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Opinion: Trying to reboot Illinois without bashing it

2 hours 22 min ago
Opinion by Reboot Illinois' Matt Dietrich

Thumbs-up to Margie's Candies, not so much for dad's website.

In the department of "kids say the darnedest things," I offer this unsolicited quote from my 12-year-old son:

"Dad, I looked at your website and all it does is give a big middle finger to Illinois."

Oh, these kids today.

Yet as happens so often when one gets a perspective from a fresh set of eyes -- even those of a 12-year-old -- this remark caused a much-needed bit of soul-searching. Obviously, you don't start an operation called Reboot Illinois with the intent of celebrating Illinois government. But neither did we start Reboot Illinois as a clearinghouse for all things negative about Illinois.

While informing about areas where Illinois needs improvement -- mainly regarding state finances, jobs, schools and corruption -- is central to our mission, it's not our mission. The commentary, graphics, guest views and videos we provide are intended not just to inform, but to motivate action. At minimum, that means getting involved in the political process by registering to vote and voting. At best, it means direct involvement in effecting change by, in the most obvious example, contacting your elected officials.

We even created a tool, Sound Off, devoted to that purpose. Enter your address and Sound Off will look up your representative and senator. Choose your issue, type out your message (or use the one we've provided) and Sound Off will send it your lawmakers, the governor and the Democratic and Republican leaders in the Illinois House and Senate.

The greatest impediment to citizen action is the widely held feeling that we're powerless; that it won't matter what we say or do because the people in Springfield are going to do what serves them best regardless. With the state now 10 months into an unprecedented budget deadlock, it's never been easier to feel that way. Yet neither has that feeling ever been more wrong.

As state Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, explained at an April 11 forum put on by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform and Truth in Accounting, constituent pressure on the people in Springfield is the only means of ending the impasse:

Believe it or not, your lawmakers listen to their constituents. And when they complain to their leaders that they're getting heat from back home that's putting them in hot water with voters, their leaders listen. Even as Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael continued their war of egos over the state budget, both listened to their members' complaints about college funding last week and allowed passage of $600 million in emergency funding. It was a stunning example of compromise.

One final note: When presented with problems like Illinois' pension debt, it's easy to feel not just powerless but also that the situation is hopeless. We've done a lot to explain, for example, the causes and effects of Illinois' pension crisis. It's risen from $83 billion to $111 billion since this website launched and consumes more than 20 percent of the state budget's General Revenue Fund.

We probably have not done enough to point out that there are solutions. Yes, taxpayers going forward will have to pay for years of mismanagement by the General Assembly, but there are ways this can be done without sinking state government.

California a few short years ago was the worst-case-scenario example of state fiscal dysfunction. Not today. There's no reason Illinois can't follow this model.

With new ownership last month and a major website overhaul in the works, this is an exciting time for Reboot Illinois. That makes it a perfect time for us to sharpen our focus on our mission.

And who knows. Perhaps all this even will inspire the young media critic in my family to add a few stars to his review. These kids today.

NEXT ARTICLE: Four Illinois pension solutions we ought to be pushing

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Are District Schools Entitled to Teach Other People's Children?

2 hours 53 min ago

On April 1, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teachers walked out on their jobs six weeks ahead of the official date by which they could call a strike. Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Karen Lewis said she didn't know or care if the strike was legal.

She shrugged and said, "Sue me."

CPS is, in fact, suing CTU for the one-day strike and asking the court to make the union pay back the amount that it cost the district to enact a 250-site contingency plan.

But let's push aside the political wrangling and pose a fundamental question about public education itself: Are district schools entitled to educate everybody else's children?

In my dreams, I'd be the Rosa Parks of the education reform movement. I'm tired of my people having to sit at the back of the bus bound for college and careers. Much like the yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, I'd lead parents in a massive walkout against the Chicago school district. Instead of carpooling to get protesters to and from work, my parents would "school pool," enlisting the most trusted adults among us to run schools in living rooms across the city until CPS and CTU got their act together.

A school district/teachers union with only half of its students would fall, just like the Montgomery public transportation system did with only white passengers. The vitriol between CPS and CTU would cease; they would collaborate to demand that the state fill the district's $480 million budget gap and change the funding formula going forward; and the two entities would emerge laser focused on meeting the needs of children so that enrollment numbers could rise again.

I know my fantasy strike would be impossible to execute in a district where 86 percent of students live in poverty. However, the illustration serves to prove that just because our tax dollars fund district schools doesn't mean these schools are entitled to unlimited access to kids.

Riding on Moral Ground

This is why I found the CTU one-day strike so arrogant and offensive. CTU arbitrarily blocked kids from having access to what they are indeed entitled to--an education. The timing was bad. CTU called a strike just because it wanted to, not because the union had exhausted its collective bargaining options.

This move was indifferent to the rule of law that governs labor relations, and CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey claimed that union leadership did so because they are operating on higher, moral authority.

But how moral was it for teachers to walk out on kids for a day when they may hold an open-ended strike six weeks later? I get the "collateral damage" argument--that in a battle some innocence must be lost in order to win the war--but that's a lever I'd only pull if I had absolutely no other defense. I find it hard to believe a preemptive one-day strike to give the district a taste of the union's political power was morally motivated.

Everyone agrees that CTU can legally strike in mid-May after the fact-finding or "cooling off" period of contract negotiations has run its course. But instead of taking a breather, the CTU added coals to the fire by blocking education access and telling parents left to shamble for childcare to consider it "like an extra holiday." The comment reeked of entitlement, and 20 percent of union membership voted against the so-called "Day of Action."

Opting Out of Public School Entitlement

The white, religious homeschooling community rebelled against public school entitlement a long time ago. Recently, NPR ran a story about how black, middle-class, urban families are opting to homeschool their children, as well. According to the report, black parents are homeschooling not for religious reasons, but to avoid the racism of largely white school staff.

I know two African-American families and a cousin who opted out of public schools simply because they refused to subject themselves to a dysfunctional, underperforming public school system that tries to exert a monopoly on free access to education.

When the quality of my own children's education--in both district and charter schools--has been subpar, I have seriously considered homeschooling, too. (We must remember that charter schools are a free alternative, but private and parochial schools are also school choice options that affluent families take advantage of with little to no union pushback.)

When us public school teachers feel we are God's gift to other people's children, then we become what's wrong with public education. When the fight for our rights trumps the needs of our students, it all goes downhill from there.

Of course, teachers need to get paid adequately and school funding is worth fighting for, but trying to force a limit on charter schools through union negotiations and striking, for example, reinforces the entitlement mentality that's driving parents away from district schools.

The chief purpose of schools is to provide quality education to children, not to secure jobs and political power for adults.

Power to the Parent

Be it district, charter, private, parochial or home school, parents are the only people entitled to decide where and how their children are educated.

We educators need to show more humility and realize that as much as we might care about our students, they don't actually belong to us. We need students just as much, if not more, than they need us, so we should cherish them, not lock them out of school and call it a "holiday."

School choice should be seen as a parental right, not as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table.

Considering that parents are not obligated to send their children to district public schools and could decide take advantage of other options, I suggest that CTU think twice about striking again next month.

And if all else fails, my inner Rosa Parks just might move to the front of the education reform bus and call for a "school pool."

This post originally appeared on Education Post.

Photo by Peoples World, CC-licensed.

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Voters Could See Two Redistricting Reform Choices on November Ballot

4 hours 28 min ago

Two years after a lawsuit backed by House Speaker Michael Madigan kept a citizen-led redistricting reform effort off the ballot, Madigan himself voted to get an anti-gerrymandering amendment before voters on Nov. 8.

By a 105-7 vote, the House approved a constitutional amendment sponsored by Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, that proposes removing politicians from the drawing of state legislative district maps and creating an independent commission overseen by the Illinois Supreme Court. The amendment, HJRCA 58, now moves to the Senate. If the amendment receives 36 votes in the Senate, it would be placed on the ballot for consideration by voters.

Tuesday's vote was a landmark in Illinois politics as reform groups for decades have decried the highly political process of re-drawing legislative maps every 10 years following the U.S. Census. The opportunity to control boundary-making has long been the most coveted prize of both political parties, who have skillfully used the once-a-decade redistricting to more securely embed incumbents of their own party and punish lawmakers of the opposite party.

