Physically, Leo High School was not harmed by the wave of looting and rioting that struck pockets of Chicago in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of policemen in Minneapolis on May 25. Our sturdy old building at 79th and Sangamon is intact, unscathed … defiant, as if to say, “Nobody messes with us.”
But why would they—we’re good neighbors.
Emotionally, psychologically … Leo was damaged to its soul. Several stores were pillaged in the surrounding Auburn-Gresham community, casting a negative light on the neighborhood we have called home throughout our 94-year history.
Worse, the oft-repeated television image of young African-American males dashing out of vandalized stores with arms full of stolen loot only fueled a perception too many unaware people already hold: that all young African-American males are criminals or aspiring criminals.
“What can we do?” As the violence played out, that was the dominant theme of our discussions … discussions that involved our students.
We decided we can replace rhetoric with action, and so we did.
On Thursday, June 4, some 50 Leo students and an equal number of parents, alumni and friends of our school gathered bright and early on a warm, muggy morning. Their goal: to transform the hurtful narrative about young African-American males into a more positive, constructive one, reflective of the young men we’re proud to work with at Leo.
And bring Auburn-Gresham back to life.
The day began with a march to St. Sabina, at 77th and Racine, where our students took part in a “Stop Killing Us” rally Fr. Mike Pfleger organized to call attention to George Floyd’s death and the escalating issue of police violence against unarmed black men.
Back at Leo, it continued with a neighborhood clean-up project; teams of six fanned out along 79th Street, a half-mile from Racine to Halsted. They raked, they swept, they pulled weeds, they disposed of trash and litter. They observed social distancing. They used equipment donated by our friends at Notre Dame, DePaul Prep and Nazareth high schools. They worked hard all morning to help a wounded neighborhood recover.
By 1 p.m., that neighborhood’s residents were lining up for a meals giveaway.
In conjunction with the Big Shoulders Fund and our ever-generous Alumni Association, we have been distributing meals twice a week to our Leo families and our Auburn Gresham neighbors since late March, when the economic effect of COVID-19 restrictions began buffeting the community. That community is a food desert in the best of times, and with its few grocery stores either looted or shut down as a precaution against looting, the need for meals was especially acute.
With a big assist from Big Shoulders and our alums, Leo came through. The distribution system we set up in the main parking lot operated with clockwork efficiency and abundant good cheer despite the heat as we handed out nearly 500 meals (and roughly the same number of COVID masks) in 90 minutes.
Some food remained as the 2 p.m. shutdown approached, so we stayed open another hour and fed more people. Most came by car, some walked up from nearby homes, some wandered in off the streets … literally. Point of origin didn’t matter. No one was turned away. And what was left was delivered to our friends at St. Leo’s Veterans Home.
It was a long, exhausting day, but a productive, beautiful day at Leo High School.
“I am overwhelmed by all of this,” Principal Shaka Rawls said as the tents were struck, the tables folded and the parking lot cleared.
“We needed it, and we did it.”
It’s how we roll at Leo, folks.
Facta non Verba.