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Advocate reflects on formative years

Henry Gens | Sunday, December 8, 2013

A special guest speaker headed the third and final pre-immersion class of Notre Dame’s Urban Plunge program over winter break on Sunday. Malik Nevels, executive director for the Illinois African American Coalition for Prevention (ILAACP), talked Sunday night about dignity and justice for urban America, sharing his life experiences and current work.

Nevels began his talk by discussing what dignity and social justice means to him, and how he’s been exposed to these ideas over the course of his life and in his career.

“When we think about or talk about or begin to explore the concept of dignity and social justice I think what we’re really speaking about or thinking about is the quest, the search, for dignity and social justice, whether it be in the context of politics, race, gender or class,” Nevels said. “We are talking about a particular group’s activities to persuade their audience to value who they are or what they say as well as acknowledge certain unalienable rights to which they should have title.”

This concept of dignity and social justice shaped the lens through which he views his experiences, Nevel said.

“I thought about two questions in particular,” Nevels said. “One was how has this quest or search for dignity and social justice shaped or framed my personal narrative, and vice versa – how has my personal narrative shaped my quest for dignity and social justice?”

Nevels then shared at length about four crucial life experiences that strongly influenced the work that he does now at the ILAACP, beginning with his mother’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

“Throughout my life, and I remember early on, my mother passing on concern for those that were from disadvantaged communities, so every month we would volunteer in some type of capacity,” Nevels said.

Next, Nevels highlighted the guiding principles of Catholic social teaching that his education in Chicago Catholic schools exposed him to during his childhood.

“It would be a disservice for me to ignore that Catholic social teaching to a great degree shaped how I view the work I do in dignity and social justice,” Nevels said. “There are three key things in Catholic social teaching that stood out to me: The first was the call to family, community and participation. In that sense, people have a right and a duty to participate in society. The second thing that resonated with me was rights and responsibility, that human dignity can be protected and a healthy community can only be achieved if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met. And last, but not least, is the option for the poor and vulnerable. Basically for a society, to a degree, how well it has done is based on how well it treats its poor and vulnerable.

The third experience that Nevels talked about was a period of urban gentrification in the Lincoln Park neighborhood he lived in during the late 1970s, and how it altered and erased the demographics of the community seemingly overnight.

Lastly, Nevels discussed his involvement as a Public Ally in Chicago in the mid-1990s, when Michelle Obama led the program. Nevels headed a funding program for the schools in the city, and was shocked by conditions he witnessed there.

“Even though this was in ’95, some of these conditions exist today and are even worse,” Nevels said. “You’ve got kids who are learning in hallways, taking class in the summer with no air conditioning, they’re learning from textbooks that are outdated and, in some instances, they’re being taught by people who have no business teaching them. Seeing this, what I thought was an injustice, led me to the work that I do today.”

The work Nevels does as the executive director at the ILAACP takes into account all of these formative experiences. The organization focuses on preventative measures against the negative outcomes associated with social and economic disparities, rather than acting as a reactionary agency, Nevels said.

“What if we started making the greater investments on the front-end of life? What if we started upstream?” Nevels said.

The ILAACP has efforts across a wide range of fronts, from raising public awareness about disparity to partnering with community-based programs to raise money and evaluate efficacy, Nevels said.

“We help those that help others do it better,” he said.

The ILAACP also does a lot of data mining to make important facts about funding available to those in need, Nevels said.

“One of the things that takes place in Chicago because it’s so political is that Chicago will get a large Federal grant to, let’s say, improve the public education in Chicago, but you don’t know who got the grant,” Nevels said. “And they keep it a secret. So one of the things we’ve been able to do is get access to the information and share that with local community-based organizations.”


Contact Henry Gens at hgens@nd.edu.