When Republicans drew the map following the 1990 census, the result was so GOP-friendly that House Speaker Michael Madigan was relegated to minority leader status for two years. They were the only two years since 1983 that Madigan and the Democrats have not controlled the House. In the decades that followed, Democrats won the right to draw the map and now control super-majorities in both chambers. (For a fast primer on redistricting and gerrymandering in Illinois, and the almost comic process by which the map-drawing party has been determined in most years, see this infographic.)

This is why the current map-drawing system has been derided as an "incumbent protection program" in which lawmakers choose their voters rather than the other way around.

But Franks' amendment almost certainly would not have been called for a vote in the House if not for a well-organized citizen initiative that this week plans to submit 580,000 voter signatures to the Illinois State Board of Elections to force a redistricting reform amendment onto the November ballot.

For nearly a year, Independent Map Amendment has been gathering signatures on petitions throughout Illinois. The group has vowed to not repeat the mistakes that led to the failure of a 2014 citizen effort, which was ruled invalid by the board of elections because too many if the signatures it collected were invalid.

At a press conference in Chicago last week, Independent Map Amendment's leaders and supporters said they are confident their amendment will survive all legal challenges and make it to the ballot.

Franks said his amendment is not an effort to derail the citizen initiative or confuse voters should both measures appear on the same ballot. He said his amendment is better than the Independent Map Amendment because the legislature has more latitude in what it can put into constitutional amendments. He noted, for example, that his amendment can impose stricter standards for membership on the independent redistricting commission than is legally permissible in a citizen initiative.

It also could allow lawmakers eventually to put congressional district-drawing under the authority of the independent commission. The citizen initiative could not do that, Franks said.

Fear that the citizen initiative might not survive a court challenge is what Franks said motivated him to create his own. Should both end up on the ballot, all the better for voters, Franks said.

"I think that's an unlikely scenario but if they do make it both on the ballot then the citizens would have a choice of which kind of reform they would like and it would be up to the judiciary to decide how it goes," Franks said.

The Senate has until Friday to consider Franks' amendment. To become law, an amendment must receive a majority vote among all voters or three-fifths of all votes on a specific question.

NEXT ARTICLE: Top 25 most challenging high schools in Illinois, as ranked by the Washington Post

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I Only Hear Wedding Bells If They Ring in Alaska

Tue, 2016-05-03 15:48

The venues have been vetted online, through Google Images and Yelp reviews. The current finalists? A reasonably priced lodge in Homer, Alaska, and a state-funded park in South Dakota. Now I just have to search Airbnb and determine if there are some nice hosts in either location who would be willing to accommodate about 200 friends, relatives and possibly a DJ.

This is what a father of girls must do after casually reading -- and, as a result, upchucking his morning coffee -- a survey revealing that his hometown of Chicago is the second most expensive U.S. location for a wedding. In my case, two weddings.

The survey, conducted by wedding website The Knot, estimates getting married in the Windy City will set me back $61,265 once I have covered the reception, music, flowers, attorney's fees when my wife and I divorce after arguing over which relatives not to invite, and powerful prescription drugs that, if taken with food or milk, should hopefully make me forget the entire event and the plundering of my savings account.

Perhaps I should take heart knowing we did not put down roots in New York City, the most expensive U.S. location for nuptials, with a price tag just north of $82,000, according to The Knot. This is hardly a shock considering New York leads the nation in every "most expensive" category, the lone exception being Most Expensive Chicken Nuggets if Served by Snow White. Thanks, Orlando.

New York dads, you may want to consider relocating immediately, as Long Island, the Hudson Valley and the outer boroughs of Manhattan also made the list. Rounding out the top 10 were North/Central N.J., Cape Cod, Mass., Palm Springs, Calif., New Orleans and anywhere in Rhode Island.

But The Knot sympathized with fathers everywhere by also including the 10 least expensive wedding locations. Alaska and South Dakota occupied the top two spots, hence my research and willingness to offer my children a choice. I'm partial to Homer, Alaska's Driftwood Inn. Wait until I tell my girls that not only is there plenty of RV parking for guests, but wedding packages include a promise to move the reception into the nearby Elks Club in case storm clouds roll through Kachemak Bay -- wherever that is. I'd be lucky to find complimentary umbrellas in Chicago. Girls, if your dad is paying, I strongly urge you to consider this location. Other than the possibility of a grizzly bear photobombing the wedding pictures, it seems very practical.

Of course, you could also choose my other option: the beautiful (and cheap) Black Hills of South Dakota. You'll be happy to know that Custer State Park offers numerous sites for both your ceremonies and your receptions. And, being a state park, it also includes strictly enforced quiet hours, meaning I won't have to cave when my guests -- and the caterer -- plead with me to keep the bar open past the agreed upon time.

I'll save even more money should you decide to get married in South Dakota in January. Don't worry, I checked out the winter wedding photos online; judging from the expressions on the bride and groom's faces, nothing says love like standing in a snowdrift.

If these two states don't offer everything you desire, The Knot also suggests I, excuse me, we, can save money by holding your weddings in Texas (OK, West Texas), Arkansas, New Mexico, North Dakota, Idaho, Montana or Oregon. If you insist on staying close to home, Central Illinois rounds out the top 10. Just say the word and I'll start scoping potential locations in Heyworth or Blue Mound, both of which appear to be centrally located, according to the Illinois map I just downloaded.

Girls, please don't call me cheap. Call me practical. And if any last minute expenses come up, your dad will happily pay for them with a minimal amount of grumbling.

I'll just withdraw some money from my secret "Finally Have Dinner in New York" account.

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High Levels of Violence in Chicago

Tue, 2016-05-03 13:18

Shootings and homicides are on the rise in Chicago. It appears that all strategies to reduce them have failed, which left a significant impact from January 1, 2016 to April 28, 2016. There are many stories of shootings and killings every weekend. The Westside and Southside of Chicago continue to struggle with the senseless acts of violence being carried out against innocent bystanders. There is no rhyme or reason in regards to motives.

There was a time when the majority of violence was gang related, but now you have cliques and more interpersonal violence taking place amongst the high risk youth. Women and kids being targeted is nothing new in Chicago, but it makes one wonder what is really going on with the youth today? Nine year old TyShawn Lee was actually targeted by some young men because his father was allegedly involved in the death of someone's brother. Next you have the recent case of Little Khloe, a one year old shot in the back of her head in the Austin community while sitting in the back of a car.

The police can only do so much as it relates to stopping the violence on the front end. Community leaders must become more diligent in their efforts to reach out to the disenfranchised youth and bring them to the table of peace. It does not matter how you organize or strategize because it's hard to detect what's about to happen on any given day in Chicago.

The time has come to implement new strategies that include hiring young men from crime ridden communities and training them on how to become peacemakers for their peers. This is the only way you can get close enough to the element in order to have a direct impact. Many people talk about stopping the killings, but how can you stop a killing that you don't know is about to occur? If you have the right people on the ground networking with the potential shooters in the area, then you might get lucky enough to prevent some of the violence before it happens. Another area of concern would be the lack of resources for young men and women in some of the more distressed communities in Chicago.

Many cultures throughout American History struggled in the urban ghettos with high crime rates, however, the majority of Irish, Italian, and Jewish Gangsters abandoned the life of crime on the streets to become businessmen. This is a model that young men should really take a serious look at because the killings ceased as the old school gangsters began the process of working for the advancement of their people. The killings in Chicago will continue until people unify around this issue and help the young people identify another way to survive without taking the life of another person. Peace should be considered the norm instead of conflict.

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Report: Top 17 Straight-A Hospitals in Illinois for 2016

Tue, 2016-05-03 10:46

Illinois ranks 15th in the nation when it comes to hospital safety, according to the 2016 Hospital Safety Score, and several of the state's best hospitals never have received anything less than the top score.

The Leapfrog Group -- a nonprofit organization that works to promote safety and quality within the health care system -- has been releasing its rankings of the safest hospitals in the U.S. twice every year since 2012. The spring 2016 rankings tracked performance at 2,500 hospitals across the country in surgical errors, hospital staff quality, infection risk and other safety issues like patient falls and bed sores.

The score then ranks hospitals from A to F, which the Leapfrog Group argues makes a big difference. The risk of avoidable death in a D or F-ranked hospital is 50 percent higher than in an A-ranked one.

In Illinois, 115 hospitals were scored and nearly 44 percent received an A ranking. Take a look at which hospitals have received A rankings twice a year since the ranking started in 2012.

