On Jan. 19, I had the pleasure of attending virtually Dominican University’s fifth annual National Day of Racial Reckoning. The event happened in the wake of George Floyd and the June 6 insurrection at the Capitol — events that bookended a time of great strife in this country, strife that threatened to shred even the social fabric here in the western suburbs.

Floyd’s murder prompted protests and pushback. A hate crime in the parking lot of the Jewel in River Forest stirred something in a Maywood trustee, who partnered with a trustee in River Forest on what would become a renewed commitment among the two communities at reconciliation and collaboration called the Twin Villages Covenant. 

Dominican President Donna M. Carroll announced that the university would build on that Covenant and work with Maywood to develop an immersion program. Instead of going overseas to do service work during Spring Break, Dominican students would build relationships much closer to home — in Maywood. 

Carroll said the initiative is an extension of Dominican’s commitment to “becoming a stronger, anti-racist institution,” according to a Jan. 13 statement released by the college. The commitment, university officials said, is displayed in measures like the college’s Sanctuary Campus Covenant, which was passed in 2017 to support undocumented students. 

Dominican is also among the first groups of universities in the country to be designated a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) Campus Center by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, officials said. 

I swelled with pride listening to President Carroll announce Dominican’s Maywood initiative. I’m glad something like this is happening in my hometown and I hope as many people in Maywood will join this effort as is feasible. 

Now, for the students who may want to trek the few miles west, I give myself up as an object lesson in how not to “do good.” 

Even though I was born and raised in Maywood, I had left in my teens after my parents moved to River Forest. From there, I went to college and Peoria. When I returned to Maywood in my 20s, I was a little dejected (this not being the American Way, after all), but determined to make an impact. 

I started volunteering and eventually settled on starting a news blog in 2013. In those early months, I had something of a savior complex. I was a little arrogant, quite frankly. And, at times, that arrogance came through in my writing and reporting. 

Back in those heady days, before I owned a car or worked full-time for a newspaper, I would walk from my grandmother’s home in Maywood to Dominican’s Rebecca Crown library in River Forest and stay for hours on end.

At the Crown library, I discovered the writings of a Roman Catholic priest and theologian named Ivan Illich. I swallowed his words, which gave me a vocabulary, a framework for understanding community. 

“Participatory democracy demands low-energy technology,” he wrote, “and free people must travel the road to productive social relations at the speed of a bicycle.” 

In his 1977 book, Toward a History of Needs, Illich described “convivial politics,” which are “based on the insight that in a modern society, both wealth and jobs can be equitably shared and enjoyed in liberty only when both are limited by a political process. Excessive forms of wealth and prolonged formal employment, no matter how well distributed, destroy the social, cultural, and environmental conditions for equal productive freedom. 

“Bits and watts—which here stand for units of information and of energy, respectively—when packaged into any mass-produced commodity in amounts that pass a threshold, inevitably constitute impoverishing wealth,” Illich wrote. “Such wealth is either too rare to be shared or it is destructive of the freedom and liberty of the weakest.” 

In an unsparing address he delivered in 1968 to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects in Cuernavaca, Mexico, Illich chastised the American volunteers who were so eager to spread their impoverishing wealth to the poor in the Third World while ignoring “much worse poverty at home.” 

Such charity, after all, isn’t very charitable. 

“I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence … I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the ‘good’ which you intended to do.” 

Before I could be the good that my hometown needed, I had to unlearn many implicit biases and creeds that I’d developed through years of schooling, I had to unburden myself of the ego that comes with a degree, a credential that I have and others in my ‘poor’ hometown don’t. 

I had to listen with humility and without judgment, and I had to be willing to learn more than I wanted to lecture. That’s the only way I earned my neighbors’ trust and, consequently, their attention as readers. 

Illich taught me that people can be useful and unemployed; that poverty means more than a lack of money; and that those places that our society, rich now to the point of decay, designates impoverished are often more robust in spirit than the wealthiest enclaves. 

So, students, do not make the mistake I did. Do not come to Maywood, or any other place (even your hometown) wanting to do “good,” or to “sacrifice.” Do not come bearing solutions to preconceived problems.  

As Illich told those volunteers in a hurry to “change” Latin America. 

“Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”  

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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