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Jeanne Lieberman has been back in Chicago for a little over a month. Over the course of the past year and a half, the 2016 graduate was working in Colombia. She helped make an educational video with the Afro-Colombian Community Council of Alsacia Village, community organized, and did advocacy work. She also ran a series of workshops to develop a documentary script with Alsacia Village residents about how their town emerged out of community organizing efforts that followed the construction of a dam, which had displaced numerous families. To be effective in her role, she had to become a part of the local, while also understanding and situating her role within it. She recalls, “I definitely had to learn about collectives and what it means to really be part of an organic, place-based community, and organizing in Colombia.”

Her work in Colombia also reinforced her values and ideas on social justice, which had been crystallizing since her undergraduate years in the College. “The folks I lived and worked with in Colombia taught me that life itself and human dignity and fighting to have people’s agency recognized and recognizing that all life is interdependent. . . lies at the heart of all social justice work,” she said.

These values have made her realize that she wants to continue telling stories with local communities. To this end, she has recently applied for graduate programs in documentary filmmaking, which, she said, was “kind of the work that I fell into by accident while in Colombia.” She continued, “I see it both as a way to publicize stories that fill in silence and misconceptions in dominant narratives, and perhaps most importantly as a fabulous pedagogical tool to help youth look at their own social worlds from new perspectives and ask big critical questions.” Jeanne is in Chicago now, and the same emphasis on social justice, equity, and working with communities continues to root her work as an advisor and “idea generator,” as Program Director Chris Skrable calls her, to the Certificate Program.

As an undergraduate, Jeanne was a prototype for the Certificate, which requires classwork, direct service, in-community training modules, and a capstone project which many students tie into their B.A. theses. Jeanne’s Comparative Race & Ethnic Studies thesis centered on the history of the South Shore Cultural Center, and conversations between her and Skrable led to the realization that many students “lacked. . . an outlet to channel the history [they were] uncovering through [their] BA research to a broader audience who might be inspired by” it. To fill this need, Chicago Studies (CS) has unveiled a new online research portal with data from research projects around the city, submitted both by the University community (students, faculty, etc.) and the Chicago community at large. These two programs are meant to complement each other and encourage students to pursue both research and direct service, all the while thinking critically about their place in and engaging with the community they are working with.

In her role with CS, Jeanne works with students to motivate, inform, and challenge their ideas about their capstone projects and engagement with the city. Working with the program—and returning to Chicago—have been a homecoming of sorts for her. She has a “deep sense of the particular history” of Chicago and strong relationships with the city from her undergraduate years, as well as a personal connection to the city through her mother.

For her, Chicago is “the place that my mother’s family is from and a place that I feel I have something of a personal debt (for lack of a better word) to, because it is what has made me and my family who we are.” Chicago also presents ideas, challenges, and a sense of being and culture that have drawn the L.A. native back to the city of big shoulders. She said:  “Chicago is a unique place to do the work of not just opposing systems of oppression but building alternative proposals. There is a lot of exciting work going on here around urban agriculture, around anti-gentrification work that highlights the internal richness of immigrant and working-class communities, to name just a few.”

She continued, comparing Chicago to her hometown: “I think there is a culture of neighborliness in Chicago that we really don’t have at least in L.A., [and] there is a sense of neighborhood and community, and there is a desire to create, art and other things, for the sake of creating something that we believe in, and not just because of commercial aspirations. I want my work to be situated in and to contribute to those elements of the city culture.”

February 12, 2018