NEXT ARTICLE: Eight hospitals in Illinois among nation's top 100 in 2016

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It's Time For You To Sound Off On Illinois Tax Changes

Tue, 2016-05-03 10:01

In separate press conferences in Springfield Monday, Gov. Bruce Rauner spoke of his opposition to a progressive tax in Illinois while Democratic Reps. Lou Lang and Christian Mitchell voiced their support. The House is expected to vote on a constitutional amendment to allow a progressive income tax on Tuesday.

The effort to change the Illinois constitution to allow a progressive income tax system in Illinois is expected to get its first big test Tuesday, when the House votes on a constitutional amendment to lift the prohibition on a graduated-rate income tax.

It's the first step in a process that only will move forward if (A) three-fifths majorities of the Illinois House and Senate vote to put the constitutional amendment before voters on Nov. 8 and (B) voters approve it.

The 1970 Illinois Constitution required that any state income tax be applied to all taxpayers at the same rate, so Illinois never has had a system similar to that of the federal government, in which income tax rates rise along with taxpayers' incomes. Currently, the individual income tax rate in Illinois is 3.75 percent.

The requirement that Illinois have only a flat-rate income tax was the product of much negotiation at the Constitutional Convention of 1970. The state had only implemented its first income tax, at 2.5 percent, in 1969, and there was fear among those who supported the income tax that attempting to establish a graduated-rate system would kill the whole concept.

For years, however, there's been a steady drumbeat to change the constitution by those, almost exclusively Democrats, who argue that a graduated-rate system is a more fair way of taxing because it taxes according to a taxpayer's ability to pay. This year, Democrats have introduced a constitutional amendment to allow a progressive tax and a bill that, if voters approve the amendment, establishes tax brackets from 3.5 to 9.75 percent.

"This is an issue whose time has come," said state Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, who is the sponsor of the constitutional amendment. "With the current tax structure that we have in Illinois what happens now is that middle class families, once you count sales taxes, property taxes, taxes that are paid on things like a gallon of gas, middle class people are paying twice as much as a share of their income as the top 1 percent" of income-earners.

Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, is sponsor of the companion bill that could set the rates of a progressive system if the constitutional amendment is approved by voters. He says implementing the graduated tax would amount to a tax break for "99.3 percent of all taxpayers." Lang estimates his plan will bring in $1.9 billion more in tax revenue than the current system.

"This proposal was not created to solve all of our problems," Lang said at a May 2 press conference. "This isn't about balancing the budget. It's about a fair tax." (View Lang and Mitchell's entire press conference here.)

But just as Democrats have massed forces behind a progressive tax, so have Republicans over the years mounted opposition. This year that's especially true, as Gov. Bruce Rauner says the progressive tax push is another example of Democrats trying to get more tax revenue without implementing any business or government reforms that will help Illinois' overall economy in the long-term.

"I really don't support a graduated income tax. I think that could well be the straw that breaks the camel's back for Illinois' economic competitiveness," said Gov. Bruce Rauner at his own press conference May 2. "If we go to a graduated income tax that will quickly spike up and put our income tax among the highest in America. And that would be devastating to recruiting companies and growing our economy.

"And if we put a high income tax on successful people -- business owners, small business owners -- many more will leave; many more than have already been leaving." (Rauner's complete remarks are here.)

Variations of this debate have played out for years in the General Assembly, but this year it appears headed for action in the General Assembly.

The difference is that this year the state faces an unprecedented financial crisis. Comptroller Leslie Munger has said the state may close the fiscal year on June 30 with a $10 billion deficit. Lang's plan won't make much of a dent in that. And with 1 percentage point of a flat tax increase bringing in an estimated $3.2 billion, it'll take a hefty increase in the current system to begin chipping away at the debt.

Even Rauner, a staunch opponent of taxes, has said that Illinois can't fix its budget problems with cuts alone. If Democrats would pass some parts of his Turnaround Agenda, he has said he'd discuss tax increases.

So what's your choice? Do you believe Lang and Mitchell, that a progressive tax is a "fair tax" that'll bring in more revenue and give all but .7 percent of taxpayers a tax break?

Do you favor a flat tax system, and want it to stay that way even if it almost certainly will increase from the current 3.75 percent?

Keep in mind that the income tax changes, if they happen, likely will be part of a much bigger package of tax reforms. An updating of the sales tax code is only one among many ideas that have been discussed. Numerous other spending reforms, from changing the state's purchasing system to closing corporate tax loopholes, also have been discussed for potential savings.

Don't sit idly by while your lawmakers in Springfield make this decision.

We've updated our Sound Off tool to let you voice your opinion on how the General Assembly should handle the tax question. Just click the link and choose this tab:

You'll find background on the budget, taxes and spending. Enter your address and Sound Off will look up your state senator and representative. Then it'll send your message -- you can write it yourself or use the one already filled in -- to your legislators, Gov. Bruce Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno.

Believe it or not, your representatives in Springfield really do listen to their constituents.

The FY 2017 budget officially is due in four weeks. We hope you'll use Sound Off and take an active part in getting Illinois government working again.

NEXT ARTICLE: What you need to know about the new progressive income tax effort in Illinois

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Here's What Happens When You Ask Your Parents How They Really Feel

Mon, 2016-05-02 19:18
My family and I have always been strong proponents of what others have called Midwestern Nice.

We've always, for the most part, gotten along. When I think back to growing up in my parents' house, few major conflicts come to mind. Even my only brother, Jake, and I rarely fought or even argued.

But we're also conflict-averse and sometimes antisocial. Growing up, we used to joke that we had four televisions in four different rooms for a good reason -- so we could all "watch TV together" without actually having to interact. Hey, it worked for us.

So, when the challenge was put forth by my employer to sit down with my folks and interview them as part of our Talk to Me series, I was both excited and a bit anxious about the opportunity. As a family, we rarely have those sorts of "big" talks. In fact, we tend to actively avoid them.

On Christmas Day last December, I sat them down. Convincing my mom took a bit longer than my dad -- who has always been much more of a talker -- but neither of them put up much of a fight. My brother agreed to shoot the video on my partner's iPhone and we were off.

Right off the bat, I immediately questioned my decision. When I asked my parents to reveal one thing they had never told me, they both took a long pause. Nothing came to them. (Or at least, I feared, nothing they were willing to say on camera!)

Moving along, though, they began to run through the greatest hits of my awkward childhood. That time I split my chin open getting out of the bathtub? Check! The other time I decided, as a toddler, that I wanted to never, ever be sick, so it was a good idea to drink an entire bottle of cough syrup? Yep! And the time I was so determined to win a game of hide-and-seek at the grocery store that the store was forced to go on a lockdown? You bet!

No surprises here, for me at least. And then it came: When I asked my parents what had been the biggest surprise of parenting, they told me something I'd never heard before. Or maybe something I heard, but had forgotten. Or was said but not in so many words.

"We had no idea what you were doing!" my dad said of my decision to move to Chicago after I graduated from college in 2008. I didn't have a job, and my only plan was to move in with two of my best friends and, I guess, just somehow make it work? To be honest, I never truly considered an alternative. It's what felt right.

I had no clue at the time that my parents were totally perplexed by this. As of the day before this interview, I still didn't. They hid it that well.

I eventually did make it work. Had my parents been less supportive, I'm not sure that would be the case. But they trusted me and believed in me. I'd taken it for granted for almost a decade because I never even thought to ask, "Hey, what do you think of that?" Now that I have, I can't believe I waited so long.

I know that not everyone is as lucky to have parents like mine, but I do believe that everyone should have someone in their life who is willing to do the same -- to have faith in you and serve a life term as your fan club's president, no matter how stupid your idea is. It could be a parent, but it could also be a sibling or a friend, a partner or a coworker. Everyone needs that someone.

When you've found that person, don't forget to check in from time to time to ask some of these "big" questions. And invite them to ask some of their own. You might be surprised what you'll hear.

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A Bong Video Overshadows A Domestic Abuser At The NFL Draft

Mon, 2016-05-02 16:34

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NFL fans haven't been able to stop talking about Laremy Tunsil since video leaked on Thursday of the Old Miss offensive tackle (and NFL draft's No. 1 ranked prospect) smoking out of a bong-slash-gas mask. Everywhere, there have been stories and hot takes and videos questioning the man's character.

