Mighty Mighty Mattie

Mattie Butler

My cousin, Mattie Butler, passed a couple of weeks ago. She was small in stature and physical features but huge in courage and compassion. She was a saving grace and a rescuer. Everyone in the family and otherwise had a code to use when they needed serious help: “Call Mattie.” 

We’re all elated that she was recognized for one of her greatest accomplishments before she passed:

Woodlawn was once neglected, disinvested, and considered a dangerous south side Chicago area beset by violence, and filled with at-risk, in need of repair properties. But a determined, fierce neighborhood advocate, Mattie Butler, stood tall, confronted, challenged, and changed the prevailing deceptive narrative with her community building and investment efforts. Throughout her life, the indomitable warrior fought for social equality and housing affordability for marginalized residents.…

Many of us grew up and often heard our elders declare, “Give me my flowers and accolades while I can enjoy and remember them.”

Recently, Mattie Butler was the surprised and elated beneficiary of such an effort because whatever she’s done for others, it’s always done exactly right. Butler was recognized for vital contributions to the same Woodlawn community, during her more than 45-year residency. Two newly renovated affordable rental apartment buildings were named in her honor.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot joined 1st District Congressman Bobby Rush, Chicago Housing Department Commissioner Marisa Novara, other public officials, religious and community leaders and scores of local residents on May 26, 2022, highlighting affordable housing opportunities for Woodlawn residents during a news conference celebrating the meritorious work of advocate Mattie Butler.

“Thanks to Ms. Butler’s strong leadership, we generated a workable Policy Roadmap which reflects our shared vision for Woodlawn’s future. Preservation of housing affordability was key. Further, the inclusive, open process incorporated input and feedback from diverse local community stakeholders, residents, governmental agencies, non-profit, civic, religious, and private sector partners. She commands my utmost appreciation and respect,” said Mayor Lightfoot….

Congressman Bobby Rush who has partnered on grassroots initiatives with Butler and WECAN for years, laughingly recalled, “Over the years, as an activist, former Black Panther, Chicago Alderman, and U.S. Congressperson, I’ve confronted formidable high-profile and little-known opponents. However, I admire and refuse to tangle with Mattie Butler. She has a deceptively warm and sweet demeanor – at first. She’s always armed with irrefutable facts, figures, and contingents of devoted supporters, remaining staunchly unafraid. Mattie’s a strong social advocate, a modern-day Harriet Tubman. I will always respect that.”…

Reverend Dr. Byron T. Brazier, pastor of Woodlawn’s Apostolic Church of God praised Butler’s tenacious, dynamic spirit. “She’s been WECAN’s driving force, developing housing for neighbors, the homeless, organizing drug rehabilitation programs, delinquency prevention, numerous education, and support services programs, launching a food pantry serving hundreds of people. Butler also greatly influences developing sustainable local, statewide, and national public policy initiatives.”…

Acclaimed Black author James Baldwin once expressed: “Your crown is already bought and paid for…All you must do is put it on your head.”

Mattie Butler’s crown of successful achievement rests comfortably and regally on her deserving head. Equally important, she’s alive to receive it. Grateful Woodlawn locals believe it will forever stay there. She’s always stood for them. A few days ago, they returned the favor, standing united to praise and illuminate her altruistic, benevolence. What a profound living legacy.

Read full article, “Chicago’s iconic affordable housing advocate Mattie Butler honored,” on The Chicago Crusader Newspaper site

Let Go

A few years ago, I moved into a smaller space, and I had to make judgments about what of my accumulations from over the years to keep and what to let go. Recently, I looked for a favorite fall jacket and when I couldn’t find it, I realized that it didn’t make the cut when I decided what to let go.

During the process of downsizing, I was faced with decisions about clothes, furnishings, and tchotchkes. I also had a huge store of files with articles and papers that I had accumulated over a 50-year career. Two large storage cabinets and five upright file cabinets were full of what I thought were important pieces of information that I might want to reference at some time in the future. At the time that I stored these items, I thought that they were too important to let go.

The files were alphabetized, from the first file cabinet on the left to the fifth cabinet on the far right. When I would pull out the top drawer of the first file cabinet, the first quarter of the drawer held folders that were all labelled affirmative action. The folders held articles that I had written about affirmative action starting in graduate school, as well as many articles written by others that I collected over the years.

Recently, when I heard news about arguments on affirmative action at the Supreme Court, I was prompted to go to my new downsized file cabinets to review some of the papers and articles on affirmative action.

I was stunned to find that I had let go of every single folder labelled affirmative action! In fact, it was a surprise to me that in the top drawer of my new alphabetized first file cabinet there were no folders containing topics beginning with A, B, or C. With the first folders now beginning with the letter “D,” I found “diversity” folders in the place “affirmative action” folders had once been.

