Part of the 2020 Best of Chicago edition.
Best Literary Voice
Eve L. Ewing
Eve Louise Ewing. Author, poet, comic book scribe and social scientist. Born and raised up in the city of Chicago is the heartbeat punctuating that vast range of her work. Ewing has done it all and is only just getting started. (Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, assistant professor, Princeton University)
Best Young Activist on the Rise
Black man. I’m proud of you. It takes courage and ingenuity to advocate for your community in the way that you have. As you evolve, remember to always find balance between your work and your personal wellness. Separate your personal finances from the resources you develop for your community. Your independence and your character, will depend on it. Make sure you’ve clearly identified your core values. Use them as a North Star to always guide your path. Be God-led, principled and people-centered. Be substantive in both thought and action. Deal with what is while never giving up on what can be. Lay a solid foundation on which you build with intention. Nurture it. You will attract everything that you need. (TJ Crawford, MSW, activist, author of forthcoming “Healing Communities From the Inside Out”)
Best Next Issa Rae
Luvvie Ajayi Jones
For years we’ve been saying that Luvvie Ajayi’s time is coming. The comedian, blogger (“Awesomely Luvvie”), podcaster (“Rants & Randomness”), New York Times best-selling author (“I’m Judging You,” which Shonda Rhimes’ production company Shondaland and ABC Studios purchased the rights to in 2017), brand specialist, digital strategist, activist is Chicago’s “100% TB!” With her follow-up book “Professional Troublemaker,” Luvvie’s about to be the next Black girl magic “It” girl. Excuse me, “It” woman! She grown AF. (Bob Arthur III)
Best Equity Movement Leader
Olatunji Oboi Reed, The Equiticity Racial Equity Movement
As the president and CEO of a movement built on connecting humans of Chicago through walking tours and bike rides, Olatunji Oboi Reed focuses on the importance of spending time and getting to know one another instead of board meetings and Zoom calls. “The socialization around mobility is more important than the infrastructure,” he says. Recognized by StreetWise as one of Chicago’s Twenty Most Inspiring Chicagoans of 2020, it’s clear that the impact of Reed and The Equiticity Racial Equity Movement is just beginning. (Raymond Alexander)
Best “Queen Tone” Setter
The fact that she came after top MCs and celebrities in the game for their apathy in this moment speaks to who she is, but above all else what she won’t stand for. Noname’s public response/non-response to J.Cole became a thing over the summer. It elevated the female poet/bar-spitter/book-club starter into a national spotlight that even her appearance on SNL with Chance in 2016 didn’t do. Now we can add “advocate” and “spokeswoman” and “reformist” to the extending titles that have become necessary in fully understanding who Noname is becoming as an artist and more importantly as a Black woman. (Scoop Jackson)
Best “More Than An Athlete” Moment
BLM Mural in Evanston
Although vandalized in July, high school students at Evanston Township painted a large Black Lives Matter mural in yellow on the street directly outside their school. It took thirteen hours and the city’s approval to finish the mural. Some people feel that Evanston is a progressive community, but the vandalization of the mural says otherwise. Regardless, the basketball players did a commendable thing in this country’s racial and political climate. (Kia Smith)
Best Hollywood Representative of Who “We” Are
Lena Waithe is a giant who changed the conversation while modeling possibilities for what the modern Black woman can be in Hollywood. Her work as a writer, producer and actor are indelible. In the April 2018 cover story on Waithe in Vanity Fair, she said, “Being born gay, Black and female is not a revolutionary act. Being proud to be a gay, Black female is.” She has blessed us with more incredible stories: since her work on “Master of None” and creating “The CHI,” Waithe co-produced and wrote “Queen & Slim”” (2019) and is one of the producers behind Netflix’s “40-Year Old Version” (2020). They say we’re all born with something inside that makes us uniquely ourselves and when we embrace it we are giants. This makes Lena Waithe twenty feet tall. (Jessica Patrice Gillespie)
Best Failed Attempt at Bringing Further Awareness to Kids Lives Mattering
Dreadhead Cowboy’s Ride on the Dan Ryan
If we are honest, there are better ways to make a statement when it comes to the lives of Black and brown kids and the gun violence in Chicago that has affected their lives. Adam Hollingsworth’s ill-advised seven-and-a-half mile protest ride in September up the Dan Ryan Expressway on horseback brought zero attention to his case and national attention to the fact that his horse came close to being euthanized. Lesson? You can’t put another living being’s life at stake when trying to reinforce the importance of life itself. (Scoop Jackson)