Much less attention has been given to the Kansas City Chief's decision to draft Tyreek Hill, a wide receiver out of Division II West Alabama who was dismissed by Oklahoma State in December 2014 after he punched, threw, kicked and choked then-girlfriend Crystal Espinal, who was pregnant at the time. It's worth asking why, and how the narratives around these two players have diverged.

What Hill did to his girlfriend is horrendous. According to the police report, Espinal told an officer that Hill "threw her around like a ragdoll ... She explained Tyreek has a volatile temper and that he thought it was OK to punch and choke her.” Yet most of the conversation around Hill has been about whether he can use the sport of football to change his life, while Tunsil continues to get dragged through the mud because he fell victim to a phone-hacking crime.

By comparison, Tunsil's personal messages, photos and social media accounts were all compromised just minutes before the start of last Thursday's draft -- the perpetrator first leaking an old video of Tunsil smoking marijuana out of a hardcore-looking gas mask bong, then text messages between him and his college coach in which Tunsil appears to ask for money to help pay his mom's bills. 

The leak caused Tunsil to fall from near the top of the draft all the way to the Miami Dolphins at No. 13, which may have cost him $10 million in contracts. After months of thorough vetting and scouting, some NFL executives didn't respond well to watching a video of a college kid rip some bong. The draft's top-ranked prospect suddenly became unwanted — New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said he would've "cuffed" Tunsil — and some teams even removed him from their draft boards altogether, according to The MMQB.

Hill's name, however, stuck to boards throughout the weekend. Eventually, Kansas City picked him in the fifth round.

Welcome to #ChiefsKingdom, Tyreek Hill!#ChiefsDraft

— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) April 30, 2016

If you read the responses to the above tweet, you'll notice that strong condemnations litter the replies. But overall, Hill attracted much less attention to than Tunsil did in recent days. You could argue that Tunsil got more attention because he was drafted higher, and that's fair enough. But it's also worth asking why there has been so little attention on exactly what Hill was accused of, and why some teams pulled Tunsil off their draft boards, but not Hill. 

Hill pleaded guilty to domestic abuse charges in August 2015 and was sentenced to three years probation as well as completion of an anger management course and a 52-week Batterer’s Intervention Program. No jail time, but on the surface, an effective sentence nonetheless -- domestic violence advocates don't see outright punishment as the solution to ending violence against women, but rather behavioral rehabilitation. Hill's doing what advocates believe is best for his future well-being.

Nevertheless, only 16 months after he beat the mother of his future child, Hill is now an NFL player, and there are very few people in the league or outside of it who appear to care all that much. The reason football coaches keep inviting men with abusive pasts back into the league is obvious: talent. Hill was once called "fastest guy in the world” by a prominent college coach. If he can manage to stay out of the hands of the law and produce touchdowns, his crime, which will be expunged from his record by 2018 if he completes his sentence, will disappear from our collective memories and from the legal record. 

But after two years of known abusers Ray Rice and Greg Hardy dominating headlines, the NFL has created another place in the NFL for a player who's a convicted domestic abuser, and yet, all we can talk about is a bong. 

If the @NFL really cares about ending domestic violence Tyreek Hill wouldn't have been eligible for the draft. Saddened the Hunts allowed it

— Bob Fescoe (@bobfescoe) April 30, 2016

The Chiefs have "uncovered every possible stone that we possibly could," head coach Andy Reid said about Hill on Saturday. Reid maintains that Hill will continue his counseling sessions and receive the Chiefs' support in his treatment. Aware that many fans were upset at the pick, Reid asked for them to give his staff the "benefit of the doubt," per the Kansas City Star. 

It's hard to do that, however, when the Chiefs provided no transparency into what they uncovered — Reid gave no details, saying that he talked to Hill's old coaches and teammates but failing to comment on whether or not he spoke to Espinal. Not interviewing Espinal would've been a tremendous oversight on the Chiefs' part, given that coaches and teammates probably didn't know the side of Hill that was capable of abuse. Instead of clearly explaining why Hill deserved to be drafted, Reid was more interested in planting a potential feel-good story:

I just ask that we let the young man get on with his work and life and help encourage him so we can get a positive out of this. That would be great for humanity itself, and then whatever he does on the football field is icing on the cake.

The recovery of Hill's victim, of course, won't involve headlines for "humanity itself" or any celebratory cake. Just a victim watching as her abuser continues on to NFL-sponsored fame and fortune. 

It bears repeating: Violence against women is a horrible, complex crime. Ripping a bong in a video is not. To the 44 percent of Americans who've smoked marijuana, it's amusing and common and barely worth thinking about beyond a chuckle. But within the NFL's world, a player's recorded recreational use of a drug that's killed literally no one is graded as a demarcation of character and worthy of virality, all while another player's domestic abuse record is slyly held up as an example of what football can do to to help rehabilitate a man. Has that much really changed?

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The President vs. the Black Lives Matter Movement

Mon, 2016-05-02 12:08
After two years of taking little notice of Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists' actual demands, let alone implementing them, President Obama has now lambasted the movement for simply "yelling" about the issue.

The insulting insinuation is that BLM activists are mindless blowhards who lack specific near- and longer-term solutions to endemic police racism and violence.

Obama insisted that activists should be eager to meet with politicians, presumably to "dialogue" and convince them to change their ways. Are we really to believe such forced naivete from someone at the pinnacle of the cynical U.S. political system?

"One of the things I caution young people about though, that I don't think is effective, is you've highlighted an issue and brought it to people's attention ... and elected officials are ready to sit down with you, then you can't just keep yelling at them," the President said April 23rd in London. "And you can't refuse to meet because that would compromise the purity of your position."

Obama conveniently overlooked that most of the politicians some BLM activists have refused to meet with are almost all Democrats - the leaders of big cities. Exhibit A is his own former chief of staff, the Karl Rove fixer of the Democratic Party, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who infamously suppressed a dashcam video showing the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald so he could win a close-fought reelection campaign. Why should BLM activists allow themselves to be used as props in photo ops with such a despicable character?

For the President's political allies to begin addressing many of the immediate BLM demands doesn't require negotiations or penetrating studies - just following the government's own laws concerning murder, assault, perjury and conspiracy - when said offenses are committed by police. It would require them to behave towards police at least half as harshly as most employers do towards employees who commit such offenses. Should it really take years to fire violent sociopaths?

The problems highlighted by BLM activists are so glaring and long-standing, they should not have required protest to highlight them. It's instructive that politicians, including two-term President Obama, began speaking about racist police violence in fits and starts only after BLM protesters forced the issue onto the national dialogue.

"To tell mothers, fathers, family members and friends who have lost their loves ones to police violence that their screams and yells for justice need to be more pragmatic and quiet, is to deny the enormity of human devastation and pain that is the root of this movement," said Aislinn Pulley, a leader in Chicago's BLM movement who in February refused to participate in a White House photo op with the President.

"When every 28 hours a black person is extra-judicially killed by police or vigilantes, the absolute last thing we need is to be quiet. We need to be so loud that we make it impossible to ever accept as normal the extrajudicial killing and brutality of anyone."

Obama's own solutions announced shortly after unrest over the police killing of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, were rightly denounced by BLM activists as wholly inadequate.

His proposal to rein in the growing militarization of local police forces with cast-off military hardware was shot full of loopholes. His federal funding of body cameras for police was a technocratic "fix" to a social problem - the racist devaluing of black lives. This devaluing, which spawned the phrase "Black Lives Matter," means that police are far more likely to use deadly force again black people in situations where no force or less than lethal force are warranted.

And as shown by the legal aftermath of the videos of the police killing of New York's Eric Garner, and a generation before him, the police beating of LA's Rodney King, stone cold video evidence of illegal police violence doesn't guarantee an appropriate response from a justice system shot through with racism and pro-police bias.

Here in Chicago, BLM activists have spent years trying to get even their most basic demands addressed - struggling to get cops fired even when civil juries have already found them guilty of wrongfully killed black people and awarded the surviving families millions of dollars in restitution. It is this official inaction, where month after month, killer cops collect taxpayer funded salaries and pensions, that infuriates BLM activists.

In this context, "Obama's comments reflect the detached bureaucracy of pomp and circumstance that masquerades itself as accomplishing something, but in reality is at best little more than political theater, at worst a designed distraction," said Pulley.

But the reality on the federal level is probably worse that just ineffectual dithering and PR stunts.

