Activism in an Age of Polarization: A Conversation with Common


by Julian Zeng

How do we make the world a better place?

It’s an age-old conundrum that may never find a solution. After all, the world’s population is approaching 8 billion people and one would be hard-pressed to find any single cure-all across social, economic and cultural boundaries.

But for Common, the award-winning actor, rapper, producer and activist, that journey starts — and always has started — with love.

(from left) Common, Award-winning actor, rapper, producer and activist; Tom Philion, Roosevelt University’s College of Education dean

“We all have some part to play in this story that’s the American Dream. I believe that if we give each and every person the opportunity, then we will see it come to bear.”

Award-winning actor, rapper, producer and activist

“I want our children to find something that they’re passionate about, something that they really love, discover their voice and apply that wherever they can in their career,” Common said. “When we work in things that we love, it just makes the world better.”

Youth empowerment has become a personal passion of Common’s, which he discussed during his American Dream Reconsidered Conference keynote conversation, titled “Activism in an Age of Polarization.” Joined on the Auditorium Theatre stage by Roosevelt University’s College of Education dean Tom Philion, the South Side Chicago native talked about his organization, The Common Ground Foundation, and how it is helping high school students though mentoring and college preparation programs.

His vision when founding the organization more than 10 years ago was to expose children to as much information and knowledge as possible, to broaden their horizons with new ideas and “see what they gravitate towards.” It’s a universal concept, but one many traditional schools are often unable to see to fruition amid slashed education budgets and waning resources.

Common credited his mother, Dr. Mahalia Hines, an “incredible, intelligent woman,” who emphasized the importance of academics to her son as he grew up. Hines, a former teacher and principal who taught in the Chicago Public Schools for more than 35 years, allowed Common to realize his dreams of becoming a hip-hop artist, while at the same time communicating the importance of a quality education.

The conversation broadly touched upon the crux of the issue reflected in its name, deliberating when and how to be an activist in a polarized society, and how to use one’s voice to speak out against injustices. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and victimized women who have become leaders of the #MeToo Movement arose in the discussion, examples of activism Common praised for each individual’s courage and prominence in public discourse.

Common and Philion were later joined by Janice K. Jackson, chief executive officer for Chicago Public Schools, and Mary Ellen Caron, CEO of After School Matters. Both stressed their firm belief in the power of public education and how the tides are turning in favor of its staying power.

“We’ve seen remarkable gains across the board,” Jackson said. “For the first time in a long time, I have students coming to me saying that they are proud to be in Chicago Public Schools, not just because of those gains but because of the feeling that we’re trying to restore here in the city about what it means to be a public school student.”

Jackson did cite her views that public education in the U.S. is under assault, constantly having to battle negative perceptions from all angles. “A lot of people who want to give their gifts and talents, won’t [do so],” she said. She also cited that many people are discouraged from teaching, and called for more engagement and work to remove that stigma so that future generations of students may benefit from leaders more invested in their education.

Award-winning actor, rapper, producer and activist

Caron, whose organization represents 26,000 high school students in Chicago, believes youths need leaders and role models to look up to, to guide them as they navigate higher education and eventual professional careers. After School Matters, Caron believes, has become a vital ally to the public-school system, keeping students engaged in their studies and hopeful about outcomes once they graduate to higher levels of education.

(from left) Common, Award-winning actor, rapper, producer and activist; Mary Ellen Caron, CEO of After School Matters; Janice K. Jackson, chief executive officer for Chicago Public Schools; Ali Malekzadeh, president, Roosevelt University; Tom Philion, Roosevelt University’s College of Education dean

The conversation was punctuated by frequent bouts of applause, perhaps none more so than when Jackson referenced the opportunity gap pervasive in today’s education system. The only difference in children’s ability to succeed and fully use their talents, according to Jackson, are the opportunities afforded to them. “In my role at CPS, I want to make sure that I’ve opened up more doors and provided more opportunities for children like me and those who grew up with the same experience, just trying to achieve the American Dream.”

Caron believes the United States is still built on equal education, but sees a shift in how young people view the American Dream. In the past, she thought their goals were perhaps to make money or achieve fame, yet now sees them caring more about equity, particularly for those with disabilities, people of color or members of the LGBTQ community. “It’s very hopeful when you hear those kinds of things,” Caron said. “The perception and their values are changing.”

Common fittingly brought his message back to music, illustrating how our individual perspectives can come together like pieces of a song, that “we all have some part to play in this story that’s the American Dream. I believe that if we give each and every person the opportunity, then we will see it come to bear.” While he said there’s plenty of work to be done, by empowering our youth to make meaningful changes to society, that dream will be achieved.

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