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Graduate Students Take Social Justice History Tour of Chicago

Black History Month inspires tour of past and present hubs for social change

“This offered a fantastic opportunity for students to explore the physical spaces in Chicago that sparked social change.” – Robert Donahue, associate director of Northwestern’s Center for Civic Engagement

CHICAGO --- As part of Black History Month, Northwestern University graduate students explored past and present hubs of social change across Chicago on Saturday, Feb. 21, in a day that culminated with an after-hours event at the Chicago History Museum.

The Social Justice History Tour included visits to innovative community development corporations, the MLK Fair Housing Exhibit and community organizations where Northwestern doctoral students are applying their work in communities.

“Chicago has such a rich history, and there is so much dynamic work going on at the community level,” said Robert Donahue, associate director of Northwestern’s Center for Civic Engagement. “This offered a fantastic opportunity for students to explore the physical spaces in Chicago that sparked social change.”

Organized by the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) and The Graduate School (TGS), the daylong event was part of other events and activities that will take place in the next few months to connect students to Martin Luther King Jr.’s time in Chicago and his visits to Northwestern and the North Shore in the 1950s and 1960s.

Northwestern Professor Dan Lewis, director of the Center for Civic Engagement, and other academic and community leaders who led discussions during the tour encouraged the graduate students to think critically about economic development on the West Side, segregation in Chicago and the role of Northwestern students within these conversations.

"(The Graduate School Dean) Dwight McBride and I believe that the doctoral experience at Northwestern should reflect the proud history of this University in the complex fight for social justice,” Lewis said. “This tour is one important element in that process of graduate student engagement and understanding.”

Guided by the experts, the students explored King’s involvement with the Chicago Freedom Movement of the late 1960s, during which he fought against redlining and other discriminatory housing practices.

“We wanted to introduce our students to what is often a lesser-known part of King’s story,” Donahue said.

The event concluded with the “Winter Quarter TGS Night Out at the Chicago History Museum,” which brought more than 200 graduate students to the museum for a night of networking, appetizers and exclusive after-hours access to various exhibits.

A Chicago resource for civic engagement and education, the Chicago History Museum inspired a conversation on the intersection of academic work and the public sphere. 

Undergraduate students recently also had an opportunity to explore various Chicago neighborhoods and civic resources through the Center for Civic Engagement’s Feb. 7 NU in Chicago program, titled “MLK in Chicago: the Fight for Fair Housing.”

“Students are able to gain a richer understanding of the complexity of various issues by going to the places where those issues played out,” Donahue said. “This event brought their learning to life.”

Students visited the MLK Fair Housing exhibit, where they engaged in a lively discussion on King’s time in Chicago with Lewis, the CCE director and professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern, and community activist Prexy Nesbitt, a Northwestern alumnus.   

The event closed with a reception and a discussion co-sponsored by the Sustained Dialogues program on the Evanston campus.

Now in its third year, NU in Chicago’s interactive excursions, led by Northwestern faculty and alumni, give students the opportunity to connect with a diverse set of civic resources across the city.  

Past events have ranged from global neighborhood tours with Northwestern foreign language faculty to behind-the-scenes looks at museums as civic assets.  

For a complete listing of Black History Month 2015 events, visit African American Student Affairs.

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