Thanks to years' worth of diligent work by activists and civil rights attorneys, we now know that the police spying, infiltration and mis-use of the law used against the Occupy Movement in localities around the nation was not a coincidence. It was in fact a nationally coordinated campaign by President Obama's Justice Department to illegally shut down the movement.

Likewise, there is already plenty of evidence [2] of local police working with the FBI to spy against BLM activists in many cities. It is not conspiracy-mongering to suspect that federal actions are being taken against BLM activists, just as they were again used the Occupy movement before it. This is, after all, an administration that has already proven itself prone to widespread invasive monitoring of legal 1st Amendment activities, as was the administration before it.

In taking these anti-civil rights actions against the black lives matter movement, President Obama is not being a black president or even necessarily a Democratic Party one. He is simply being a United States president, and as such, borrowing Dr. King's phrase, ringmaster of the U.S. government, "the biggest purveyor of violence in the world today."

Young BLM activists' typically embrace more controversial views than their elders in and out of the political establishment. They write and speak frequently about a world without police and prisons. They speak about resources currently wasted on police and prisons, instead being spent on supporting viable black futures with massive funding for jobs, affordable housing, education, and mental and physical health.

For those who want to look beyond trite, "yelling" dismissals of BLM activists, and see how their thoughtful proposals can fix the problems that politicians of both parties have spent decades failing at, a good place to start is with Black Youth Project 100's Agenda to Build Black Futures.

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Dennis Hastert Case Renews Calls To Change Child Sex Abuse Reporting Laws

Sun, 2016-05-01 16:05

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For nearly 40 years, Scott Cross hid from everybody what he called his "darkest secret." And in a federal courtroom, the 53-year-old revealed it to the world. 

“Coach Hastert sexually abused me in 1979, my senior year in high school," Cross said at former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's Wednesday sentencing hearing on bank fraud charges. 

Hastert reluctantly admitted to abusing multiple students back when he was a high school wrestling coach -- a fact federal investigators inadvertently learned while probing him on banking violations he committed while paying hush money to one of his victims.

But a standard loophole in the justice system meant that Hastert would technically go unpunished for his admitted sexual abuse, while his victims would get nothing.

Like Cross -- and hundreds of victims from the Catholic church's priest sex abuse scandal -- many child sex abuse survivors come forward later in life only to learn the statute of limitations has locked them out of the courtroom.

"When a prosecutor cannot indict an offender for these heinous acts because the statute of limitations has run, it raises serious moral, legal and ethical questions," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a Thursday statement.

Madigan is among those who have urged lawmakers to eliminate entirely the statute of limitations for all sex crimes involving children. 

It's especially important to eliminate a statute of limitations when the victim of a crime is a child, said Barbara Blaine, president of the victims advocacy group Survivors Network Of Those Abused By Priests.

"Most [sexual abuse] victims have been closed out of the courtroom because it takes them so long to tell," Blaine said. 

During interviews with U.S. attorneys, Hastert's victims cited his position and gave a common refrain: "Who would believe me?"  

In court Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin took pains to detail why Hastert's 15-month prison sentence for bank fraud could not encompass the decades-old abuse he had just admitted to (and had not been charged for). 

Durkin noted that Hastert was a "serial child molester" even though he could never be prosecuted as one in a court of law. Such a label was near-unfathomable 13 years earlier when Hastert voted for the law that eliminated the statute of limitations on federal child sex abuse and kidnapping crimes.

But most child sex abuse cases are not in federal purview, and states have their own patchwork of laws on time-barred prosecution.

Timelines range from South Dakota's brief three year reporting window to Illinois' relatively long 20-year window. Time limits also vary based on factors like the date of the alleged abuse or whether a responsible party like a teacher or social worker failed to report the abuse when it occurred. 

Experts say current statute of limitations rules unduly and even unrealistically burden young victims with reporting abuse they haven't come to terms with -- or don't even understand. 

"Most adults have difficultly sorting out how to proceed after a crime happens," said Polly Poskin, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "A child might not even know that they can go to the police. They know about the police but they might not know what happened to them in cases is a crime." 

Even as victims of childhood crimes grow up, persistent cultural attitudes around victim blaming -- like the notion that accusations are made out of anger or revenge -- can keep a victim silent, Poksin adds.  

"We as a culture have a terrible record of believing the victim of a sexual assault or sexual abuse," Poskin said. "Victims don’t think they will be believed or that they'll be supported and not blamed."

We as a culture have a terrible record of believing the victim of a sexual assault or sexual abuse."
Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault

Those who oppose an elimination of the statute of limitations on prosecuting child sex abuse argue it's a violation of due process for the accused.

Other objections touch on the fact that decades-old allegations typically have "stale evidence [and] little to no physical evidence," Poskin said.

"Usually, there are no witnesses either. Perpetrators usually isolate their victim. And the victims might not know each other and tell each other."

Proving child sexual abuse beyond a reasonable doubt remains a difficult case to make regardless of when it's reported, and time almost always works against a victim because memories fade, witnesses die and evidence is lost.

At least four states -- California, Minnesota, Delaware and Hawaii -- have opened a window of time ranging from one to three years during which anyone who was sexually abused as a child could bring forward a claim of abuse no matter how long ago it happened. 

By the time California closed its one-year reporting window in 2004, at least 800 claims had been filed. In Hawaii, some of the several-dozen claims dated back to the 1950s. 

Poskin said one of the most compelling reasons to remove the statute of limitations is a simple one: "The perpetrator might confess."

In Hastert's case, one confession begat several more, which Poskin said can increase the pressure to confess. 

"If the current law doesn’t allow us to indict the Denny Hasterts of the world, then the law isn’t doing its job."

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My Home Town Chicago: Where (and how) The Violence Ends?

Thu, 2016-04-28 13:44
It's no secret that Chicago is under a national microscope, due to the rampant violence plaguing the city. Arguably, in just about every news cycle there are reports about victims of gun violence, beatings or stabbings, some resulting in death in some gruesome fashion. In fact, as of the writing of this piece, 1,000 people have been shot in Chicago since January1, 2016. It's come to the point where community residents, mostly on the south and west sides, are numb to the sounds of gunshots. How much more can Chicago take? Block after block riddled with bullets. Families are literally torn apart due to the sudden death of a loved one. Mothers are loosing their innocent children at young ages to guns. And some of those being harmed, are preparing for vengeance--and the vicious cycle continues.

When will it stop?

But, perhaps more importantly, how did all this madness begin?

Last week, I had a lunch meeting with public affairs strategist guru, Becky Carroll, CEO and President of C-Strategies LLC. Becky was born and raised in Chicago, went to Chicago public schools and was raised in what would be considered a working class and sometimes working poor neighborhood who understands what it means to struggle and not always have a lot of food on the table or money to buy what most people would consider to be necessities. This life experience at a young age served as the foundation for her social activism in high school and college which led to getting engaged in political campaigns and public policy. Ms. Carroll had a front row seat in witnessing the ills that effected children while working at CPS. She also expressed to me the importance of good public policy and having to do some things that may be politically unpopular.

We discussed our childhood neighborhoods and how things have changed, for better and worse. Intrigued by my rearing in a foster home on the west side, Carroll asked, very sincerely, how was I able to escape the tough streets..., a question that is posed to me frequently. According to statistics, I should be dead or in jail by now...Yet, and in answer her question, I attribute my success to being exposed to things that weren't in my neighborhood and an opportunity to explore such exposure.

There is plenty of blame to go around as to why so many young people are misguided souls, walking aimlessly through their lives. I attribute most of it to poor economic development, a deficit in jobs, a lackluster education system and the most important crucial element, the broken family unit. One of the best things my foster parent did for me was to keep me involved in something constructive. She kept me busy, embedding in me, the importance of a sense of a higher being. It was vitally important to understand there was something bigger than me and to have faith in that being. I was active in my church, the boy scouts, some after school activities, providing me with experiences far away from home, which was a good thing.

Kids have to know there is another world outside the confines of their neighborhood, in order for them to discover their likes and dislikes. It makes it very difficult to develop a passion for something you've never experienced. For many of these children, they are limited to dreaming about being a professional athlete, as the only way "out" ... Although there is nothing wrong with this aspiration, the reality is those opportunities are far and few between.

Children need dreams they can reach out and touch.

As I had, when I developed a love affair with the Chicago Fire Department. It all started with a field trip to Engine Company 103 at the age of eight years old and I. Was. SOLD! I knew what I wanted to do for a living. But, what about other kids? Have they been exposed to the many wonders of life?

