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IU Northwest partners with Gary youth in hopes of inspiring community activism

Teens learn about Gary's potential, thanks, in part, to IU Northwest professor's book

Experts say Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood is on its way up. The South Side community, once booming, then fallen and deteriorating, is now experiencing an economic revival.

Those deeply invested in the community development of Northwest Indiana, like Indiana University Northwest's Earl Jones, associate professor of minority studies, are confident that same revitalization can be realized in Gary through the region's collective vision, energy and resources. One local group already highly connected and invested in the revitalization efforts of Gary is the nonprofit organization Central District Organizing Project (CDOP), which Jones collaborated with recently on its summer youth program.

Earl Jones

IU Northwest professor Earl Jones stands outside Michael Jackson's boyhood home, one of the stops on a tour of Gary's historical and cultural landmarks.

Jones donated copies of his book Historic Midtown: Revitalization Tour Guide to the 10 teens from the Gary's Roosevelt Career and Technical Academy who took part in this summer's CDOP program. The high school students were hired as interns for eight weeks in the program, which used arts, history and technology to raise students' political consciousness. The initiative was made possible by a grant from the Legacy Foundation and the Fire This Time Fund.

Jones is well known for his research and work on the revitalization of Gary through his Gary Midtown Project. He believes that reclaiming and preserving the city's cultural heritage, and using that as a basis for economic rebirth, is key to Gary's future.

As one of their assignments, the students served as tour guides on a recent bus tour through Gary, one which Jones mapped out some years ago as a way of giving historical context to significant landmarks in the city's past.

Cochran, Kyle

Kyle Cochran, 18, offers a bit of history about Gary at various stops on the tour.

The tour took participants to places such as North Gleason Park, St. John's Hospital, Froebel and Roosevelt High Schools, and the Steel Mill Quarter. The bus rolled by Vee-Jay Records at 17th and Broadway, which Jones and supporters are currently working to save from demolition. These are places that held great significance for African-American life, Jones said.

"What's unique about this," Jones said, "is the introduction of the history of Gary to students in this hands-on kind of way and looking particularly at the significance of this community and its accomplishments," which have been underappreciated in recent years.

Jones says that grass-roots efforts like the CDOP's summer youth program are where success stories like Bronzeville start. The hope is that the appreciation and vision instilled in the teens will grow and spread, inspiring others to get involved with revitalization efforts.

"By students having a better understanding of history and the contributions of the people of Gary," Jones said, "it gives them a bit of vision of what they themselves might accomplish."

Jones has a term for this. He calls it capacity building. "Capacity building," Jones explained, "means increasing the knowledge and information that people have in order to do different kinds of things."

Former IU Northwest student Davina Stewart is an example of this. While earning her post-baccalaureate certificate in Community Development and Urban Studies, the Gary resident became interested in Jones's Historic Midtown Project, an initiative to revive the Broadway corridor that connects Gary's downtown and midtown districts.

Stewart soon got involved with the CDOP and thought it would be beneficial to use Jones's tour as a teaching tool for youth. Stewart served as the liaison between Jones and IU Northwest and the CDOP.

"Yes, this was a historical place, but now, what are we going to do for our children and our generation?" Stewart said. "We wanted to make sure that you get the history of what Midtown was like but also get an idea of what youth can bring and what we can see in the future."