Best LGBTQ Space
Brave Space Alliance
Brave Space Alliance holds the honor of being the first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ space on Chicago’s South Side. BSA provides support groups for LGBTQIA+ Black and brown people. The growing range of services includes mutual aid, which sprang into action as shelter-in-place descended upon 2020. In addition to support for sex workers, Brave Space also has plans to start a group for gender non-conforming people. They have partnered with Chi City Foods, a Black-led, trans-led farm on Chicago’s Southeast Side to regularly provide free produce, and have provided job preparation sessions in the Chicago Public Libraries. As their activities address shifting needs in the era of COVID-19, you can check BSA’s Instagram for regular updates. (Tara Betts)
Best Anti-Violence and Anti-Poverty Activist
Known as “Englewood Barbie,” Aleta Clark is a violence-prevention activist who founded the “Hugs No Slugs” campaign to elevate nonviolence in underprivileged communities. She is also the founder of Club 51, where she and volunteers feed the homeless population, which she affectionately calls “the friends,” each evening from October through May. Recently recognized by the Dwayne Wade Foundation, Clark continues to make a difference in reducing the violence many Chicagoans face, which she documents via Instagram. (Kia Smith)
Best Fake Chicago Cop We So Wish Wasn’t Fake
LaRoyce Hawkins (Chicago P.D.)
Week after week, season after season, the Harvey-born and Thornton-grad actor holds down the minority “Black spot” for all the fictitious Black police officers on NBC’s scripted take on CPD. But this season the inner struggle of right versus wrong, Black versus blue of Officer Kevin Atwater got real. A choice had to be made and the season finale turned into a reenactment of something many Black Chicago police officers probably have to go through. So close to home that I had a real African-American cop tell me of Atwater’s situation, “I feel his pain.” (Raymond Alexander)
Best Black Chicago Equivalent Of CNN on the Internet
Justice is a big word that we are using more than ever as a human collective. But where do we find Justice? Start with an issue that gets you fired up. When you talk about it, your voice gets loud. AwokeNet.com is a resource hub featuring local and national social justice organizations that are doing the work. Roll up your sleeves. Go get Justice. Part of the awakening that’s happening is that we’re realizing that Justice isn’t given to us. If we are the creators of Justice, then it can’t be taken away. (Jessica Patrice Gillespie)
Best Amplifier of our Pain
Kristiana Rae Colón and her “Let Us Breathe” Collective
Poet, playwright and educator Kristiana Rae Colón’s art has always had political undertones. The murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown thrust her into using her art in activism. She co-founded the #LetUsBreathe Collective in 2014 in response to the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after Brown’s death. The campaign started in reverence to Eric Garner’s last words and was a way to amplify the stories of the oppressed through reimagining a world without police and prisons through community uprising and investing in institutions that promote wellness. (Chris Cason)
Best Organizing Effort by a Faculty that Had Had Enough
A Letter from the Black Faculty at SAIC
Institutions around the world are reckoning with the racial inequities in their past and present. In our city, School of the Art Institute of Chicago leadership has been the target of campaigns from school stakeholders, seeking concrete changes to dismantle systemic racism. Black faculty members penned a cohesive, beautifully written letter in July outlining their demands, partly in an attempt to repair the harm done by Provost Martin Berger using the n-word in a 2018 campus talk. “Art institutions commit racialized violence,” the faculty write. They are asking for no less than a full commitment “to an anti-racist, abolitionist and decolonial ethics of care.” (Kerry Cardoza)
Best Radio Breakthrough
It has taken entirely too long for Jonathan Hood to get an opportunity like this. For the past twenty-five years, he’s been one of the most talented people in Chicago radio. For the bulk of the past decade, Hood has been plying his trade, mostly at the national level. Hood, like a couple of his ESPN comrades, Jeff Dickerson and Sarah Spain, always seemed to get more love from the national-level decision-makers at ESPN than the ones in their own hometown. It’s never made sense. Hood was more than ready for the grind of leading a daily, Chicago-themed sports show…Ten years ago! Now he has a chance, co-hosting the Kap & J.Hood Morning Show with morning radio vet David Kaplan, to make a real impact on the way that local sports radio sounds. This is a victory for everyone who struggles at the nexus of hard work, talent and getting a break. Hood works on his craft like an undrafted player, but has the on-air creativity of a Top 10 pick. Now he gets to put his many notebook ideas to work. Chicago sports fans will be better for it. (Laurence W. Holmes, sports radio host, Laurence Holmes Show 670 The Score)
