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Reflecting on 50 Years of CGLA

Updated: Dec 29, 2023


 

December 13, 2023

Aisha's Remarks

Aisha Edwards, CGLA Executive Director


This year, CGLA turned 50! Once I realized this amazing milestone would occur during my time as a new Executive Director, but an old fan of CGLA, I collectively worked with our team to ensure it would be a memorable year. From our 50th Anniversary Gala and honoring our 50th Anniversary Champions for Justice, to the kickoff of our Art & Archives Exhibition, I would say that mission was accomplished! 


At the outset of our anniversary, we collectively reviewed prospective designs for a 50th Anniversary logo. We sought input from CGLA staff and board members to select a visual that helped to highlight the theme of reflecting on our past, celebrating our present, resolving for a brighter future. We chose a version of the mythical Sankofa and Phoenix birds merged together. The Sankofa represents looking towards our past in order to understand our present and inform our future. The Phoenix represents renewal and rejuvenation after a cycle has been completed. Together they represent using our 50th year to reground ourselves in history and purpose and renew our push forward for justice.  


Little did I know that a major highlight of this year would be many moments spent with our founding attorney and executive director, Chuck Hogren.  In seeking his insights of our history and hearing him tell CGLA stories with uncanny recall, I would get to see firsthand that CGLA is an outgrowth of his heart, selflessness, and nonjudgmental love. I would also come to see that where he and I may seem to be opposites in terms of race, gender, age, and background, we share a heartbeat, a passion, and a drive.  


I learned that CGLA was founded in a strong sense of brotherly love, to serve and uplift the Cabrini-Green community. At the desire and request of that community. Chuck points out that CGLA, as a neighborhood legal clinic, took whatever cases came through the door in those early years. But it was also much more than just a legal clinic, it was a facet of the community. Chuck provided us with archives, and we discovered more in storage to support this, including many black and white photos of talent shows, cook-outs, and other community gatherings. We also found many photos of Cabrini-Green youth participating in CGLA sponsored activities, from basketball to mock trials.  


Chuck’s stories from cases he took in the first 25 years of CGLA’s existence, as well as clients’ stories highlighted in old newsletters, tell a more complete story of the impact of systemic inequities and the many pathways that can lead to contact with the criminal legal system than what you typically see on the nightly news. Whether clients were being overcharged, falsely charged, kicked out of housing without due process, or facing sentences and other civil legal repercussions that were not commensurate with allegations, CGLA was there for the residents of the Cabrini-Green Housing community.  


Even before CGLA expanded more formally beyond the Cabrini-Green community when the towers were torn down and more of the community displaced, CGLA was behind innovations in service delivery and challenges to unjust policies and procedures that helped other communities and residents of Cook County or the City of Chicago at large. For example, did you know that despite being entitled to legal representation even at the phase of a police investigation, most didn’t get to actually speak to an attorney until one was appointed in the courtroom after charges have been filed? This dismayed Chuck as he often had to work with clients after they had given an incriminating statement or even a false confession. Chuck learned of a program in London that allowed people being held in police stations the benefit of legal counsel. He worked with our then landlord, Donald Duster, to change that. Donald was the grandson of the late activist Ida B. Wells, who was forced to leave her home in Memphis for revealing research about lynchings of Black people in the South, several of them close family members and friends. Donald and Chuck sent Petra Harris to London to learn the process and create a version here in Chicago. Petra was the first director for the Hotline for Justice, as it was initially termed, which provided legal representation with volunteer assistance to anyone being held in a Chicago Police station. The hotline eventually became the non-profit, First Defense Legal Aid, which provided the service for many years until the Public Defender’s office expanded to cover it.  


Donald and Petra were among the 50th Anniversary Champions for Justice we celebrated at our gala in October, which was quite an event. More than 300 of our supporters throughout the years attended our gala, including prior staff, executive directors, volunteers, board members, clients, community partners, and financial supporters. There, we highlighted that through our 50 years of service, CGLA has helped more than 150,000 clients directly. Also, CGLA staff, Leadership Council, and partner agencies have come together in our policy and coalition work, such as expanding what charges are eligible to be expunged or sealed, to help expand access to justice for millions of Illinois residents.  


