In shadow of 'Chicagoland,' real Chicagoans tell it like it is

 A woman carries a heart-shaped memorial into the Greater Harvest Baptist Church for the funeral of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013.

A woman carries a heart-shaped memorial into the Greater Harvest Baptist Church for the funeral of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune / March 14, 2014)

It takes time to create a television documentary, and filmmakers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin have said they spent much of a year amassing 1,000 hours of video to make their CNN true-crime documentary "Chicagoland." So America currently is discovering, in its family rooms, many of the 2013 horrors that Chicago is trying to forget: the brutal fight over the decision to close underperforming schools, where the rhetoric almost seemed to mirror the violence under discussion; the murder of teenager Hadiya Pendleton; the terror of kids crossing lines in a fractured gangland where the ownership of fiercely defended turfs can change with the block.

Notwithstanding its attempt to find heroes, mayoral and otherwise, the experience of "Chicagoland" is, for some of us in its namesake city, very much an agonized rewind, a reliving of the recent past.

For the rest of the world, that would be a dramatized rewind, of course, replete with tough-guy narrative voice. Not that those of us here for the long haul needed any added theatrics. There already have been plenty of those in place of solutions.

The international glare this unspooling cable tale of two cities (only it's actually one city) is shining on the problems of America's third-largest town is reigniting the debate in arts and education circles about what can be done. That was certainly on people's minds at a luncheon last week, organized by the Goodman Theatre's education and community engagement department, where the topic was no less than "The Role of Cultural Organizations in Nurturing Human Potential." Thus there was much discussion of how the arts could end youth violence, increase opportunity, create jobs, build skills, nurture empathy, counteract gangs, make the streets safer and so on and so forth.

We expect a lot from the arts.

If you put together a panel of people who run nonprofit organizations or government agencies and offer up an audience of business leaders, potential funders and journalists (not to mention Amy Rule, first lady of Chicago), then what you typically get is a group of declamatory statements on the efficacy of the particular institution that the speaker represents. This is inevitable. The business of solving problems is, paradoxically, competitive. So it went. We heard about the nurturing achievements of the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts from Bill Michel and about The Starter League from co-founder Mike McGee, and we also heard from Kimberly Foxx, chief of staff to Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

Foxx — who grew up in Cabrini-Green, prospered educationally and went on to serve as the supervising attorney on the 2009 Derrion Albert murder trial — did not spend all her time on a message praising Cook County and its efforts to solve myriad self-evident problems. Instead, she offered up a compelling personal narrative about how she and her brother, Stephen Anderson, both at-risk children of a young single mother, were helped in their youth by artists and educators who were working, down on the ground, in their neighborhood. Ground, incidentally, where a Target store now stands, a Target that Foxx said she could not quite bear to enter. Anderson went on to attend the Juilliard School. Foxx now sits on the board of Free Spirit Media, which aims to provide media-production access to young people and does the kind of work from which Foxx and her brother once benefited.

You could not help but wonder if here was one of Chicago's future political stars. Foxx was, for sure, dazzlingly impressive. She would have been a fine leading character in "Chicagoland." She may well yet be a finer one in the real thing.

But it was not Foxx who said the most interesting thing about the role of the arts in nurturing human potential at that lunch.

That came out of the mouth of Toni Irving, the head of a relatively new group called Get In Chicago, a public-private partnership created in March 2013 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration in an attempt to persuade business leaders to get involved (and get their money and clout involved) with trying to curb the crisis of gun violence on the city's streets. Irving, a former English professor (and former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Pat Quinn) who serves as that organization's executive director, certainly spent a lot of her time promoting the aims of her group, which focuses on three major initiatives where it wants to put its money: prevention and intervention programs, community capacity-building and an innovation fund.

Irving, though, made an effort to cut through the usual jargon, saying, for example, that there has been no shortage of resources thrown at the problem of nurturing human potential on the tougher streets of Chicago, whereas there is a chronic lack of knowledge about what actually works.

Irving riffed on many of the same themes she touched on in an article she wrote for The Huffington Post last month, which led with this paragraph: "Here's the stark reality. We have spent incalculable dollars on well-intentioned projects to curb juvenile violence. But we can't say what works best. We simply don't know."

Part of Irving's quest is to improve assessment (by "respected measurement tools") of these programs, including the arts programs. Assessment is rarely beloved by practitioners of any field: It is a lot of work and a pain in the neck, and its results can prove disquieting. But, as Irving has said, an at-risk youth who participates in an ineffective arts program, and there are plenty of ineffective arts programs on the streets of Chicago, actually is paying through a human cost.

A great deal of money is given out annually to provide students with free tickets to arts events, on the theory that exposure to the arts helps. Most of us would accept that notion about the benefits of arts attendance, and there is research to back it up. But it is conceivable that particular events students are seeing may not be helping them at all. Some of the choices of material for student viewing around town can be bizarre. (Is "The Taming of the Shrew" ever really a good idea?) And there is precious little research to argue for Arts Event Type A at the expense of Arts Event Type B. Plenty of arts groups involved in this field argue that it's all good for the kids. But is that really the case?

Artists dislike calling another artist ineffective, of course. Irving's ideas will not be an easy sell. But they're still on the money.

But that was not the most succinct thing Irving said. It was this, and she was speaking about the arts and summarizing her sense of the research:

"There is something to be said for young people representing themselves."

Irving, who is African-American, put that in a kind of historical context, arguing that when African-American stories were excluded from newspapers, including this one, those Chicagoans turned to the novel, the personal essay and other accessible narrative forms to express themselves. There is a crucial historical struggle of self-representation.

That matched everything Foxx had been saying about her own experience. When there are opportunities to express yourself — and those opportunities are provided at something close to a saturation level, down on the ground, in a neighborhood — at least some young folks tend to grab the chance to articulate their own story, just as Foxx had done at that very lunch and her actor brother had done some years previously.

The young people you can see in "Chicagoland" (such as 9-year-old Asean Johnson) are not, of course, representing themselves. They are being represented by adult filmmakers, with powerful agents and distribution arms. They do not even represent themselves in some of the arts programs that serve them, or even see themselves therein. But there still are legions of street-level artists dedicated to giving young people a pen, a brush, a scene, a beat, a camera and letting them make their own documentary of their part of Chicagoland.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib

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