By Lynda Lopez
This past week, the University of Chicago announced that it would open a Level 1 trauma center at its Hyde Park campus, retracting its earlier announcement to open one on the Southwest Side. After hearing the incredible news, I started reflecting on the last five years as a supporter of the campaign.
I first became aware of the trauma center campaign during my first year of college at UChicago in 2010-2011. I participated in a die-in on Ellis Avenue in front of the administration building that year. Though the trauma center campaign had not yet penetrated the consciousness of most of the student body, it was the beginning of a relentless fight over five years.
During the first summer of the trauma center campaign, leaders with Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY) launched a tent city in front of the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC), one of the campaign’s first major actions. I was so captivated by the work being done that I pitched a story on the trauma center to my editors at Redeye (I was a columnist and intern). I featured activists involved in the campaign for a local story. I visited local residents, such as Jasamine Harris from Auburn-Gresham and Deborah Taylor from Kenwood. Listening to the stories of those impacted made me an early supporter of the campaign.
The next year of the campaign was a bit quieter (which is also reflected on the campaign’s history timeline) but no less important. Students for Health Equity (SHE) was founded in September 2011, a crucial ally in the campaign. Building support among the student body was vital for the campaign and SHE helped in bridging that gap. The conversation around the trauma center slowly started growing in prominence, such as through a student government sponsored panel discussion on the campaign.
A turning point for the campaign was undoubtedly the sit-in in January 2013 at the Center for Care and Discovery, a $700 million new hospital the UCMC had just opened. 4 people were arrested, including Toussaint Losier, a University of Chicago PhD student. A video of the arrests showed police officers choking Toussaint with a nightstick and forcing him to lie face-down on the cement. The video quickly spread and there was immediate outrage across the campus; it seemed everyone was talking about the trauma center campaign. A change.org petition demanding an investigation of the police force garnered over 2,000 signatures. As a result of the brutality exhibited at the sit-in, the campaign saw its base of allies grow. The University’s disdain for the Black community was epitomized through that incident and it seemed to ignite fire into the campaign.
Despite the growing resistance to the University, Kenneth Polonsky, Dean of the UCMC, rejected the demand to build a trauma center at a forum that spring. “If a level-one trauma center is needed, it will need to be at another hospital,” he said. “We cannot address every need of the community.”
The Trauma Care Coalition continued upping the ante: members blocked a construction site at the U of C in May 2014 and barricaded themselves inside an administration building this past June. Every spring seemed to be the spring of the trauma center campaign. There were constant actions; there was little opportunity for the University administrators to forget the campaign and it was clear the tide was turning.
Last December, the University announced it would raise the age of its pediatric trauma unit from 15 to 17 years of age, the first big concession by the University. In September of this year, the University of Chicago announced it would support the opening of a trauma center at Holy Cross Hospital in Chicago Lawn. While not meeting the exact demands, the Coalition took that as a victory. To get the University to commit to $40 million for the project was no small feat, but the best was yet to come. Just a few months later, the University announced it would in fact be building the trauma center on its Hyde Park campus. Victory!
I was in disbelief when I heard the news last week. After the announcement to build the trauma center in Chicago Lawn, I thought that was as close to a full victory the Coalition would get. This week showed that the impossible is possible. Or maybe we just all need to redefine the possible.
Anyone involved in social justice efforts knows it’s often tough to believe in the possibility of big wins. We’re taught to go for “attainable” and “realistic” goals in our campaigns. We’re not told to start campaigns like the trauma center’s. Force the University of Chicago to re-open a Level 1 trauma center? Not realistic, most would have said, but it’s these types of victories that shake you awake. The Trauma Care Coalition was victorious not because they had a secret sauce but because they actually believed that they could win. Come 2018, the South Side will have a new trauma center. In 2010, few thought that was possible. Let that be a testament to us all.