There are other amazing stories from CGLA’s legacy and our 50th Anniversary Champions for Justice we highlight in our exhibition. If you missed our kickoff reception, please stay tuned for future programming.  


As we collectively visited our shared legacy this year, I also was transported back in time on a personal level. This year, I participated with other CGLA attorneys and paralegals, as well as other partners, in supporting the Champaign County Expungement Summit. But I was both a supporting attorney and a client. With the help of Cynthia Cornelius, our Director of Programs, I filed a petition to expunge a 23-year-old record. This opened old wounds as I recalled a racialized incident that led to me being charged with a crime mere weeks before I was to start law school on a full scholarship. I revisited the fear that it would derail my dreams of becoming an attorney who would do something about the injustices I saw growing up on the south side of Chicago, or even my ability to provide a different life for my newborn child than the one I experienced. I had believed that being the first to go to college in my family meant I had escaped the gravitational pull of poverty and the criminal legal system.  


I was able to go onto law school eventually, and to a career as a criminal law attorney. My personal experiences, combined with my professional ones, have repeatedly revealed to me that people with criminal records are not a monolith. Each experience is a story worth knowing, and collectively they reveal deeply rooted systemic issues.  


I felt drawn to CGLA and its mission more than a decade ago. This year has revealed more about the roots and legacy of the organization, and the injustices it is attempting to address. It is an honor to be the Executive Director of this organization and at this time. With a combination of legal services, policy and advocacy, as well as story and truth telling, CGLA continues to remove barriers to equity and mitigate the harms of the criminal legal system.  May our work be our own undoing as we push forward to a future where we are no longer needed.  


 

December 18, 2023

The More Things Change

Tim Wallace, Director of Development, Legal Aid Justice Center


My name is Tim Wallace. I spent the first nine years of my career raising funds for Cabrini Green Legal Aid.  I wrote most of the grants that funded CGLA, and I organized all the logistics for the big, unticketed, table hosted fundraising dinners every fall during that stretch. I was hired straight out of college by Rob Acton in 2004 and stayed through the first part of Gretchen Slusser’s tenure until I moved with my family back to Virginia in 2013. The 50th Anniversary event was the first CGLA event I’ve attended since I left.  


I was struck that night by how much has changed, but also by how much has remained the same.  


During my time at CGLA, there would have been an opening prayer at the dinner that night. As well as an explicit reference to Micah 6:8 or to answering God’s call. Having been gone for a decade, the difference was striking. 


But, then, I saw in the client video that the regard the CGLA staff hold for their clients was the same. I saw the same outrage at Shaquille’s story, the same commitment to go to whatever lengths necessary to find justice for him and his mom, the same radical acknowledgment of the value of each person, whether they added “made in the image of God” or not. 


At dinner, I sat next to Tijuan Fleming, the first member of the Leadership Council to sit on the Board of Directors. In conversation with Tijuan, I saw the same radical commitment by CGLA staff to listen to what the people they serve say they need and to do what they call them to do. Tijuan’s role on the Board is to continue to speak that truth to power. 


It has always, at least for me, been the case that the radically Christian thing about CGLA’s origin wasn’t that Chuck Hogren was challenged in a church basement or that a pastor asked a religious publisher to fund the first year. The radically Christian claim in that origin story is that God’s call for justice and mercy could be heard in the challenging question, “then what good are you?” coming out of a young man’s mouth in a divested and marginalized neighborhood in Chicago. Even the “poorest of the poor,” as we said in that day, can and do speak with God’s voice and authority. 


While the language they use to describe both their work and the people they serve is different now, it seems clear to me that the staff and Board of CGLA remain just as committed to that radical claim that every person is deserving of love and redemption and that we are all called to seek justice and mercy. 


I realized that night that I don’t need them to signal that this is a Christian idea for me to recognize the divinity in those claims. After a long time away, I renewed my support this year. I hope you’ll join me. 