Second, we can talk about needing more police officers on the street and adding more social programs, but in my humble opinion, we will continue to experience delinquent behavior until the family unit is back together. Parents are children's first teachers.

Frederick Douglas said it best, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

In other words, if we truly care and pay attention and teach our children right from wrong, render quality education, how to control their emotions and conflict resolution, then and only then will we be able to put a tangible dent in crime statistics. All the education and all the money in the world will not make a difference, if our youth don't garner a sense of self-respect and given an opportunity to earn an honest living. Everything else is just smoke and mirrors, cute sound bites and distractions from the real issues at hand.

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Oprah And Her Audience Losing It Over An iPod In 2003 Is Pure Magic

Thu, 2016-04-28 10:31

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Screaming, cheering, Oprah dancing.

That's the kind of reaction Apple's iPod got when it was featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in May of 2003. The iTunes Music Store had just launched the month before (on April 27), so when the "itty bitty" third-generation iPod was brought out during a special spring edition of "Oprah's Favorite Things," everyone was already obsessed.

Understandably. It was 15GB, people. It held 3,700 songs. Oprah called it "genius," and her entire audience seemed downright giddy -- especially when they realized that each one of them was getting with one of the $399 devices for free. 

Watch the clip above to fully appreciate (and perhaps relive) the 2003 enthusiasm, and try not to get tripped up over the iPod music process. After all, as Oprah's guest explained, it's "much like you might copy your CDs to tape."

My, how far we've come.

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Dennis Hastert Admits He Sexually Abused Former Students

Wed, 2016-04-27 11:17

CHICAGO -- Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R) sexually abused some students while he worked at a high school decades ago, the former lawmaker said Wednesday during a sentencing hearing related to bank fraud charges tied to a $3.5 million coverup of the allegations.

Hastert said in court that he had "mistreated" his students and athletes.  

"I'm deeply ashamed to be standing here today," Hastert told the judge, adding that he is getting professional help.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin sentenced Hastert to two years of supervised release. The former speaker must also attend sex offender treatment and will not be allowed to contact his alleged victims, Durkin added. 

The statute of limitations for the abuse allegations has lapsed, and the banking charges carry a maximum sentence of just five years. The recommended sentence was zero to five months, and Hastert's defense argued that the 74-year-old should be given probation due in part to his age and his failing health.

While looking into some large, unreported cash withdrawals Hastert had made, federal investigators learned the former speaker had been accused of abusing or having inappropriate sexual contact with at least five students while working as a high school teacher and wrestling coach some 40 years ago. 

They determined that Hastert began structuring cash withdrawals to avoid bank reporting rules in 2010, and that he used the money to pay off an alleged victim known in court filings as "Individual A."

Durkin previously warned that false statements Hastert made to investigators a year ago would factor significantly into the sentencing decision. Hastert initially told agents that he was being extorted by Individual A, a claim they later determined was untrue.  

I always felt what Coach Hastert had done to me was my darkest secret.
Scott Cross, known previously as Individual D, who testified on Wednesday

An alleged victim previously known only as Individual D testified in court on Wednesday, and identified himself as 53-year-old Scott Cross. 

"I respected and trusted Coach Hastert," Cross said. "Coach Hastert sexually abused me in 1979, my senior year in high school."

Cross described how Hastert offered to massage him after wrestling practice one day under to guise of helping him make weight. He said Hastert asked him to lie down, then removed his shirt and fondled his genitals.

"I always felt what Coach Hastert had done to me was my darkest secret," said Cross, who was 17 when the alleged abuse took place.

Jolene Burdge also testified. She said her brother, Stephen Reinboldt, had told her before his death in 1995 that Hastert had abused him as a high school student. 

Hastert sat motionless with his eyes downcast as the witnesses read their statements.  

John Green, Hastert's lawyer, apologized to the witnesses and said he understood the trauma they had experienced. 

However, when addressing the judge, he said he believed Hastert had "compartmentalized" his behavior and believed Hastert had mental "deficits" connected to his current medical condition. The former speaker had a stroke last year. 

Some former high-ranking political figures publicly supported Hastert ahead of the sentencing, including his congressional colleague Tom DeLay and former CIA Director Porter Goss. 

Former Illinois Attorney General Tyrone Fahner described Hastert in a March 8 letter as "a kind, strong, principled, and unselfish man," and urged the court to let Hastert live out the rest of his days a free man "with his family and friends, and all those who love and admire him."

Many members of the public wrote to Durkin in the weeks ahead of the sentencing, expressing outrage that Hastert could have committed such alleged sexual abuse and go unpunished. 

Prosecutors slammed the former speaker in a recent court filing for what they called "stunning hypocrisy."

They highlighted a passage from Hastert's 2004 autobiography in which he wrote, “There’s never sufficient reason to try to strip away another person’s dignity.”

"(T)hat is exactly what defendant did to his victims," prosecutors wrote. "[Hastert] made them feel alone, ashamed, guilty and devoid of dignity. While defendant achieved great success, reaping all the benefits that went with it, these boys struggled, and all are still struggling now with what defendant did to them."

Individual A filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Hastert on Monday, accusing the former speaker of still owing him $1.8 million plus interest as part of their agreement to keep the abuse allegations from going public. 

Hastert retired from teaching in 1981 to enter politics. He quickly won a seat in the Illinois legislature, serving three terms before ascending to Congress.

He became House speaker in 1999, after speaker-designate Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) resigned from Congress over an extramarital affair. Hastert was considered a morally upstanding figure at a time when both parties were embroiled in sex scandals. 

Before retiring from politics in 2007, Hastert championed tough punishment for child predators and worked extensively on health care laws. 

Ironically, one of the most consequential laws Hastert helped shepherd though his chamber later proved to be his undoing: He helped pass the controversial 2001 USA Patriot Act, which increased the scope of cash reporting laws “to help trace funds used for terrorism.”

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Kasonja Holley Still Uses Her Lunch Break To Feed The Homeless In Chicago

Tue, 2016-04-26 14:42
By Marcelle Hutchins

It's been over a year since Kasonja Holley first made headlines about using her own lunch hour to help people fighting homelessness. The Chicago native is still going strong.

Once a week Holley heads to a Subway shop to purchase boxed lunches that she distributes to homeless people.

"Growing up I saw my grandmother take in people from the streets and put them up in our church, where there was a shelter," Holley told She also distributes toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, and toilet paper.

To help fund her project, she launched Love In Motion campaign on GoFundMe to cover her costs. In the last two years she has since then raised $16,000.

"Everyone is very gracious and supportive," says Holley. "People come up to me and say 'thank you,' or hand me money to help my cause."

In addition to raising enough money to rent a space where people can shower and get clean clothes, Holley wants to bring awareness to the issue. "There are so many people who are doing things for the homeless, but there are so many homeless people in Chicago," says Holley. "I don't know what could be done to lower it, but something needs to be done."

Since its inception in 2011, Holley says she's seen people seek support and services they need to get off the streets. "I want to be that person they can talk to. I love making connection with people I come across. I'll never stop helping people."

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The 2016 NFL 'Do Not Draft' List

Tue, 2016-04-26 11:11

If the NFL draft has taught us anything over the past several years, it's that there's no such thing as a sure thing. A sure superstar doesn't exist, and neither does a surefire bust.

That being said, here's a list of eight high-profile players -- think Johnny Manziel -- that I think GMs should stay away from this year. I tried my luck with a similar article for the 2014 class, and Ebron was one of the players I identified as a bust. Then again, so too was Oakland Raiders standout quarterback Derek Carr. In 2011, I highlighted future Pro Bowlers Cam Jordan and Muhammad Wilkerson as steals, as well as J.J. Watt and Washington star outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan.

Email me at or ask me questions about anything sports-related on Twitter at @Schultz_Report, and follow me on Instagram at @Schultz_Report. Also, check out my SiriusXM Radio show Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3-6 PM ET on Bleacher Report channel 83.

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The Mess in Illinois and the Public Trust Case for Pension Reform

Mon, 2016-04-25 11:41
Public pensions are wildly underfunded in many political jurisdictions across this country. The pension crisis in Illinois is perhaps the most dramatic: Illinois municipal bonds are treated as "junk" by the markets for good reason. How and indeed whether Illinois successfully undertakes pension reform and puts its financial house in order is important for Illinois, but also for the other States and localities with underfunded pension obligations, because Illinois is, in a sense, the canary in the coal mine. And one issue that has already been key in Illinois - and will be elsewhere - is whether the state courts support or defeat statutory efforts at pension reform. So far, the Illinois courts are a model of what courts elsewhere should not do.

