The University of Chicago is a bastion of resources and privilege in a largely underserved and segregated South Side. The University and many of its students regularly engage in outreach and volunteer programs aimed at bridging the gap between the University community and the broader South Side, and Hyde Park is often hailed as one of the most integrated neighborhoods in the United States. But there is an undeniable separation–an invisible wall–between the University and its surroundings.
Every day, the wall is breached by students working in local schools through the Neighborhood Schools Program, by local residents seeking treatment at the UofC Hospitals, and by members of the University staff who live in nearby communities. The constant movement of people and capital between the University area and surrounding areas is a movement across the barriers of income, class, and often race, and such movement is critical to reducing tensions between the communities and promoting empathy, awareness, and mutual understanding.
But the decision to cross barriers is rarely risk-free. It often requires going outside of one’s comfort zone and making oneself feel vulnerable. Sometimes the experience is rewarding, but that is not always the case.
Members of the University of Chicago cross country team often see much more of the South Side than the average University of Chicago student. Their runs of four, eight, or twenty miles carry them all around the city, through neighborhoods where their presence as a large group of often scantily-clad, mostly white runners speeding along down the middle of the street comes as a surprise to the residents they encounter.
I ran with the team for four years as a student. I remember positive experiences of having moments of connection and shared humor and understanding with some of the people we passed on our runs, of having friendly snowball fights in the winter, and of seeing communities that I would never see if not for those runs. The places I saw helped to shape my social, political, and economic awareness.
I also remember negative experiences: having rocks thrown at us by students, being cursed at and called racist and homophobic epithets, encountering big-and-mean-looking stray dogs, and having two teammates shot with a BB gun.
Earlier this week, the team was running their “Garfield Loop,” a run west on Garfield toward Midway Airport, when the team was shot at with paintball guns fired by an eastbound car. One team member was struck between the eyes, and the paintball buried itself in his right eye, where it caused substantial damage. His iris is now partially detached; cells deep in his eye are traumatized; and his vision in that eye is 20/60 instead of the 20/20 it was previously. It is probable that the injury will affect his vision for the rest of his life.
Is there a moral to this unpleasant story? Let’s hope it isn’t, “Don’t run through unsafe neighborhoods; stick to the treadmills or the lakefront parks.” It is essential that University of Chicago students accept some personal risk in order to spend time in the neighborhoods around their school. Like all great cities, Chicago is flawed, but Chicago’s particularly egregious flaw is its sharply drawn, if invisible, barriers between communities separated by de facto segregation, uneven development, and unequal opportunities for work and education.
The only way to break down those barriers is through the continued exchange of people, conversations, and capital: we must visit each other’s homes and communities, walk awhile in each other’s shoes, and see the places where each other lives. We must see and hear our neighbors in order to empathize with them and see them in the fullness of their individuality and their common humanity. Knowledge and empathy go hand in hand.
The joyriders who shot my teammate in the eye with a paintball gun would not have done the same to their own family and friends, those they care most about. May we all work to expand the circle of those we care about to include all our neighbors; let us see these neighbors as neighbors, as our human family, rather than as distant others from whom we may safely separate ourselves.