 

December 4, 2023

Identifying CGLA Champions 

Steve Fus, CGLA Managing Attorney of Pro Bono Projects


It seemed like a good idea about a year ago when brainstorming how we should celebrate and recognize CGLA’s 50th Anniversary. Why not recognize 50 people who made significant contributions to the organization, it’s mission and the individuals that we serve? 



It was a good idea and a good time to reflect on the organization’s history and all those individuals who contributed in so many ways to carry on CGLA’s mission of providing holistic legal services that include social support services and advocacy for individuals and communities negatively impacted by the criminal legal system. 


Right from the start we recognized there would be challenges and this might be more work than we anticipated. Save for one individual, there really wasn’t anyone that was involved with the organization over its entire lifespan. That one individual, Chuck Hogren, CGLA’s founding attorney, proved to be our most valuable resource. 


Beyond the founders, LaSalle Street Church pastor Bill Leslie who created the idea for the clinic, Chuck who accepted the challenge and Kenneth and Margaret Taylor who provided the original funding, we rediscovered countless individuals that made meaningful and lasting contributions. Our discoveries and internal discussions soon revealed that it would be nearly impossible to identify limiting criteria and still ensure we were not missing anyone. 


That’s why even though we recruited help from current and former staff, board members, leadership council members, clients and acquaintances, the work is still ongoing. We cleaned out remote storage facilities, pored through boxes and file cabinets, recorded numerous interviews, hunted down contact information and grilled Chuck over coffee and pastries at his kitchen table. We even made an appointment at the Harold Washington Library Archives to review a letter from CGLA to Mayor Washington that was discovered in an online search. 


But still, our work is not done and there is no end in sight. Do you know someone we missed that contributed and deserves recognition? If so, please let us know. In the meantime, we will continue to develop Champions for Justice – those who are today and will be tomorrow making significant contributions to CGLA, our mission and the individuals we serve. While we uncovered many stories associated with the Champions, the circumstances of many of those stories continue today. 


 

Read the story of a client, who came to CGLA after a violent encounter with the police. Criminal Defense Staff Attorney, Miriam Lee handled her case.

 

December 12, 2023

Wrongfully Arrested  

Miriam Lee, CGLA Criminal Defense Staff Attorney  


Jessica Landers is a single mother with a 2-year-old son. She had an Order of Protection against the father of her child for three years, as he had been physically violent with her in the past. One day, he came to Ms. Lander’s house to pick up his mail, and this escalated to him pulling out a knife. She called the police and when they arrived, the father of the child was still holding the knife to her. The police placed him in handcuffs, and Ms. Landers was not too injured, only a scratch on her arm from the knife.  


She works as a nurse, so she was able to determine that she did not need medical treatment. Ms. Landers just wanted to rest, but the police insisted that she go to the hospital. When she stated she was okay, they insisted that they come into her apartment. There was no one else present at that time, and although she had said no to a search, an officer pushed past her into her doorway. When Ms. Landers extended her arm to try to stop the officer, four others tackled her to the ground. She received injuries to her head and a laceration to her face and on her knee. The police did not find anything in conducting the search but arrested her for “obstructing justice” and for “battery to a peace officer.”  


Ms. Landers was taken to the hospital and handcuffed to the bed. No one believed that her injuries were from the police. This entire incident was incredibly traumatic for Ms. Landers, who had no prior experience with law enforcement or the criminal legal system. She was working as a nurse extern at the hospital and studying to become a registered nurse but could not take the exam due to the open case against her. She came to CGLA in May of 2023; and after compiling body camera footage which captured all the events of this arrest, gathering and sending mitigation to the Assistant State’s Attorney, her case was dismissed in September. 


 

Next, are excerpts from the stories of two CGLA clients, who achieved expungement and/or sealing this year with the help of Criminal Records Program Staff Attorneys, Rhonda Briggs and Mohena Kaur.

 

December 6, 2023  

Providing by Being Present 

Rhonda Briggs, CGLA Criminal Records Program Staff Attorney 


The following argument was prepared for a CGLA client’s expungement and sealing hearing. 


