Where you live matters

Did you miss the “This American Life” from a couple of weeks ago entitled “House Rules” ?

I did, but when I finally listened a few days ago while running on a treadmill, I practically fell off the thing. Part of me was shocked at what I was hearing; the other part wanted to somehow make it mandatory listening for every person in America.

Just listen to the first 30 minutes, and you will learn why where we live matters more than any other factor in our lives. Our cancer rates, our safety, and certainly the quality of our children’s education depends more heavily on our address than on anything else.

Just a few of the factors that shocked me: that we still allow local taxes to fund schools, an inequity that is really just modern-day segregation. Also, I was reminded about redlining, and shocked to learn that its true creator was none other than the federal government! And one more: I became a fan of a Romney. (Senior, that is).

Listen. It matters.

18 seconds of fame: Take Two

As part of the “How Long Will I Cry?” book launch, Miles Harvey asked me to join him on the local Fox 32 News station to talk about the work.

Here’s how it went:


The coverage was great. The “How Long” website received almost 100 requests for books in just a few hours after this segment ran on the noon news.

But there’s a reason I never worked in TV: It was too fast, too superficial. I had just a few seconds and wanted to address so much.

So, in hindsight, this is what I would have said:

More than 90 undergraduate and graduate students at DePaul participated in this project, fanning out across the city to document the stories of parents and siblings, gang members and healers, young and old who have been impacted by youth violence.

What many of us took away from the experience — especially those of us who participated for many months  — was how powerful it can be to find voice to our own story.

Some of our interview subjects had never been asked about their lives, or even about the death of their loved ones. By listening and asking questions and listening more, we helped our subjects dig deep to find themes in their lives. They discovered insights about their experience, and often strength in the telling of their story.

As someone who struggled for years about whether to share my own story, I understand how terrifying it can be to open up. Yet dozens of Chicagoans did just that, and for some it has touched their own life as much as it has touched those of us who have read their stories.

For example, Latoya Winters lost numerous family members and friends to gun violence during her youth in East Garfield Park. You can read her entire story here, but I’ll say that she managed to attend college with the help of mentors who encouraged her dreams of a different life.

I have seen Latoya speak several times during the release of  of “How Long Will I Cry?”, and each time she amazed me with her poise and confidence. She told a packed audience at DePaul that having her story in the book not only helped her feel more powerful, it helped her connect with loved ones who had never fully understood her pain.

The people in this book gave a tremendous gift to Chicago and to readers nationwide. Their stories — their descriptions of love, fear, hope, and hopelessness — resonate with us all. Their stories are personal, but they are also universal. As a result, they are powerful — they touch anyone, regardless of where they live or their skin pigment. Anyone who reads the book will view youth violence in Chicago differently.

And what is just as inspiring, for me, is that many of those in the book also received something of a gift: the power of their own stories, a source of strength, guidance, and pride.



Typhoons, tornadoes, and the “soft denial” of climate change

In the span of two weeks, families in the Philippines and families in the U.S. were forced to deal with the devastation that weather can cause. Supertyphoon Haiyan killed thousands and destroyed entire communities. In Illinois and Indiana, the terrifyingly strong winds from sixteen tornadoes flattened homes and killed at least six people.

What, besides the suffering and devastation, do these things have in common? For me, it’s a looming fear that such disasters will become commonplace by the time my kids are grown.

I keep thinking of this brave man from the Philippines – climate change representative Yeb Sano:



Some news stories claim Supertyphoon Haiyan will be the turning point for Westerners who deny the role climate change is having on the earth. It’s easy to find American media outlets who are more vague about the impact of climate change. But there are plenty of stories, like this one, that accept predictions of the wrath of climate change.

When I see mothers weeping over children torn from them by walls of water or blasts of wind, I can’t help but imagine my own family. Why couldn’t we be next? What if we were forced from our home by floods or power outages? What if such situations happen more and more worldwide, leaving an increasing number of desperate families in need of help?

When some doubt the impact of climate change, I wonder: so what if we’re wrong? What’s the harm in finding cleaner energy options and stricter emission regulations, compared with the devastation we’ve seen?

I stumbled upon the group Climate Parents, which formed a couple of years ago to organize what could be a powerful lobbying group: parents raising the generation which will have to live with our action or failure. Co-founder and journalist Mark Hertsgaard writes that parents who aren’t active in raising awareness about climate change often fall into the “soft denial” category:

Not to be confused with the denial purveyed by right-wing ideologues, soft denial does not reject climate science per se. No, a soft denier accepts the science, at least intellectually. But because climate science’s implications are so disturbing, the soft denier acts as if the science does not exist. In psychological terms, such a parent is in denial.

Ouch. That hits home. Whether parents choose to eat less meat or install solar panels to reduce energy costs, Hertsgaard writes, there’s plenty we can do to make a difference for our kids.