This single word—diversity—and its many connotations has been the single thread and lifeline to maintain the spirit of affirmative action, particularly, in selective colleges and universities. In making the argument for the value of diversity for all students, colleges and universities had to let go of race as a prominent qualification in admissions considerations.

With the anticipated decision of the Supreme Court on affirmative action, I want to believe that there is no entity more capable of finding a way to keep the original intent of affirmative action/diversity alive than higher education. To let go of diversity—not only as a compelling interest for all students, but also as a way to ensure that Black students, faculty, and staff are well-represented participants throughout higher education—has huge current and future ramifications for the whole of U.S. society.

Notwithstanding the probable decision of the Supreme Court, let’s hope that colleges and universities will not let go of the spirit of affirmative action/diversity with the construct of race at its center.

Dan

To know him is to love him.

He’s innately good and he was born that way.

He’s kind and thoughtful. Like the time his kindergarten teacher wrote, “He has a good attitude toward others; wants to please and do the right thing and is bothered if others do not.”

He’s compassionate. Like the time when he took blankets off his own bed and gave them to people in the neighborhood who had been negatively impacted by a snowstorm.

He’s generous. Like the time when, at seven years old, he took money from his bank, went to a neighbor’s garage sale, and bought his mother a letter opener and a cookbook.

He’s patient. Like when he slowly, without apparent annoyance, repeats what he has already explained. His kindergarten teacher described this as “good self-control.”

He’s positive. When people around him find fault with something or someone, he finds something to say that expands the perspective so others can see the person or situation in another light. 

He’s disciplined. He decides on a goal and, without falter, takes the steps to achieve it. His kindergarten teacher wrote, “He is very conscientious about his work—tries hard to do well, and completes what is expected, and enjoys doing it! He’s very well-disciplined—but also enjoys just being a boy sometimes.”

He’s optimistic. Like when his best efforts in pursuing a goal appear to fail, he perseveres, looking for the rainbow.

He’s responsible. Like when he got his first job at age 12 and has not been without a job from that point on.

He’s confident. Like how he never seems to doubt his abilities. His kindergarten teacher wrote, “He seems pleased and happy about himself, school, and others.”

He’s courageous. Like the times when he has been selected as the spokesperson for a group and takes the role regardless of the possible consequences. 

He’s fair. Like the times when during a discussion he often asks, “Is that fair?”

He’s funny. Like the many times he makes those around him laugh out loud even when the situation is what might be described as “dark” and “not funny.”

He’s curious. Like when he finds just about everything interesting and, judging from his behavior, in need of further study and work.

He’s self-possessed. Like when he seems to be walking too leisurely and never wears a watch, yet always gets to where he intends and on time.

I like being in his presence because there is a lightness of being around him.

I like seeing him live his life unstintingly, stretching it out to experience and enjoy every inch of it.

He is the light of my world. The joy of my life.

He is our son, Danton.

Intent vs. Impact: Educational Access and Opportunity

Guest post by Shannon Ellis

I need your help.

Gwen has offered me this platform to speak up in defense of a post-high school education, especially for Black students. Right now, increasing numbers of students of all colors (and their parents) are being sold on the idea that education just isn’t worth the time and money.

They would be wrong.

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by Oyin Adedoyingave us all the dismal report. “Black enrollment grew from 282,000 in 1966 to more than 2.5 million in 2010 but from 2010 to 2020, as overall enrollments fell, the number of Black students fell even more sharply, to 1.9 million.” 

Adedoyin cites a number of very valid reasons for this decline including the rising cost of college, skepticism about the value of a degree, economic hardship in many Black communities, and Black students not feeling welcome on campuses. I wish this were not true but on any given day at predominantly white institutions (PWI) this is the experience of many of our Black students.

Many of us who are White work to understand the experience of isolation and even hate that a Black student may experience at PWIs. I work with colleagues in the field of student services who face the truths of such experiences and embrace the mission to create a more welcoming and supportive climate for Black students and others who have been historically marginalized, excluded, and discriminated against. I am not alone. Staff and faculty of all colors with vast life experiences stand ready to work with Black scholars to make the leap into a PWI classroom, Western curriculum, loan debt, and a predominantly White surrounding community.

It is no wonder that historically Black colleges and universities are seeing record numbers of applicants in the midst of decline everywhere else. Yet we know that this is not an option for many Black students who want or need encouragement to pursue a post-high school skill and degree. PWIs struggle, have successes, hire more Black faculty and staff, engage in successful and unsuccessful recruitment and retention efforts, and continue to move forward even with setbacks. PWIs strive to be better places for Black students who want to pursue a vocational, community college, or university degree.