“He decided to change his lifestyle after the last time he was arrested and incarcerated. During one of Mr. Davis's phone calls with his son, his son expressed anger and disappointment that he wasn’t home. It was then that he realized that only providing was not enough for his son to have a better life than he had. To be a good father to his children, he would need to be present. Obtaining expungement and sealing today would allow Mr. Brown to secure more opportunities to provide for his 7- and 8-year-old children and be present in their lives.  


Mr. Davis is 33 years old and at a stage where he wants to build a family and a reputation that his children can be proud of. Without the burden of this criminal history, Mr. Davis will be able to secure better career opportunities, housing, and educational opportunities for himself and the benefit of his children who he can show by his presence and example that they are capable of all that he’s achieved and more.” 


Mr. Davis’s petition was granted, and he has been able to move forward with his ambitions for career growth and financial stability.   


 

December 5, 2023 

Becoming a Source of Help 

Mohena Kaur, CGLA Criminal Records Program Staff Attorney 


Kieran Wilson is 46 years old. He wants to go back to school to earn the remaining credits for his bachelor's degree, then attend law school to become a lawyer. And, he has taken steps to pursue this goal— Mr. Wilson is registered for courses starting in January, in which he will be studying pre-law studies, social justice, and criminology.  

  

Despite all the positive work that Mr. Wilson has been doing to better himself and his community, the basic cost of living is expensive. He is currently unhoused, having lost his home in November due to insufficient finances. Having his record sealed and expunged would certainly go a long way in making it easier for Mr. Wilson to secure the housing he needs, as well as better-paying work as he pursues his long-term educational and career goals.  

  

The position that Kieran Wilson is in today is different from when he picked up most of the charges on his background. Over time, he became increasingly frustrated with the direction of his life and his cyclical interactions with the criminal legal system. This coincided with his aunt becoming sick with cancer; he knew he needed to pull himself together and take care of her. He completed a substance abuse treatment program, went back to school, attained his GED and healthcare worker credentials, and now, informed by his own experiences, wants to be a source of legal help and support to others. 

 

Mr. Wilson’s petition to expunge and/or seal his 68 cases was granted.     


 

December 15, 2023

Art & Archives Exhibition: Reflections from Our Curator

Alexandria Eregbu, Curator


What happens when we listen closely to our environments and the places that we inhabit? Perhaps then we can find the solutions we seek to receive in the wake of injustice and the imbalances observed in daily life.


During my curatorial remarks at the opening reception of the CGLA: Art + Archives exhibition at Cabrini Green Legal Aid this past November, I shared reflections of a vision sent to me through a dream of people and animals of a forested kingdom who were evacuating the land. The land was surrounding a castle-like fortress that all of the people inhabited, but was quickly dismantled by the rage of a grizzly bear and a resounding roar that warned the people and all of the animals that the balance between the land and her inhabitants had been disturbed.


This sighting in my dream of the grizzly bear drew me to consider its symbolism and the contract that exists between people and the earth in order to maintain balance in society. When out of balance, failing to abide by this covenant surfaces in the form of depletion in our daily lives. Suddenly the basic needs of the earth’s tenants— people and animals— are no longer met.


In Chicago, a recent 2023 environmental and health study identifies large portions of the South and West sides neighborhoods as areas most impacted by industry and pollution. These “environmental justice neighborhoods” which historically have been occupied by black and brown residents are further acknowledged by city officials who say they’ll prioritize reducing pollution in those communities while securing community benefits around major developments.


The work of exhibiting artists such as, photographer Austin Pope and painters Delisha McKinney and Vincent Boggan, remind us both of what is at stake and what is possible in Chicago neighborhoods amongst growing trends of divestment and over-policing.

In his photographic series, The (Mis)Education of Chicago, Austin Pope documents the role systemic racism plays in communities of color and their long-term consequences. Using a large format view camera, his photographs focus on the Chicago Public School closings of 2013. In conducting his practice, Pope attempts to address the question of what it means to have scholastic institutions abandoned in communities of color and future considers how he can capture the narrative of those impacted by them.


