Black activist organization New Era Chicago (NEC) has taken a community first approach toward changing the socio-economic and political dynamics within Chicago’s African Americans neighborhoods.
Launched in 2015 by members of its parent organization, New Era Detroit, NEC’s mission is to foster unity in African American communities by encouraging and empowering Black people to buy, build, and invest in their own communities.
Recently, on a chilly Sunday afternoon, roughly two dozen members of NEC set up two large folding tables with more than 50 brown paper bags filled with free hot meals to offer to the public on the corner of 63rd and Ashland Ave. The NEC corner was made distinguishable with their staple large Pan African flags waving in the air. NEC members handed out bag lunches to walkers, drivers who pulled over, and even stepped onto stopped Chicago Transit Authority buses to give riders meals, too. During slow periods NEC members talked amongst themselves and chanted pro-Black expressions for all to hear.
Taji Gaines, 34, an NEC member who took part in the free lunch giveaway, explained prior to becoming a member he was looking for something that reflected his beliefs in Chicago. He said he became aware of what New Era Detroit was accomplishing via their social media videos. He recalled in roughly April 2015 he came across NEC’s web page and decided to get involved with the organization.
“New Era Detroit was putting the work in as far as the ideology I had of Black people coming together in the community and reclaiming power over themselves,” said Gaines.
Gaines, a South Side native, called it “beautiful” to be a part of NEC as he is witnessing firsthand the impact the organization is having on a community not too far from where he grew up.
“A lot of times you hear the Black community does not come together to do positive things to improve our conditions, but by being out here on the streets on a consistent basis, I’m seeing that’s a false notion,” said Gaines. “In order for us to perpetuate what’s really happening out here, we need to show what’s truly happening in the neighborhood through our actions.”
Gaines told the Defender one of the initiatives NEC has moved forward with is its peer-to-peer mentorship program, “Building Young Kings,” which focuses on building leadership skills for young men and women to develop the tools necessary to help positively change their own communities.
NEC is currently focusing its efforts in Englewood and surrounding communities, according to Gaines. In an effort to get to know community residents, NEC members have gone on patrol through different corridors throughout the community, one member said.
Ernyta Hytower, New Era Chicago treasurer and member, who was also at the food giveaway, joined the organization roughly 15 months ago. Born and raised on 86th and Marshfield Ave. in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, she expressed pride over not only where she is from but in the people who reside there. She said there’s a need to change Black communities for the better or at minimum restore the unity that once existed in years past.
“People from Chicago will always say that they’re proud to be from here; there’s a certain way we walk, a certain way we talk, it’s always a camaraderie no matter what side of town you are on,” said Hytower. “The rhetoric is that it’s extremely dangerous or that you may tend to shy away from people, but there’s never been a community where my people are where I haven’t felt comfortable.”
Hytower said anyone can be a part of positively impacting the African American community, even those who are not involved with a specific organization, by supporting Black businesses, lending their talents to help community residents, and more.
Hytower stated NEC’s funding comes entirely from the support of the communities in which it serves. She said the organization hosts open mic nights where it asks for donations. It also received donations from people directly. The open mic nights are usually held once a week. She said all of the money collected is used to fund their programming.
The culture within NEC is one of familial connections between its members, which then extends onward to everyone they encounter. Members often address one another with the titles “brother” and “sister” before saying their first name, or they use other terms of affection and respect like “queen” and “king.” This practice harkens back to decades ago when such greetings were meant as not only as a term of endearment but to foster a sense of pride and unity amongst other community members.
“We have to speak life into each other,” said Gaines. “We have to change our vocabulary and how we see each other to change how we interact with each other.”
Hytower said they push the narrative of Black Love that does not always necessarily have to result in romance but rather a strong bond
“A lot of time the relationship between Black men and Black women, these brothers got mommas and they love their mommas and know how we move, so a lot of times they just step back and let us do our thing and feel protected; you absolutely feel like that’s my brother,” said Hytower.
Women hold an equally prominent role in the success and future of NEC as their male counterparts. Hytower noted that women have been a part of progressive movements for Black people dating as far back as Harriet Tubman. She said while the widely publicized narrative of Black activism may focus on men, women have always and will continue to lead and support all efforts.
“James Brown said this is a man’s world so things appear more powerful when you have a brother there and sisters are typically fine to step back and let them do that part and things are going to be done on this end,” said Hytower.
Gaines in a separate conversation echoed Hytower’s sentiment by stating, “women are what really make NEC go.”
“Yes, the men are the ones out here on the frontlines fighting with police and foreign owned businesses and things like that, but the Black queen is right there on our side like she has always been; the women in NEC are just as powerful as the men in NEC,” said Gaines.
In an attempt to highlight the accomplishments of local Black activist groups serving the Chicagoland area, the Defender will periodically select a different organization to feature for coverage. If you know of any organization that is doing exemplary work, please let us know.