In 1892, the modern "public trust" doctrine was born when the United States Supreme Court in Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois held that the public trust doctrine - a doctrine that holds that the government has a duty to future electorates and future generations and thus cannot alienate key public resources - prohibited the Illinois legislature from selling three million acres of Lake Michigan lakebed and shoreline to a railroad company. The United States Supreme Court essentially undid an imprudent and almost certainly corrupt legislative giveaway of complete and exclusive control of what since has become the very heart of the Chicago metropolitan area.

Fast forward one hundred and twenty plus years, and consider, by contrast, the Illinois Supreme Court's recent decisions regarding public pension reform, which invalidate State and City of Chicago efforts to modestly lessen the staggering pension crisis they face. In 1970, Illinois adopted a new state constitution that contains a provision stating that public pensions cannot be diminished. Reading this provision in a highly literal, absolutist manner, the Illinois Supreme Court seemed to hold that any modifications to pension terms and benefits for past or current employees were therefore prohibited by the Illinois constitution. Quite possibly, the result is going to be that, because of an imprudent choice of wording made in 1970, wording that opened up the possibility that pension liabilities would come to consume state and localities' budgets, already-inadequate state services for the most vulnerable people in Illinois, disabled and poor kids, will be cut. And already understaffed public agencies of all sorts will continue to freeze hiring or be forced to cut payrolls. The state's financial ability to pay for education, disability services, health care and the like is, of course, very different from a tangible public resource like Lake Michigan, but that financial ability also could be considered part of the public trust - part of what one poorly-thought-out act of lawmaking in 1970 should not be allowed to undermine almost a half century later.

It might be argued that the Illinois Supreme Court had to defer to what the State Constitution says because the State Constitution is the final word in the law, above everything else (except the federal Constitution). But if a group of land developers today somehow got together the political power to push through a state constitutional amendment to sell Lake Michigan, or if a group of libertarian activists pushed through an amendment that could be read as prohibiting any property tax increases no matter the public need for more money, one would hope that the Illinois Supreme Court would at least view those amendments with suspicion. Faced with such amendments, one would hope that the Illinois Supreme Court would try to interpret them in the way that made them as consistent as possible with the idea of a public trust. Likewise, in the pension context, the Illinois Court could and should have recognized that public trust concerns should guide its interpretation.

In this case of the 1970 pension provision, the wording was open-ended enough that the Illinois Supreme Court could have defensibly interpreted the provision to allow the very modest pension reforms embodied in recent state legislation. "Diminish" can be understood in a variety of ways. The Court could have and should have been guided by public trust concerns in coming to a constitutional interpretation that would have both protected overwhelmingly the interests of past and current public employees and helped ensure that Illinois would meet its obligations to all its current citizens.

It is possible that, in the wake of the Illinois Supreme Court's decision, there will be a new constitutional amendment to undo the 1970 provision. Or perhaps the State Legislature will enact new taxes large enough to cover at least some of the unfunded pension liabilities. But that will take time, and in the meantime, there are localities in Illinois simply not paying their bills to private agencies that provide critical services, and there are individuals and families at risk of losing services they desperately need. As the New York Times recently reported, Chicago State, a local college that serves predominantly African-American students from low-income households, may soon close for lack of State funds. If the Illinois Supreme Court had heeded the wisdom of the United States Supreme Court's 1892 decision in Illinois Central Railroad, Illinois would already be on the path to ensuring that its citizens today receive and will receive the services that, by all rights, they should be able to expect.

Although other States lack Illinois' constitutional provision regarding pensions, legal suits seeking to block pension reform in other States, including Takings claims for the Taking of pension rights as form of property, almost certainly will be brought as those States confront the extent to which their pension obligations are underfunded and perhaps simply impossible to meet. And perhaps some of these suits should succeed on the merits, but the consideration of the merits should include consideration of public trust principles and the need to ensure that the welfare of the public, including future generations, is safeguarded.

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Earth Day Scorecard for a Greener Chicago

Fri, 2016-04-22 09:27
Chicago is becoming a "greener city," but let's recognize some key challenges and the need for solutions moving forward. Environmental progress is being achieved together with job creation and economic development. The old myth about jobs versus the environment is simply that: old and false. This Earth Day, we should be proud of what Chicago has accomplished and candid about some important environmental challenges still requiring solutions.

Wind Power: Illinois has leaped from no wind power in 2003 to more than 3,842 megawatts today. A decade ago, who thought that Illinois would become No. 5 in the nation for wind power capacity and that Chicago would now have 11 major wind power corporate headquarters?

Next Steps: Illinois policymakers should say "no" to Exelon's opposition and finally modernize the Illinois Renewable Energy Standard, which helps drive wind power development. Let's make it work well and advance Illinois' national leadership in the restructured electricity market.

Solar Energy can be our next boom. The city and county are advancing policies to streamline solar energy installations by speeding up permitting and standardizing grid connections. Solar panel efficiencies are steadily improving -- think about other rapid technological advances in smart phones, digital cameras and computer speeds -- and becoming economically competitive. Solar energy is truly a disruptive technology, especially combined with battery technology improvements. It can succeed by installations on residential rooftops and commercial buildings' spacious flat roofs, and can transform underutilized industrial brownfields into "solar brightfields" in Chicago.

Next Steps: Let's seize the opportunities to accelerate solar energy by better using Chicago's many flat rooftops on commercial, industrial and multifamily residential buildings for solar photovoltaic panel installations producing clean electricity? First, the Illinois Commerce Commission should remove regulatory barriers that protect monopoly utilities from competition. Second, the Commission and state legislators should adopt policies that better enable community solar projects for local businesses and neighborhood residents to join together in sharing clean energy resources. Third, if Argonne National Labs' engineers and scientists achieve their goal of batteries that are five times more efficient at one-fifth the cost, that's a game changer.

Energy Efficiency saves businesses and residential consumers money on their utility bills, avoids pollution, creates jobs and keeps money in Chicago's economy. There's a quiet revolution occurring with more energy efficient lighting, appliances, cooling and heating equipment, pumps and motors, and other technologies. Commonwealth Edison reports that electricity sales declined (-1.5 percent) in 2015 in Northern Illinois while the Chicago regional economy grew 2.5 - 3.0 percent. Chicago's economy is growing, more efficiently.

Next Steps: Let's make sure that homes in all Chicago neighborhoods gain energy efficiency benefits through job-creating retrofits that can reduce electricity and natural gas bills. Electricity waste costs businesses and people money and drains dollars out of the Chicago economy for the part of the utility bills spent on out-of-town uranium, coal and gas fuels. Let's save money, boost our economy, create more installation jobs and reduce pollution. That's a winner.

Public Transit: Chicagoans are driving less with fewer cars, but Chicago can't be a greener "city that works" unless CTA is modernized. Chicago is looking to both innovative financing and new transportation approaches, including Bus Rapid Transit and Divvy bikes, in addition to upgrading the aging Red Line and other transit lines.

Next Steps: Let's face it -- no good public transit, no green city. Chicago's public transit system must become faster and provide improved, more efficient passenger services. CTA is working on it. Mayor Emanuel, Senators Durbin and Kirk, and Congressmen Lipinski and Quigley are working hard to gain more federal funds for CTA modernization. That's a priority and necessity.

Higher-Speed Rail: Chicago is the natural hub of the growing Midwest higher-speed rail network connecting Chicago and Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis, and the mid-sized cities in-between. Modern higher-speed passenger rail development will improve mobility, reduce pollution, create jobs and spur regional economic growth.

Next Steps: Modernize Union Station so it works well for intercity passenger rail, is attractive to new visitors and can be a multimodal hub connecting with CTA while anchoring West Loop commercial development. Let's accelerate high-speed rail development here.

Great Lakes: The Great Lakes ecosystem is the Chicago region's global gem, vital source of drinking water supply and place of recreational joy. The Obama Administration's investment of about $2 billion in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is paying off. Water quality should improve as investments are made in upgrading treatment facilities, building green infrastructure, and restoring wetlands and habitat.