In her painting “Cabrini Kids,” Delisha McKinney paints Cabrini Green youth larger than life and overcoming their circumstances using play to re-imagine the conditions that they were subjected to. A young boy holds a police car like a toy in his hand while another holds a surveillance helicopter in his grip as he sits on top of a depiction of the Cabrini-Green towers with his peers. Next to them, a basketball peaks out from the side of a young girl, reminiscent of the story of basketball star Dominique Canty who played on CGLA’s youth basketball team as the only female player and went on to play topping the charts at Whitney Young high school, the University of Alabama, and then the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, after majoring in criminal justice and minoring in social work.


The spirit of Sankofa in Ghanaian proverb, “go back and get it” is honored in Vincent Boggan’s oil painting, “Looking Back and Rising Up” as he takes us back to a scene of the Cabrini Flats, recalling the origin story of CGLA as the organization celebrates its 50th anniversary. A man stands with his back turned to the viewer with the wings of a phoenix rising on his shirt. In the distance Lasalle Street Church stands tall overlooking the other architecture. Vincent’s work often draws inspiration from the past and in order to shape new visions that integrate the lessons of yesterday into a more hopeful tomorrow.


Another recent report, this time from Earth Island Journal challenges us to consider the future of capital-driven societies as its research shares how many prisons are frequently located on contaminated sites like landfills and former mines. Despite their typically hidden nature, prisons produce a lot of toxicity that spreads into the areas that surround them. They spill contaminated water, including raw sewage, into local waterways, endangering surrounding communities. This data reminds me that the impact of prison-based societies is not only a human rights crisis but an ecological crisis that is directly and proportionally related to the ecological disaster that is climate change, forest fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, dilapidated buildings, divested neighborhoods, and the unusually warm temperatures like the 50 degree weather in Chicago during the month of December.


As an artist and curator, I’ve learned to take heed of the wisdom from these signs and stories and strive to find ways to reflect them back out into the world. Working on site at CGLA’s offices I’ve also learned that attorneys and paralegals play a similar role as artists as they use stories to create justice and often understand the difference a good story makes in transforming another person’s life.


For exhibiting artists like Arkee Chaney, Tonika Lewis Johnson, and artist collaborative Merav Argov and Nia Easley there is a deep recognition of this importance of storytelling and the role these narratives play in shaping belonging and quality of life.


Arkee Chaney uses his paintings to document African-American experiences over time in U.S. history. Using his lived experience as a platform, Arkee’s work preserves the narratives of African-American people while critiquing the morality and ethics of systems of power. An image of two nude figures swimming in “Skinny Dipping” in the summertime paired with the imagery of chained inmates in orange jumpsuits distinguishes the realities that exist in capitalist America.


Tonika Lewis Johnson’s, Folded Map Project uses data visualization to dynamically draw attention to the tension that exists by design in segregated cities like Chicago through prompting its participants to respond to questions that address race and class. In doing so, Tonika intends to raise conversation around the wealth gaps racial segregation creates and the consequences of denying opportunities to racialized individuals and communities — over-incarceration and high crime rates.


In their installation and collaborative project, artist duo Merav Argov and Nia Easley worked with current residents of the 1983 Lathrop Homes, the first public housing project in the United States, in order to create a new artwork that commemorates the lived experiences of its tenants. At the peak of the pandemic in 2020, the artists interviewed individuals and collected materials that would later be woven into a textile that was shaped after the Chicago river which borders the unique architecture of the housing development. Their installation further includes excerpts from the conversations which stand as a marker of time from a moment in history which has forever changed our lives.


Working with the staff and the stories of CGLA, I’ve reflected on the gift that has been bearing witness to the precious community founded upon care and resilience in the legacy that founder Chuck Hogren started and current Executive Director Aisha Edwards, now carries 50 years later. In a few short months I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing and working alongside the multitude of voices and brilliance that is its staff as well as its clients. I’ve been embraced, and the artists I have brought with me, have been warmly embraced as a part of a rhizome of individuals working under a set of shared values and common goal(s).


