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Doing What They Can: Alumni Publish Book of Black Expression After Recent BLM Protests

Jordan Lanfair's initial response to the murder of George Floyd by police and resulting protests was "just this great feeling of sadness." Rather than feeling defeated, however, Lanfair '11 was compelled to act. One month later, he and a group of friends from Knox and from around Chicago published You Do What You Can: Black Expression in the Current Uprising, a collection of writings, photographs, and illustrations by Black people to express the raw emotional toll of living with police brutality and other forms of racism.

“We really wondered, you know, how do we turn this into something that can help people? How do we turn this into something that we can help people understand how were feeling right now?” said Lanfair.

“So we did an open call. I literally sent it out to a bunch of friends and said, ‘Every Black person that wants to submit is already accepted … We want to give you the space to reflect and share and heal,’” he said. Lanfair reviewed submissions for You Do What You Can and arranged them to reflect the ebb and flow of grief, anger, determination, and other modes of processing expressed in each piece. Fannetta Jones, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher and alumna of Monmouth College, edited the collection for publication.

“My initial desire was to help out my friend and bring his idea to life. But I was also completely on board with the idea and intention of showcasing our emotions and pain and processing through art,” said Jones. 

You Do What You Can features art by many people from the Knox community, including cover art by Jamal Nelson 14 and contributions from Maurice McDavid 10—who, like Lanfair, was president of A.B.L.E. (Allied Blacks for Liberty & Equality) at Knox—and recent Knox graduates Jelani Givens II 20 and Julian Wicks 20. The collection features works from many people outside of the Knox community, too.

The refrain of a poem by McDavid reads, “I will run, forever, I will run/Now you have my heart/Forever, I will run/Where else can I go?”

Givens submitted two critical essays to You Do What You Can and said that, through his writings, he hoped to share his “philosophy on the subject of social activism and protest to inspire social change and on democratic socialism. I also felt as though it was necessary as a member of the Black community privileged enough to gain a higher education to distribute some of the knowledge I gained and distribute the negative energies of frustration and anger against the current American system into positive efforts to make a change.”

Fully 100 percent of the profits from book sales are being donated: ebook sales are being allocated to bail funds, and proceeds from the sale of the physical book will be invested within Lanfair’s community to combat food insecurity “and let people continue to hear voices that are continually marginalized,” he explained. These donations were a way for Lanfair to give back to his community in immediate, emergency relief-based ways (in the case of bail fund donations) but also promote long-term community resources, too. “We know for a fact that if you can get someone out of jail in this age of COVID, it can save their life,” said Lanfair about the vitality of giving to bail funds. “Protesting shouldn't be a death sentence.”

Lanfair and Jones are helping their community through another immediate, hands-on way with #FeedThePeople. #FeedThePeople is a food distribution initiative that Lanfair started in Chicago in early June when CPS suspended food distribution sites immediately following the first weekend of local protests against police brutality. 

“Many communities had already been devastated financially by the pandemic and relied on those distribution sites during the quarantine. Then the neighborhoods were hit even harder in light of the looting and unrest that had affected their areas,” said Jones of the closures.

When Lanfair and Jones found out about the closures one Monday, they gathered friends and sandwich supplies, found space at a church, and spent all day fundraising and distributing food. Soon, they had enough support to give out food every day that week.

After CPS food distribution sites opened up again, police maintained a regular presence at the sites. “These same police that many Black and Brown students and families feared and felt were responsible for the unrest in the first place. So, we knew our job was not done,” said Jones. #FeedThePeople continued to grow. Lanfair organized more distribution sites, a leadership team formed, they made graphics to send out, and the group “grew from a good idea to a full-on organization in the span of a week,” said Jones. “We literally did what we could to see to it that our people were taken care of.”

In less than two months, #FeedThePeople has served over 15,000 meals. Lanfair said that now, the plan is to distribute food twice a month, providing produce and canned goods. “Our goal is to allow people the space to make their groceries stretch, because we know that a lot of people are one paycheck away from losing everything or being unable to work. It’s just very tenuous times,” he said.

Jones came to activism after college once her teaching career began: “The murders of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown shifted my understanding of my responsibility as a teacher and Black woman when it comes to standing up for what’s right. Then when LaQuan McDonald was murdered in Chicago with video evidence, there was no way I could sit idly by anymore. Activism became part of my teaching philosophy and I’ve not turned back.”

Lanfair said that, among many other reasons, his time at Knox empowered him to use his voice and presence for change. He said that his four years in A.B.L.E., the Center for Intercultural Life, the Center for Teaching and Learning, the TRIO program, and particularly his time with Tianna Cervantez and Deb Southern “gave me confidence, they gave me skills, they gave me opportunity.” Lanfair said that Knox had, for students who “put in the work, and especially if you showed promise, this belief that one mistake did not define you. And that’s not something the world gives you. Especially if you’re Black, especially if you're Latinx, especially if you’re a person of color.” 

In addition to his volunteerism for #FeedThePeople and You Do What You Can, Lanfair is now the manager of academic and social-emotional supports for Golden Apple, an organization that works to remedy Chicago’s teacher shortage crisis and help students pursue higher education. He’s planning a second issue of You Do What You Can, this time specifically for Black children to have an open platform to express their emotions through these times.

Find out more about what you can do to support #FeedthePeople in Chicago.

Pictured above is the cover of You Do What You Can, illustrated by Jamal Nelson '14. Pictured below is the distibution of meals for #FeedThePeople.

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#"We really wondered, you know, how do we turn this into something that can help people?" —Jordan Lanfair '11

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Printed on Tuesday, August 11, 2020