Even if the 97 percent of scientists who believe climate change is negatively impacting our planet turn out to be wrong, I need to do something. That’s because another fear of mine is this: that one day, my sons will look at me accusingly and ask me why I did nothing to try and make their future better.


Get angry. Get this book.


Before we moved to Chicago, my husband and I lived in Durban, South Africa. We loved to walk on the boardwalk that overlooked the Indian Ocean, admiring the people with their endless cultural origins and innumerable shades of skin pigment. South Africa is still working to overcome its history of inequity, but we glimpsed a bit of what the country strives to become: “The Rainbow Nation.”

We expected something similar in Chicago as we pedaled our bikes along the Lakefront path next to Lake Michigan. Instead, we witnessed two very separate groups of people along the shore: whites north of the Loop, people of color south of the Loop. Our adopted city felt more segregated that the land of apartheid.

howlongtrailerBut one aspect, unfortunately, was similar: violence. Day after summer day, I read headlines about teens killed over gang territory and children dying in the crossfire. I was shocked at how complacent Chicagoans seemed about the numbers of young people dying from the violence — the highest in the country. But after months of headlines, I, too, became desensitized, feeling powerless to make any difference.

A few years later, as a graduate student in DePaul’s Writing and Publishing program, I got involved in a project led by Professor Miles Harvey. Almost 90 students participated in this oral history project, fanning out across the city interviewing those who have been directly impacted by youth violence. I spent hours interviewing Juan Pitts and his wife, the Rev. Dr. Willa Pitts. The Pitts’ and I sat for hours in a south side restaurant, where they shared the story of their marriage, the many children they cared for as foster parents, and the horror of losing two of their teenage sons to gun violence within two weeks of each other.

My class ended, but I couldn’t let go of the project. I helped Miles begin work with the staff at Steppenwolf Theatre to create a play from these narratives.  At first, I couldn’t fathom how these many stories — gathered from young and old, parents and siblings, gang members and healers all across Chicago — could coalesce into a coherent work. They did, beautifully. You can learn more about the play “How Long Will I Cry?” here.

And now, the book of the same name is out, in print and available for free through DePaul. I am haunted by the stories in this book, not just because of their loss and sadness, but also because of their dreams and resiliency. These stories depict far more than headlines; they allow readers to connect to other people and experience the universality of love, pain, doubt, and faith.

I played a small part in a large effort to touch people across Chicago and beyond. To care about the people behind those headlines and the neighborhoods never visited. To remain angry enough to demand the killing stops.

Watch the book trailer above. Visit the site, click on “Get the book,” and request as many copies as you can share. Stay angry.


On writing…


In the past, I wrote to solve social ills. I wrote to educate the world. I wrote to pay the rent. Through it all, I wrote without a clue as to why, really, I bothered

imagesputting pen to paper at all.

My relationship with writing was like a bad romance: I did all the taking, and blamed writing for failing to fulfill me. Time and time again, I abandoned writing for more interesting passions. Travel became a regular lover. Writing would always be there when I returned, standing in baggage claim with that irksome grin that meant: “You know we’re meant to be together.”

I think I’ve gotten it all backwards. Writers should cut their teeth on their own messy lives first, gnawing at their fears and fantasies until they can spit out something useful. Truths eventually emerge, giving the writer all the ingredients she needs for some serious cooking. I hated cooking, by the way, until I wanted to feed others.

Truth is, I can’t even say what my work will be a year from now. And I don’t care. I care about mending that bad romance. I care about going back to the beginning, cooking up some tasty food and inviting my destiny to dinner. What matters to me most is figuring out why, really, I bother putting pen to paper at all.

All I know is this: I write because I don’t understand.

I don’t understand, not fully, how family shapes a person. I can’t recall the type of liquor swirling in my dad’s glass each night, or whether my first son was asleep or awake when we finally left the NICU. I write to fill in such details. I write to make sense of love and obligation. I write to acknowledge the personal, but also to discover the universal. Joan Didion talks about noticing the snakes in life, so that they don’t come back to bite you later. I write to find the snakes.

I don’t understand injustice. When I was nine, my teacher told me about Canadian hunters who clubbed baby seals to death for their pristine white fur. Outraged, I envisioned myself standing on the deck of a Greenpeace ship, urging the world to protect these doe-eyed innocents. I grew up, and never saved a seal. I did become a newspaper reporter, and wrote about all kinds of injustice. I will always believe in the power of stories to outrage, influence, improve. I expect my writing will continue to highlight doe-eyed innocents, of one kind or another.

I don’t understand anything, really, until I write it down. I am beginning to see that the craft of writing, when taken seriously, provides a richness and clarity unavailable to me in any other form. And that, for now, is enough to bother putting pen to paper at all.