During this experience, while searching for stories of the people of Cabrini Green— a mixed raced, mixed income community, fundamentally divested in and then finally demolished— I returned to the reason why the organization was called to serve the near north side neighborhood in the first place— and continue to look for the solutions for establishing what I am now calling a “biotic community” and the struggle to organize a more restful and creative existence in a capitalist society. In doing so, I ask myself as I invite guest visitors of the exhibition to ask themselves the following questions:


As a community, what will we choose to remember about the story of Cabrini Green?

What is the story about CGLA here to teach us in our daily lives?

How do we implement these lessons in our purpose driven work?

How will we determine our communities in the future?


Each of us is responsible for turning a house into a home. Whether that be with our families, at our workplace, or in our neighborhoods we are all residents of this planet Mother Earth. Nature does not discriminate. Nature gives generously, but will not hesitate to take back when she senses that things have fallen out of balance. What happens when we look to the principles of Mother Nature as a model for cultivating more loving communities?


In these times, I am motivated and inspired by the wisdom of elders like bell hooks and her concept of “beloved community” as a means to killing rage and ending racism—which is, after all, at the root of modernity’s failure to society and the struggle of human-kind, as well as the earth.


bell hooks writes:

“To live in anti-racist society we must collectively renew our commitment to a democratic vision of racial justice and equality. Pursuing that vision we create a culture where beloved community flourishes and is sustained. Those of us who know the joy of being with folks from all walks of life, all races, who are fundamentally anti-racist in their habits of being, need to give public testimony. We need to share not only what we have experienced but the conditions of change that make such an experience possible. The interracial circle of love that I know can happen because each individual present in it has made his or her own commitment to living an anti-racist life and to furthering the struggle to end white supremacy will become a reality for everyone only if those of us who have created these communities share how they emerge in our lives and the strategies we use to sustain them.”


“...beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world. To form beloved community we do not surrender ties to precious origins. We deepen those bondings by connecting them with an anti-racist struggle which is at heart always a movement to disrupt that clinging to cultural legacies that demands investment in notions of racial purity, authenticity, [and] nationalist fundamentalism.”


“Healing takes place as we speak the truth of our lives.”


And as we conclude the year of 2023 and begin a chapter for yet another year, what reflection would we like to see looking back at us?


The artists curated in CGLA: Art + Archives exhibition are not only wildly talented leaders and solution-oriented individuals, but they are truth-tellers and anthropologists, as they do the work of creating the much needed portals to possibility. Together they shape the windows and mirrors that ancestor and poet Lucille Clifton speaks of as essential for all American people.


“All children… and I think all adults as well… need mirrors and windows. Mirrors through which they can see themselves, windows through which they can see the world. And everybody’s children are disadvantaged by not having that.There are some children in our culture who have only seen mirrors. They are disadvantaged. There are some children in our culture who have only seen windows. They are disadvantaged. And so one of the things I like to think to do is to provide, you know, to balance windows and mirrors, for my own children if possible.”


How will we choose to create windows of opportunity that exist not just for an exclusive few, but instead create alternative possibilities that benefit all of our children and the entire planet?


About the Curator

Alexandria Eregbu is a creative anthropologist. Her practice spans across visual art, music, and curatorial practice in order to consider objects, stories, and experiences that dignify Black life. As the founder of FINDING IJEOMA, Alexandria uses her platform to realize meaningful forums that celebrate African-American and African diasporic experiences such as— DJ sets, exhibitions, and intentional gatherings.


Alexandria’s work has appeared on screen in Candyman (2021, directed by Nia DaCosta); performing for leading musicians and groundbreaking festivals such as 2wobunnies, Uncle Waffles, Noname, Sudan Archives, and Englewood Music Festival; in print such as Art Newcity, Marie Claire, and AFROPUNK; on radio and television including CBS News and ABC5 News. Alexandria's writing has been published by the University of Chicago Press, Sixty Inches from Center, Terremoto Magazine, Candor Arts, and Green Lantern Press. Alexandria is a 3Arts Teaching Artist recipient and current faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Learn more about Alexandria on her website: alexandriaeregbu.com or follow her on IG: @alexandriaeregbu or @findingijeoma.


Sources




bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York. 1995.

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