The Rotarian Conversation:
No matter your address, economic status, or trauma history, we are all neighbors, insists this astute observer of social imbalance
Alex Kotlowitz is a scholar of inequity. A writer-in-residence at Northwestern University, he has spent his career investigating and reporting on America’s poorest neighborhoods. In the process he has shown that poverty is more than a lack of money. It is the absence of safety, opportunity, and, far too often, hope.
In his new book, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, Kotlowitz tells the stories of individuals altered by urban violence. There’s the high school student who pleads with another teen not to shoot his best friend; the mother who forgives her son’s killer because “he too was lost in a dark place.” No matter where we live, Kotlowitz reminds us, these men and women are our neighbors. “They are people,” he says, “just like you and me.”
Kotlowitz is the author of four books, including There Are No Children Here, which the New York Public Library identified as one of the most important books of the 20th century; it was adapted for a television movie produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey. He was a producer for the award-winning documentary The Interrupters, which was based on his article for the New York Times Magazine. His honors include two Peabody awards, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and the John LaFarge Memorial Award for Interracial Justice, as well as eight honorary degrees. His previous work for The Rotarian includes the 2012 essay “Defusing Violence” and a 2011 article on poverty in the United States.
Recently, Kotlowitz sat down at his Oak Park, Illinois, home with Shirley Stephenson, a frequent contributor to The Rotarian. A writer and poet, Stephenson is a family nurse practitioner at a school-based health center on Chicago’s West Side. There she works with adolescents who might have stepped out of the pages of An American Summer.
Like Kotlowitz, Stephenson has experienced violence and its aftermath. “I used to work in an emergency department, and I’d heard about the violence in Chicago for years,” she says. “But when you see a car pull in that’s just been shot up and you’re carrying kids out of it, you experience it in a different way.”
THE ROTARIAN: When you look at a neighborhood, what’s the first thing you notice?
KOTLOWITZ: Whether there’s any activity. Whether there are people on the streets or on their porches, a sense that they have laid claim to this community.
TR: How do we know what community we’re part of? And do we naturally care about our community?
KOTLOWITZ: This is the great American paradox: For all the celebration of diversity in this nation and how we like to think we're all in this together, it's astonishing to me that we lead such disconnected lives. We end up settling in places where we're among the familiar, among people who look like us and who dress like us. We need to recognize this paradox and find a way to address it.
TR: Your books depict Chicago neighborhoods plagued by violence and poverty. How does that affect the people living there?
KOTLOWITZ: A few years ago I went to a screening of The Interrupters at the Danville Correctional Center, a medium-security prison about 140 miles south of Chicago. Afterward, I talked with two of the prisoners. One of them had been in prison for 18 years, and the other for 21 years. They were both from Englewood, one of the communities featured in the film, and they were so distressed and saddened to see how much worse the neighborhood had become since they left for prison.
These are communities lacking in opportunity. Spend a little time there and it's clear that the playing field is not level. You walk out of your home in Englewood and you can see the gleaming downtown skyline and know what's not yours. It does build up a sense of resentment. And I think for much of America, it's easy to look at the neighborhoods I write about in An American Summer and think, "Well, that's not me." So that's one of my hopes for this book: that people will read these stories and see themselves in the people I write about.
TR: Do you think people are born with empathy?
KOTLOWITZ: Empathy is central to who we are as human beings. I talk about it as the centripetal force of storytelling. It's also the centripetal force of community: It's what holds us together; it's what binds us. It's part of what we are as humans, but it takes some effort. It's not as if we're naturally inclined to think of ourselves as somebody else. It takes a leap of imagination.
TR: When you spend time in other communities, is it possible to shed the experiences and perspectives accumulated in your personal life?
KOTLOWITZ: I tell my students that, as journalists and reporters, we must develop a level of self-awareness. We must be aware of our personal and collective experiences and how they influence the way we look at the world. We talk about objectivity in my profession, but there's really no such thing. We're not blank slates, so when we go in to report a story, the most we should be asking of ourselves is that we be absolutely honest and square to what we see and hear, and that we go in willing to have our assumptions challenged and to be knocked off balance. The only way that's going to happen is if you are aware of all that you bring to that moment.
TR: Some children have the luxury of asking, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" Do the kids in An American Summer ask that question?
KOTLOWITZ: In There Are No Children Here, I asked one boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said, "If I grow up, I want to be a bus driver." "If," not "when." Certainly among the young people I spent time with working on that book and this book, there is a sense that the future is really tenuous. Tomorrow is not promised to you — which for a young person has to be terrifying.
TR: Can survivors of trauma ever have confidence in returning to a normal life?
KOTLOWITZ: Trauma, especially the kind of trauma that I write about in this book — acts of violence, the loss of a family member or a friend, or yourself being a victim or perpetrator of violence — there's no question it gets in your bones. It comes to shape you in some manner, and you fight vigorously to keep it from defining you. You see it in the people I write about in the book, and you see it in veterans returning from combat. It's not to say they've left it behind, but most have gone on to have full and rich lives. The moment, though, never goes away, especially if you've lost a loved one. You don't want that moment to go away; you don't want to forget that person.