Next Steps: Water efficiency is more than 20 years behind energy efficiency. We can't afford to waste fresh water that the rest of the world craves and values highly. Let's make Chicago a water efficiency leader among the Great Lakes cities. Let's also figure out savvy ways of using lower-cost greywater for industrial processes and save fresh water for drinking supply.

Chicago River: It's our namesake river and should be a gem increasing recreational enjoyment and property values for all. There's progress as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) finally begins to disinfect its wastewater. The Chicago River, however, is still not "fishable and swimmable," and there's more cleanup to be done.

Next Steps: The new Chicago Riverwalk and river-focused development on both the north and south sides highlights and builds support for the importance of cleaning up the river as a safe place for recreational use and community enjoyment. MWRD should continue to step up its pollution reduction actions and equipment investments that pay off in clean water benefits for all.

Clean air, clean water, cleaner energy and fewer toxics are important values shared by all Chicagoans. This Earth Day, let's be proud of our progress, and let's seize opportunities to advance a cleaner, greener and safer community that works for all.

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The New Enlightenment

Thu, 2016-04-21 18:37
What remains endlessly hinted at about the 2016 presidential race, but not fully articulated, is that something enormous -- bigger than politics, bigger than America itself, perhaps -- is trembling and kicking just below the surface, struggling to emerge.

I have a name to suggest for this hypothetical phenomenon: the New Enlightenment. Nothing less than that seems adequate.

There are millions of midwives at the ready -- angry, despairing citizens -- desperately hoping to assist in the birthing process . . . by being part of the Bernie Sanders campaign. I say this with full cognizance of the flawed, compromised nature of politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular. The political process is a stew of money and competing interests, power, compromise, cynicism and secret deals. But that's not all it is.

It's also the opening to our collective future. A failure to acknowledge this leaves the process in the hands of those who think they own it.

The New Enlightenment?

The old Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, which began sweeping across the consciousness of Western Civilization in the 17th and 18th centuries, implanted science, democracy and capitalism at our social foundations and fomented the industrial revolution. But the shortcomings of this enlightenment are many. Slavery, for instance, flourished through much of the Age of Reason. So did war. So did genocide. The worst of who we are maintained its grip on power. We have yet to begin implementing our deepest values in the social and political realm.

The political mindset that sees Hillary Clinton as the pragmatic candidate in the Democratic race is unable to see beyond the parameters of a stunted political system. What she has accomplished in her political career is essentially defined by that stunted system, which not only serves (often in secrecy) the interests of those already in power, but fails to envision the implementation of power except in domination over some enemy or other.

This is illustrated with agonizing clarity by the recent controversy over the tough-on-crime and "welfare reform" policies of the Bill Clinton presidency in the 1990s, which, of course, Hillary supported and promoted, and which have begun coming back to haunt her. While the "war on crime," the backlash against social spending and the implementation -- via imprisonment -- of what Michelle Alexander has labeled the new Jim Crow, got seriously underway in the Reagan era, Clinton continued and promoted rather than tried to undo these policies.

As Alexander wrote recently in The Nation: "Despite claims that radical changes in crime and welfare policy were driven by a desire to end big government and save taxpayer dollars, the reality is that the Clinton administration didn't reduce the amount of money devoted to the management of the urban poor; it changed what the funds would be used for. Billions of dollars were slashed from public-housing and child-welfare budgets and transferred to the mass-incarceration machine." (Italics mine.)

She added that: "By 1996, the penal budget was twice the amount that had been allocated to food stamps" and "funding for public housing was slashed by $17 billion . . . while funding for corrections was boosted by $19 billion."

The result of all this, as Alexander and others have noted -- and that Black Lives Matter activists recently brought to the forefront of the 2016 presidential campaign, confronting Bill Clinton as he campaigned for his wife -- is that African-American incarceration rates went through the roof and families and communities were shattered. This phenomenon has resulted in recent, stunning apologies from former supporters of Clinton-era tough-on-crime policies.

For instance, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago, a one-time Black Panther, tore his heart out in an MSNBC interview this month over his support of that bill. "I am ashamed of my role. I sincerely apologize to my God, I apologize to my community, to my family," he said, lamenting that, in his urgent desire to deal with the devastating impact of crime and crack in the black community, he became ensnared in single-focus thinking: "locking them up, keeping them in jail."

Despite the anguished sincerity of Rush's apology, I remain pierced by the question: Why?

Why did sheer, vindictive punishment loom in that moment as the solution to crime? Why was Reagan still the de facto president, with the head of his chosen scapegoat still on the altar of American politics? Bill Clinton's Democrats surrendered to Reaganism: to the pursuit of black "super-predators" and the defunding of "welfare queens." They surrendered to racism, as American as apple pie. The New Deal was dead and the Old Deal had reclaimed control over American politics and American thought. And it's still in control today, settled and unquestioned at the level of the political status quo.

"Of course 'sorry' isn't enough, given the magnitude of the harm that has been done," Alexander wrote, referring to Rush's apology. "A brand new system of racial and social control has been born again in the United States, one that has functioned as a literal war on poor communities of color."

The focus, she says, must be on rebuilding these communities that have been so devastated over recent decades. Yes, yes . . . but I would push it further. Social spending must be utterly redirected away from prisons and punishment, away from militarism and war, and toward the construction of real peace. The original New Deal was conceived in coexistence with war, but war eventually consumed it.

The cry of the New Enlightenment must be heard: Do not dehumanize! The only true enemy is the darkness we all share, lodged deeply in the collective human heart. When we try to kill it in "the enemy," we kill ourselves.

- - -
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Contact him at or visit his website at


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Tubman Selection Is Right on the Money

Thu, 2016-04-21 15:57

A year ago, I introduced the "Put a Woman on the Twenty Act of 2015" (H.R. 1910) to urge the Secretary of the Treasury to put a woman's portrait on American money. The bill didn't pass, but it didn't have to. After first announcing in 2015 that the ten dollar bill would be changed to include a woman or women, Secretary Jack Lew announced yesterday that Alexander Hamilton would remain on the $10 note, but abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman would grace the $20 note when it is redesigned.

Also about a year ago, I gave a speech in Congress about why I though Harriet Tubman would be an excellent choice to replace President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. She had just won an on-line poll in which 600,000 people had cast votes as part of the "Women on 20s" campaign. What follows is adapted from my speech in Congress on May 20, 2015:

From my perspective, as we see women breaking barriers at every level of society -- and, by the way, as we see people of color breaking barriers at every level of society -- our money ought to more accurately reflect who we are as a nation in the 21st century.

I am not saying that President Andrew Jackson or any of the men we honor on our money are not worthy. Many of our founding fathers made important contributions to this country which we continue to enjoy today in the United States and throughout the world by the spread of democracy. It is also true that part of our history includes practices and decisions that we certainly are not proud of.

Let's be straight, President Jackson was a war hero, a great defender of the young American Republic, and the first President and Founder of the Democratic Party. He oversaw our great nation as it came together and expanded west.

But it is the expansion of this nation, the manifest destiny that pushed settlers west, that pushed the institution of slavery west, and that pushed the extermination and forced migration of Native peoples west -- that is precisely the nexus of Andrew Jackson and Harriett Tubman and illustrates why putting a new face on our money makes sense.

The forced removal of Native peoples from their land so that we could expand slavery is at the heart of Andrew Jackson's legacy. It is the land-grab and the trail of tears that is key to contextualizing President Jackson and his era.

It was when Harriett Tubman was about six years old that Jackson became President. She was born a slave in Maryland and eventually walked to freedom in Pennsylvania.

But she went back. Again and again. At least 19 times, showing more than 300 black people how to follow the Big Dipper and the North Star to freedom in the North -- as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

She was an agitator. She was a subversive. She used the tools of social change to improve America. She fought for the little guy against the strong guy. And she was willing to put herself at great risk to ensure justice for others.

And she was a woman and she was black.

In other words, she was an ideal American!

Harriet Tubman -- because she is a woman, because she is a woman of color, because she fought for freedom and for a better America in the face of this nation's greatest -- and still unresolved -- sin of slavery and racism; Because she turned the tide of history for the better -- she is a very, very worthy nominee for this honor.

In a few years, maybe in a few months, when the idea of putting a woman on our money is considered a quaint, old-fashioned debate, and similarly when the idea of putting a person of color on our money no longer seems like such a remarkable step, we will wonder why it took so long.

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