A young ShaRhonda with her SummerTimeChi buddies in Uptown, Chicago. [Photo credit: ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson].
As a child in Uptown, I lived by some hard-and-fast rules in the summer: Stay inside, stay in the backyard, stick to the “good blocks,” watch your back. I was never able to just play outside. I lived in constant fear of all kinds of danger. Summertime was hell, not vacation. I spent much of it watching a lot of television and imagining I had the kind of summer the children on TV were having.
While I’m grateful to be able to say my own daughters now live by different rules, I know these rules still hold true for too many Chicago kids, especially students in the Chicago Public Schools.
Being a kid in SummerTimeChi means living in a city that is an international powerhouse and living in a neighborhood that mirrors the slums of a Third World country. When you visit a safe neighborhood,it means wondering how it can be in the same city as your neighborhood. It means feeling anger about the injustices that create such different neighborhoods in the same city.
It means wanting desperately to play outside and hating yet understanding why your parents won’t let you. It means never riding your bike without worrying about gang territory. It means knowing which blocks are good blocks and which blocks are bad, and knowing that knowledge changes weekly. It means having to walk the long way home because it’s safer.
Even though the gangs are bad, at least they are free
SummerTimeChi kids understand that wearing the wrong colors, or tilting your hat the wrong way, could be a life or death decision.
Even though the gangs are bad, you envy them. Because at least they are able to live freely outside the confines of the internal prisons created by worried parents. They can go where they want.
Summertime means seeing your childhood friends turn into gang members. It means seeing those gang members and remembering they are your childhood friends. It means never knowing when your friends will be going to jail or getting shot.
hearing gun shots and wondering if they hit someone you know
knowing people who were shot
knowing people who shot people
knowing people in jail.
SummerTimeChi means knowing to look for crack needles at the beach and hearing so many stories of rape and sexual abuse that you give the rapists funny nicknames.
SummerTimeChi means hating your neighborhood and wishing you could leave. It’s the shame you feel when your friends from school say they can’t come to your house and you know it’s because of your neighborhood. It’s carrying the reputation of your neighborhood with you wherever you go.
SummerTimeChi means seeing well meaning “volunteers” come and do “service projects” in your neighborhood. When you’re little, that means not understanding why your neighborhood is so bad and feeling resentful at the adults in your life for your lack of social mobility.
When. you get older, it’s hating that those volunteers look at you and your neighborhood with pity and knowing they are developing a newfound gratefulness for where they live. It’s the fury that comes with knowing they use their stories of “volunteering in your neighborhood” as an activity to reflect on their privilege and to earn bonus points on their resume and college applications.
I love you, SummerTimeChi kids. I love you. I see you. I pray for you. I am you.
I will always work for your basic right to live free. Free of gun violence. Free of a broken criminal justice system. Free to just play outside and enjoy summer.