By Erick Johnson
They have Oscars®, Grammys®, Emmys®, NBA titles, but most of all, cash–lots of it. At the pinnacle of their careers in entertainment, sports, politics and media, they have achieved fame, fortune and success while becoming a symbol of pride in Black Chicago.
Before dominating the Billboard® charts, Nielsen® ratings and sports competitions, many of America’s most successful Black celebrities and public figures sat in classrooms in high schools across Chicago and its suburbs. Many benefitted from programs as they closed out their teenage years in Chicago Public Schools.
Although it wasn’t perfect, times were better then for students enrolled in the nation’s third largest school system.
Kanye, Jennifer, Michelle, Dwyane. Young with big dreams, America’s most gifted Blacks needed an education. Now with budget woes and a crippling operating deficit, all eyes are on Chicago’s famous Black stars as their alma maters are struggling under the CPS system.
After years of mismanagement and wasteful spending, a $215 million deficit may force CPS to close the school year early. It sits in the middle of a nasty political feud between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Bruce Rauner.
It took a 23-year-old now famous graduate of Jones College Prep High School to force a billionaire governor to shift his attention to the serious financial problems facing District 299.
On March 6, Grammy-winning artist Chancelor Johnathan Bennett, known as Chance the Rapper, announced a $1 million donation to CPS—three days after a meeting with the governor that left the artist disappointed.
Chicago and the nation wait to see if other successful Blacks from the Windy City will dig deep into their pockets, too.
For decades, philanthropy has been a struggle in the Black community where the lack of opportunities have left many people of color with little to give. After the successful opening of the $540 million National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., many witnessed, perhaps for the first time, the power and influence of Black wealth towards a project that was long overdue.
Chance’s stunning announcement also made national headlines as he held a press conference at the Oliver S. Wescott Elementary School in Chatham where he said the money will help support art and enrichment programs in CPS.
The $1 million donation will be given to 10 public elementary and high schools through ticket sales from his upcoming tour. During his press conference, Chance presented the first $10,000 check to the school. He then issued a “call to action” to local and national corporations and individuals to also invest in the district.
“As you guys know, Friday I met with Governor Bruce Rauner to urge him to do his job and honor his original commitment to provide $250 million to CPS, so our kids can finish the year strong,” Chance said. “The governor gave me a lot of vague answers in our meeting and has since called me over the weekend. Our talks were unsuccessful. Governor Rauner still won’t commit to giving Chicago’s kids a chance without caveats or ultimatums.”
A few hours after the announcement, Rauner circulated a memo proposing two plans that might help secure $25 million in funding for the city’s schools. Eleni Demertzis, a spokeswoman for the governor, issued a statement saying philanthropy would not solve the school’s funding crisis.
“While the Rauners are passionate donors to our schools, individual contributions will never be enough to address the financial challenges facing CPS,” Demertzis said. “It would be helpful if CPS officials came to Springfield and joined in serious, good-faith discussions about the long-term stability of all of our schools.”
Some on Twitter agree with Rauner, saying Chance’s donation is small compared to the amount that’s needed to address CPS’s fundamental problems.
For Chance’s supporters, money talks. To them, poor children who are at a disadvantage in an underfunded school system should be enough to move anyone to give something. Supporters applaud Chance’s generosity at a time when few of the city’s prominent and wealthy Black natives have given little to the high schools that helped shape their lives and careers. Now, the larger question is whether Chance’s donation will inspire other famous Black Chicago area high school graduates to follow suit.
There are plenty of them. Oscar® and Grammy®-winning actress Jennifer Hudson went to Dunbar High School in Bronzeville. So did actor Lawrence Tureaud, known as “Mr. T.” Former first lady Michelle Obama graduated from Whitney M. Young Magnet High School. Singer R. Kelly finished from Kenwood Academy while NBA star Derrick Rose graduated from Simeon Vocational High School. ABC 7 anchor Cheryl Burton graduated from Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood.
Among high school graduates in Chicago’s outlying suburbs is a Who’s Who in Black America. Mega star Kanye West graduated from Polaris High School in Oak Lawn. In the same suburb lies Harold L. Richards High School, the alma mater of Chicago Bulls’ star Dwyane Wade. High-powered executive producer, Shonda Rhimes, picked up her diploma from Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights. Comedian Sherri Shephard attended Hoffman Estates High School in the northwest suburbs.
Many of them have made millions during their careers and some have returned to Chicago to give back to the community.
When he played for the Bulls in 2014, Derrick Rose donated $1 million to After School Matters, a Chicago-based, non-profit organization devoted to providing innovative out- of-school programs for teenagers. The funds were used to drive the growth of unique programming experiences for teenagers throughout the city in the arts, communications, science, sports and technology.
Over the years, many of these individuals have donated their time and energy to community charities. Last week, the actor and rapper Common participated in a panel discussion on bridging relationships between teens and police, building trust and not relying on stereotypes. Last year, Wade joined a panel discussion about crime at the South Side YMCA in Woodlawn.
Chance’s donation is perhaps the most high-profile statement that has not only upstaged the state’s high-ranking elected official, but it also has the potential to affect far more Black and minority students if more influential celebrities follow suit. So far, that remains to be seen.
Winning three Grammy® awards at this year’s ceremonies, Chance has earned praise from Common, Snoop Dog and DJ Drama. Earning respect for his social activism and contributions to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and former President Barack Obama, Chance is becoming a role model for many to follow.
In the meantime, Westcott’s principal, Monique Dockery, is basking in the glow of Chance’s generosity.
“It just opened up a whole new world for Wescott and its students,” she said of the donation in news reports. “We focus a lot on reading and math and the core subjects, and yet, we have very talented students who can go beyond that.”