Best New News Host
She has the “news” voice. You know, the one that makes you pay attention to your TV when it’s on and you kinda aren’t watching. But it’s reporting skills that launched Brandis Friedman from the co-host desk on “Chicago Tonight” to solo hosting WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight: Black Voices,” putting Friedman on track to share a seat at the same legendary table as the Cheryl Burtons, Diane Burnses and Robin Robinsons of Chicago’s news world. (Bob Arthur III)
Best Next “Pop” Star
Ten years ago, Chicago rap was synonymous with Kanye West, but a young kid from the North is potentially changing that. Last year, Polo G interrupted the status quo with his breakout single “Pop Out,” an infectious anthem anchored in melodic piano keys that reflected his humble origins, that same vulnerability and emotional storytelling that he displayed when his first mainstream record became the foundation of his debut album “Die A Legend.” The album peaked at Number 6 on the Billboard 200, catapulting Polo G from a household name to a rising national star. Less than a year later, he returned with “The GOAT,” a riveting follow-up that peaked at Number 2 on the Billboard 200. His lyrics, drenched in the pain of his past, often highlight the city’s darker side, but he sprinkles in inklings of hope as he makes strides toward his future. Though Polo G isn’t the “greatest of all time” just yet, all signs point to him being on the right track, taking Chicago with him all the way to the top. (Jessica McKinney, pop culture journalist, Vibe, Complex)
Best Community Medic Training
A nurse by profession, Martine Caverl and friend Amika Tendaji co-founded UMedics (also known by Ujimaa, its Swahili name for “collective work”) to help save lives, particularly in Black neighborhoods. In Chicago, where the entire city is racially profiled as under siege by constant gunfire, Caverl and Tendaji and other medical professionals began offering training in 2011 to offer free and sliding-scale emergency medical care training to everyday people. What do you do when someone is shot and you’re waiting for the ambulance? How do you help someone undergoing an asthma attack? How do you calm people in the immediate area? These are some of the key questions that UMedics addresses and offers proactive strategies to show how Black Chicagoans care deeply about preserving Black life. (Tara Betts)
Best Truth Teller
In her “How To Love A City That Doesn’t Love You Back” essay that appeared this year in Chicago magazine, Mikki Kendall said to the city in a single sentence everything that needed to be said when she wrote: “You cannot present people with a slate of bad choices and feign shock when they don’t make good ones.” Facts. But if you know Kendall and her work, you know she came off softer than she usually does when writing her truths. The “Hood Feminism” author is the singular Black voice this city needs to hear. Even before the mayor’s. (Bob Arthur III)
Best Community Expander
While we may be living in times of social distancing, the truth is as dangerous as the polarization, division and injustice that is an accepted norm. That’s why people like Jamal Cole, founder of “My Block, My Hood, My City” are more important than ever. Jamal has dedicated himself to taking young folks from the abandoned and disenfranchised South Side of Chicago and exposed them to people, places and experiences that would not have happened without him. Jamal has opened their eyes to a world that shut them out. He has expanded their vision to see themselves beyond the limits of their neighborhoods and brushed the dust off their dreams so that they will see the possibility and potential within themselves. Beyond opening the doors of possibility to young people, Jamal also has the ability and gift to bring individuals from around the city and suburbs to the South Side, something that may never have happened without the invitation and prodding of Jamal and his organization. In a day when injustice rules and the division of age and race may have regressed to the 1950s, “My Block, My Hood, My City” and its founder Jamal Cole are signs of hope that remind us all that we can and we must do better. (Rev. Michael L. Pfleger, activist, pastor, St. Sabina)
Best Family Member to Get Us Through the Pandemic
“Auntie Lori” Lightfoot
She is that family member who will deal with us when our mama and daddy have had it with us.
She is not here to sugarcoat or make us feel any better about how much of a mess we’re in.
She does not hear excuses about why we can’t get it together, either.
She is tough love, all business and ain’t playing with us.
Yet, she does it because she knows our potential.
She will stand by us for as long as it takes and muscle through the tough stuff together.
She isn’t perfect and she doesn’t expect us to be, either.
