Kotlowitz calls for public’s awareness of inner-city problems

Deborah Hirsch

America has forgotten the problems of race and poverty by neglecting its inner cities, best-selling author Alex Kotlowitz told a huge crowd Tuesday in Fisk Hall.

About 250 students and community members filled Fisk auditorium to hear the former Wall Street Journal reporter describe his experiences documenting inner-city life.

“Race still very much matters,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to talk about it and talk about it intelligently.”

Throughout the lecture, Kotlowitz referred to his 1992 book “There are No Children Here,” which documents the lives of two black boys growing up in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes.

“Communities are as segregated if not more segregated than 40 years ago,” he said.

Kotlowitz said most dismaying to him is the public’s ignorance of inner-city problems.

“I hope to provoke people, to poke and prod them, to get them thinking about the world and themselves a little differently,” he said.

Kotlowitz said opening lines of communication is a way to recognize community problems.

“Telling stories makes us better listeners,” he said.

He said there are two kinds of silence surrounding urban poverty: self-imposed silence by people who don’t think others will believe their stories of the projects; and institutional silence by agencies that don’t respond to inner-city needs.

Kotlowitz said violence has an especially destructive impact on inner-city children, because they have no opportunities for counseling. He said children who have experienced or seen acts of violence begin to keep to themselves because they fear that nobody will believe them. As a result they are unable to form meaningful relationships and turn to drugs as “self-medication.”

“It takes only one act of violence to affect a child,” he said. “We make a mistake if we think that somehow these children will overcome it.”

He said government officials and the media examine problems of youth violence only when they occur in suburban schools, which respond quickly with increased security and counseling staff. But when a friend of the boys portrayed in his book was involved in a gang shooting, no one took note of the incident.

“No adult walked into that community and said, ‘I will do what I can to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again,'” he said.

To rebuild these communities both physically and spiritually, attention and money must be invested, he said. Also, people in blighted areas need help finding and keeping jobs.

Shelby Tennent, a retired secretary from Chicago, said Kotlowitz’s ideas to improve inner cities deserve a chance.

“Whether they can get financing is doubtful, but you never know,” she said. “President Bush might decide that this is the way to reach African Americans.”

Students said they enjoyed the lecture but thought it might be idealistic to expect change.

“I think he’s right about the future residing in the children, but I don’t know about the process,” said Mara Sheftel, a Weinberg sophomore. “It takes a lot of resources and time.”

The speech was presented by the Northwestern Community Development Corps and co-sponsored by 10 other campus organizations.