As institutions find effective ways to market themselves to Black communities, we need to acknowledge the realities many Black students experience. We need to assure Black students and their families that we mean it when we say we will put the time and money into change. Many of us commit to be leaders and allies, but no one more than Black students stands to suffer lifelong setbacks if we do not succeed. Put in a more positive way, compared with other historically excluded groups of people, Black students stand to gain more from American higher education in economic gains, generational wealth, career advancement, and health. Maybe even more than White students.

While attending a college or university is not essential for all, providing the opportunity for everyone to realize their potential is. Do you have a relative, coworker, neighbor that someone talked out of pursuing a post-high school vocational program or community college path or four-year degree? Maybe you know someone who expressed an interest in pursuing an educational program after high school but also expressed a lack of confidence. Well-meaning people often believe they are doing the right thing by affirming that self-doubt instead of working through the many ways to address each worry (money?) and set back (tutoring?). In my experience, it is often a loving and well-meaning friend or relative who affirms the fear, uncertainty, and lack of confidence that often surfaces when someone talks about “going to college.” If we think we are saving someone from debt or racism or frustration or even physical and mental harm, let’s stop.  We are not.

College graduates earn a million more dollars over a lifetime than those without a degree. Taking on loan debt is only a mistake if you allow yourself to drop out with no degree and increased earning power with which to repay the debt. View it as an investment and exhaust every scholarship application easily found online and in the brains of professionals in an institution’s financial aid office. Sticking with a full-time course schedule designed to get a scholar out in two or four years saves money in the long run (tuition goes up every single year) and gets a student out into the workforce with a salary and benefits.   Remember, we are playing the long game here – one for a lifetime.

Who do you know who could use that nudge, affirmation, and encouragement to sign up for a class? Did you support someone’s decision to abandon such a step in their life? Would now be a good time to go back and offer guidance and support? Maybe it’s you who told yourself that higher education wasn’t for you. Can I give you that gentle push to take classes, apply for financial aid, and connect with someone in the campus multicultural center?

Let’s be unrelenting in our campaign to create access and opportunity for Black students in the world of higher education. Regardless of a student’s academic record, there is an available community college, vocational program, or four-year school. The payoffs occur over decades of career advancement and earnings that are also associated with better health and longer lives.  At any age, Black students should create a lifetime of opportunities through education, so no door is closed.


Shannon Ellis is Vice President for Student Services at the University of Nevada, Reno. Ellis has served as president of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and has published numerous articles and chapters in professional journals and books. Her ongoing research focuses on organizational transformation and the role of student services in tomorrow’s college and university.

Warriors

A lot of deserved attention is being given to Viola Davis, who stars in and produced The Woman King. Before I get into more about Viola, I want to draw attention to the director of The Woman King and other more-than-noteworthy films. Her record is one of excellence in creating films that have strong moral and positive messages.

Historically, women have not been in the director’s chair. For a Black woman to be in the director’s chair the number of times Gina Maria Prince-Blythewood has is truly an amazing accomplishment. Thank you, Director Prince—Blythewood, for your contributions to the film industry and to our culture.

Although the focus of The Woman King is Black women warriors, another warrior who ran up against a ceiling created for Black folks is John Boyega. Being a man, notwithstanding, John Boyega has felt the oppression of being Black in a world acculturated to seeing only White people as heroes in films. This was the reality that fueled what some saw as a backlash against having a Black man as one of the heroes in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Thank you, John Boyega, for sharing your talents as King Ghezo in this epic film that focuses on Black women warriors.

As Viola Davis and the other stars of The Woman King make appearances throughout the media universe, Viola shares strong messages that refute the endemic negative messages that Black girls and women have historically received not only from folks who were not Black but also from Black people who put down women because of their particular shade of blackness.

Here are snippets of messages that Viola sent that resonated with me:

Clear up space for yourself.

Do not disappoint yourself; disappoint others instead.

Don’t say “Yes” so people will love you. They don’t love you.

… weighed down with a cultural history that tells you that you are nothing.

Life is a relay race and you run every leg of it yourself.

I have a new term—“I’m worth it!”

If you have not seen interviews with the stars of The Woman King, I recommend that you take a look at some of them to hear about the six-year experience of getting the film from concept to reality.

Director Gina Prince-Blythewood, in response to an interviewer’s question, responded that she hoped that women would see themselves reflected in the film. She also hoped that when they leave the theater after seeing the film, women feel enlightened, inspired, and empowered.

A constant refrain that remains with me after seeing The Woman King and hearing comments of those who made the film possible is “spirit of the warrior within.”

Thank you, Viola Davis

Viola Davis is the only African American to receive what is called the “Triple Crown of Acting”—Academy Award, Emmy Award, and Tony Award. She has been in close to 30 films and has numerous television credits.

I’m no professional critic and won’t attempt to critique her films. I just want to say: Thank you, Viola Davis, for being real Black for me, for portraying Black women in all our pain and glory.