, where will these kids be in ten years if they're sleeping now? We have to wake them up." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Bruce Powell.

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