She will give us a joke and a smile after telling us to do better.
She sees greatness in us.
(Jessica Patrice Gillespie)
Best Bear Bite
Matt Forte and Brian Urlacher were Bears teammates for five years: one a defensive leader, the other a leader on offense. When Hall of Fame linebacker Urlacher, who is white, made a tone-deaf, borderline-racist Instagram comment about the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin as well as subsequent NBA protests, it was former running back Forte, who is Black, who quickly called out his old pal. Urlacher had posted stuff “void of empathy, compassion, wisdom and coherence,’’ wrote Forte. “But full of pride and ignorance!’’ Do people learn when the flaws in their philosophy are exposed, when genuine-historic heartbreak is revealed to them? Maybe, maybe not. But Forte took a stand. It’s now up to Urlacher to ponder his own stance. To grow. To mature. Great teammates help great teammates become men. They help them become dignified. Credit Matt Forte for trying. (Rick Telander, author, “The College Football Problem;” columnist, Chicago Sun-Times)
Best Twitter Troll Match between a Chicagoan and Hollywood Celeb
Bryan Crawford v. Kirstie Alley
There’s white privilege then there’s white Hollywood privilege. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released new rules of inclusion for films to make the cut for consideration to be nominated for Best Picture, the actress globally remembered as Sam Malone’s sloppy second, stated that “the new RULES to qualify for ‘best picture’ are dictatorial anti-artist… Hollywood you are swinging so far left you are bumping into your own ass.” Which led Chicago cultural writer Bryan Crawford to respond in a way that challenged her WHOLE ethos. They ended up being friends (as close as two total strangers can get on social media) in the end. But it took a writer from Chi to be Morpheus in Hollywood’s matrix. (Scoop Jackson)
Best “Worth A Thousand Words” Storyteller
David McDuffie Photography
Black. Liberation. Power. Look closely at David McDuffie’s photos and try not to feel that. While there are no vibrant colors, the blacks and grays keep your attention on the moment and time. The South Side native pulls inspiration from hip-hop, anthropology and his travels to share reflections of people, spaces and moments. Ask him about any particular photo and bask in the history of the subject and the moments that led to the eventual snap. (Chris Cason)
Best Radio Producer and Trans Activist
Born and raised on the South Side, Sherm found her passion for radio and media in high school. She says she became an activist by advocating for herself and others, powered by her coming out as transgender at the age of thirty. Professionally and personally, her life shifted and she had to unlearn her own isms and fight harder than ever to keep her head above water. She also noticed many other Black and brown trans, queer and disabled people fighting for themselves. “I use my voice online and in media while others run community orgs and organize protests,” she says. “If your Black Lives Matter doesn’t include transgender, queer or disabled people, than Black lives don’t matter to you.” (Kia Smith)
Best Election Accessory
Moving In Silence “BVM” cap
Twenty-eight-year old Charles A. Cramer explained the urgency of the three words (“Black Votes Matter”) on his start-up company’s baseball caps (via text): “I’m tryna touch my ppl and help make change by changing minds. We gotta stop with all this backwards ass thinking that our votes don’t count. We gotta stop not voting in our own communities, period. Think of even the slightest positive change that we could be seeing right now if more of us took initiative to put the ppl that WE want in power running our communities. We can’t just protest and riot… we have to vote in ALL elections not just the one that’s once every 4 years. Then after that we gotta hold these mfn politicians ACCOUNTABLE.” (Scoop Jackson)
Best Support for Newborn Babies
As Black women face dramatic infant mortality rates, groups like Chicago Birthworks offer doula services, which are one of the presences that can reduce the risks for babies and their mothers. Toni Taylor and Tayo Mbande founded Chicago Birthworks as a mother-daughter team with a larger team of doulas to support mothers preparing for birth and going through the birth process. Chicago Birthworks offers services such as lactation support, prenatal and postpartum care as well as placenta encapsulation. (Tara Betts)
Ashely O’Shay’s deep-dive documentary into the shadiness and messiness of Chicago politics as it deals with the police department is a story Black people in Chicago have lived through and are a part of but still haven’t confronted in a way her film presents. At the center: the murder of Rekia Boyd. On the outskirts: Chicago’s Black Lives movement and the ascension of Lori Lightfoot to the fifth floor of City Hall. The storytellers, Bella and Janaé, will stick with you long after the movie is over. (Bob Arthur III)