Veronica Morris-Moore became involved in community organizing as a high school student, when she attended the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit with other South Side teenagers. She began working with Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY), the youth offshoot of the Woodlawn-based Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) shortly afterwards. In 2010, FLY co-founder Damian Turner was hit by crossfire from a drive-by shooting near the University of Chicago Medical Center, but could not be treated there because the UCMC has no Level 1 adult trauma center. He was instead taken to Northwestern University Hospital, where he died. Four years later, Morris-Moore discussed the campaign—spurred by that loss—to bring a trauma center to the South Side. This week, FLY and the other organizations that compose the Trauma Center Coalition are staging a week of protests, rallies, and other events to advance the campaign and build awareness about the area’s need for a trauma center. On Monday, Morris-Moore, along with another FLY member and six UofC students, sat chained in protest to the UCMC’s construction site at 56th and Cottage Grove. They were forcibly removed by University Police a few hours later.
What’s the hardest part of this kind of political work for you? Do you ever get demotivated?
Of course. Very recently, actually, the University of Chicago held an event, “Maximizing Community Health Benefits,” and Sharon O’Keefe [President of the UCMC] was right there, two feet away from me. I approached her and tried to ask her for a meeting, which we’ve been asking for for four years now, and that’s the closest I’ve ever been to her. She tossed me to this guy, said that he was the person I could talk to. Times like that make me feel hopeless. At the same time, I also understand that my power isn’t in moving the University. My power is in moving young people and moving parents and moving educators in our community. In that, I’ll move the University. Part of my power is also getting the young people to understand that, because I think they get more hopeless than we do.
What methods, political and otherwise, do you use to effect change?
Something that is very important in FLY is giving people the opportunity to speak. When politicians make the decision to spend a hundred million dollars on convincing the President to put his library here, they don’t ask taxpayers if they want that. Even when decisions are made in our schools, there’s not a meeting or a survey of the student body. It’s just done. At FLY, we try to reverse that way of learning. We ask, “What is it that y’all want to do about this issue? What is it that we want to do to change this?” We also educate people on the politics that they don’t understand and train them on the tools they can use to change. We’re in the thick of things, actually moving, actually doing things in the community—not just discussions. We have a strong organizing presence because we want to actually create that change. We don’t want somebody else to do it for us.
What causes violence on the South Side?
There’s a very simple answer that a lot of people like to overlook because there’s so much politics involved, but it’s economics that causes violence, especially on the South Side of Chicago. With the housing crisis and then the job crisis, we began to see more kids being involved in gang activity. Their parents were being laid off and losing their homes, so their kids all of a sudden had to find some type of income at fifteen, because they didn’t have parents to provide [for them] and they didn’t have places to go, like schools.
Even now, we’re seeing the deaths of youth increase along with the closing of schools, along with the closing of libraries, along with the cutbacks of programs inside our schools, the closing of mental health clinics. As all of these things continue to happen, we see violence continue to worsen, especially among our young people.
To me, that is because of the history of black people in this country: we’ve adapted to the surroundings that we’ve been placed in. Young people are making income where there is no income,through alternatives like selling drugs or being paid snipers. That’s what young people have to resort to because there aren’t enough jobs or volunteer opportunities that lead to jobs. There’s also not enough access to mental health treatment. They’re just out here, and they’re making a lot of decisions that they’re being judged for, but nobody’s really trying to help them.
That turns into anger that you have to have all these responsibilities at this age and you’re being judged for them. So now you don’t care who you hurt or what you hurt—all you care about is making sure the people you care about are good, and making sure that you’re sustaining the lifestyle that you choose to live.
What have you learned from the trauma center campaign so far?
The most important thing I’ve learned is that you never, ever stop fighting. Even if you win, there’s always another fight because the issues that we face are big. There isn’t a trauma center on the South Side because the University couldn’t afford it and they had to shut theirs down in 1988; that’s what they say in the paper. But the real reason is that too many uninsured people of color live on the South Side. Economically, it’s not smart in a capitalist society for an institution like the University to provide that type of care.
I’ve learned that in order to impact society and make a change, we have to always be causing hell on the political tip. We have to always be educating ourselves on the different methods that are used to keep people poor. Once we educate ourselves, we have to educate our people. Once we understand society, we can inspire people to change or help people find the things they want to change and help them develop their leadership to accomplish change.
What’s next for FLY? What are you hoping to do or change in the future?
In the next month, we want to weaken the University’s bid for the Obama library—not because we don’t want the library on the South Side, but because we feel like it’s immoral to give a racist institution the first black president’s museum. Why do they deserve the prestige and the honor of bearing that name and hosting that library? If anybody benefits from that Obama library, it should be an institution that cares about the voices of young black people and is devoted to the preservation of black life. That’s the goal for the next month, along with always raising awareness about the fact that there are no [Level 1] trauma centers on the South Side even as the South Side continues to see trauma daily. We are not being treated for that trauma, mentally or physically.
Over the next year, we would love to see a trauma center on the South Side or at least talks, planning, or a feasibility study from the Illinois Department of Public Health. We need to bring them to the table more often because they play a role in this, too. Also, we’d like to get our elected officials on the same page—to have them understand that we’re doing this because this is what the young people feel needs to be done. We need to be calling people out more because if we’re not doing that, we’re allowing the public to continue to be blind, and we’re not doing our job as far as educating the community.
Also, we’d like to be more involved in schools. Maybe in the next two years, we’ll have an after-school program which youth can come to even if they don’t want to come to the FLY program itself. Also, we’d like to create a political education curriculum for young people. A lot of young people encounter these institutions and these practices in society and they don’t know what it is or what to call it, so they don’t know how to navigate through it without coming out broken by it. That’s what happens. Young people living in the city go through things a kid living in the country probably wouldn’t have to go through.