TR: Did writing An American Summer affect you in ways different from writing There Are No Children Here?
KOTLOWITZ: I remember when I first began spending time in the projects while reporting There Are No Children Here. The conditions were appalling, unlike anything I had ever seen. I felt this incredible sense of shame: How could I not know? I worked in downtown Chicago then, and the projects were only 2 miles from my office. I thought, "How could I have been so close and not had any idea?" Eventually my shame turned into anger, that in the world's most prosperous nation we could have such profound distress, such profound poverty.
With An American Summer, that poverty obviously wasn't new for me. The trauma came from talking with people about the most disturbing, unsettling, sorrowful moments in their lives. It was really hard for them. You've heard about "secondary trauma" suffered by those who work with people who have been traumatized. Anita Stewart and Crystal Smith, two of the social workers I mention in the book, both dealt with that secondary trauma, and there's no question that when I was working on the book, I experienced it too. I still feel it in some ways, this sense of despair and deep sorrow.
TR: Based on your experiences in the streets of Chicago, do you think resilience can serve as an antidote to hopelessness?
KOTLOWITZ: We need to be careful about how we talk about resilience. Sometimes we talk about it in a glib or facile way, especially the resilience of children. But in my book I tell the story of Eddie Bocanegra, who, in an act of vengeance, shot and killed somebody when he was 18. He spent 14 years in prison. Eddie's a remarkable human being, and his story is about trying to find a way to forgive yourself for what you've done. Today he's doing some of the most important, inventive, original work around violence prevention in the country right here in Chicago.
But there's a moment in his story where he's really unsettled by a dream he has. His wife, who is a social worker, tells him that's the price of resilience. She was saying that resilience isn't a static notion; it's something you're constantly working at. It's not as if we have a natural fortitude to overcome profound traumatic moments. We have to work at it constantly. So I want to be careful of this notion of resilience, the idea that you just buck up and make it work.
TR: If people feel that violence isn't touching them, how do we engage them in finding solutions?
KOTLOWITZ: What I was trying to do in the book was remind my readers that the people I report on are our neighbors. It's important not only to connect with them, but to care about their predicament. Maybe it's naive, but I have faith that we have a capacity to reach out beyond our own lives, to reach out beyond all that feels familiar.
I tell stories out of the fundamental belief that life ought to be fair, and yet I often find myself in corners of this country where life isn't fair at all. To paraphrase Studs Terkel, if the community isn't in good shape, neither am I, and that's partly why I tell stories.
TR: Rotarians are humanitarians. They are empathetic, but they are doers. They want to take steps. Are there interventions or actions you might suggest to Rotarians that would address poverty and violence?
KOTLOWITZ: One of the great things about an organization like Rotary is that it has an incredibly powerful collective voice. What's more, Rotarians have a foot in two worlds. Presumably many Rotarians have reasonably comfortable lives, and yet they work in these different and unfamiliar communities around the world. It's important they tell the stories of those people they spend time with. They can be a powerful voice on issues that are not a regular part of the public conversation. It's incumbent upon those of us who have some standing to try to ensure that these matters become a part of the public and political discourse.
TR: In "Defusing Violence," your 2012 essay for The Rotarian, you suggest that everyone needs a person who doesn't give up on them, someone who treats them with a sense of dignity and decency, someone who never lets go. That level of commitment is overwhelming to a lot of people. Is there a middle ground?
KOTLOWITZ: There are institutions committed to this kind of work, and it's incumbent on us to support them. One of those places is public schools. For all the talk about how dysfunctional schools are, they are a place where kids really want to be. And then there is the extraordinary example of Crystal Smith and Anita Stewart, the social workers who physically and metaphorically embraced all these kids in need of nurturing and support. You see it in the program that Eddie Bocanegra is running, Readi Chicago, where they provide young men with jobs and cognitive behavioral therapy. Or you see it at Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a jewel in Chicago that helps kids like Marcelo Sanchez, another young man whose story I tell in my book. And there's CeaseFire, now known as Cure Violence, whose work was featured in The Interrupters. These kinds of actions may be overwhelming for individuals to accomplish, but go out and support those institutions that are doing it and doing it well.
TR: How were you inspired to pursue your life's work?
KOTLOWITZ: I dropped out of college for a while and ended up working in a settlement house in Atlanta. It was my first exposure to profound poverty in our cities. It was a transformative moment for me.
TR: Are you doing what you always wanted to do?
KOTLOWITZ: I didn't realize this is what I wanted to do until I got a job with a small alternative newsweekly after college. It pushed me into places where I otherwise would never have spent time, introduced me to people I never would have had reason to meet. Once I realized how much I loved it, I thought, "This is what I want to do." I get to hole up in my home office and write. And that's when I feel alive: when I'm telling stories.