A coalition of South Side residents and community groups is pushing back against the University of Chicago over its bid for the coveted Barack Obama presidential library and museum.
At a townhall meeting Thursday night, dozens of South Side residents delivered a stern message to the university: No trauma center, no Obama library.
Members of the Trauma Care Coalition, which hosted Thursday's meeting, said the university has an obligation to its community to improve access to emergency health services. If the university is interested in building the much sought-after Obama library, it should also make reopening its adult trauma center a top priority, according to the South Side activists.
The University of Chicago opened a Level 1 adult trauma center back in 1986, but closed it in 1988 in an effort to cut costs. Currently, there are no Level 1 adult trauma facilities on the city’s South Side. And that forces seriously injured people to travel miles away to other parts of the city for medical care.
The University of Chicago currently runs a trauma center for children up to age 16 at Comer Children’s Hospital, and activists have been demanding that the age limit for those accepted at the facility be raised to 21.
"We're not against the Obama library because we feel like it will bring great resources to the neighborhood, but we also feel that (university officials) need to get their priorities straight," said Trauma Care Coalition member Victoria Crider, a leader with Fearless Leading by the Youth (FLY). "Before they can build such a prestigious attraction, they need to prioritize the lives of the young black people who are dying around them. We've been knocking on the university's door to get a trauma center for almost four years, and we've barely got their attention."
The campaign for a Level 1 trauma center started in 2010 after 18-year-old student and youth advocate Damian Turner was shot near the corner of 51st Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, just a few blocks away from the University of Chicago Hospital. Turner was brought to Northwestern Memorial Hospital near the Loop due to the lack of a nearby Level 1 trauma center, but he died an hour-and-a-half later. Those with the Trauma Care Coalition believe Turner would have survived if the university or the South Side had an adult trauma facility.
Mental Health Movement leader N'Dana Carter said the University of Chicago's lack of an adult trauma center essentially shows that the elite institution wants nothing to do with the surrounding community that is mostly low-income and black. And therefore, she said the university does not deserve the privilege of possibly building Obama's library and museum.
"The University of Chicago does not get to be rewarded for their long history of racism," she said.
Crider noted that Obama, who worked as a professor at the University of Chicago's Law School for 12 years leading up to his 2004 election to the U.S. Senate, "values access to health care and young black lives."
"The University of Chicago, the only thing they value is dollars," she said.
The University of Chicago wants to build the presidential library near the institution's South Side campus. Other possible competitors for the library site in Obama's adopted home town include the Chicago State University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Bronzeville neighborhood organization. New York and Hawaii are also vying for the project.
In an attempt to edge out the competition, state Democratic lawmakers in an Illinois House committee last week signed off on a plan to devote $100 million in state funds for construction of the library in Chicago.
The presidential library could cost as much as $500 million and would require additional fundraising.
"If (University of Chicago officials are) so quick to be all about the Obama library and spend tons of resources on the Obama library, then how come you can't spend tons of resources on the young, black lives dying around you," Crider stressed. "We're in a gun violence epidemic. That needs to be solved. And as a university, they have a responsibility to provide treatment and access to adequate care."
Veronica Morris-Moore with FLY said if the university were to open an adult trauma center, it would prove that its officials "care about black life, they care about young people, and they care about the preservation of our families."
"If they were wanting to open up a trauma center, I'd be willing to lay the bricks to the [Obama] library myself," she said.
The University of Chicago Medicine issued the following statement to Progress Illinois in response to the coalition's call for an adult trauma facility:
The University of Chicago Medicine has not changed its position on opening an adult Level 1 trauma center on its medical campus.
Developing a Level 1 trauma center would be a massive undertaking, requiring significant resources and support, as well as a complex decision-making process involving the city, the state, and Chicago's trauma network. Investing in an adult Level 1 trauma center would not be the best allocation of our resources for patients and the community. It would force significant cuts in badly needed programs and services that are unique on the South Side, such as the existing Level 1 trauma center for children, the neonatal intensive care unit, the South Side's only burn unit and Chicago's only hospital-based emergency helicopter service.
The issues related to an additional adult trauma center on the South Side of Chicago need public discussion. We, along with other providers of health and community services, would want to be a part of that. Any solution will require a broad approach that encompasses all layers of government, the community, Chicago’s entire health care system and the existing trauma network.
Total bed inventory on the South Side has declined more than 50 percent since 1988, underscoring the need for a comprehensive dialogue about all facets of health care on the South Side, including gun-violence prevention.
Morris-Moore, however, maintains that the coalition has not yet "seen any efforts (by university officials) to reach out to people to start creating that regional solution" to issues of gun violence and health care access on the South Side.
Advocates for a South Side trauma center, meanwhile, say they will keep their fight alive.
The coalition, which also includes the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Students for Health Equity and other allies, has a series of actions planned for the week of May 19 to ramp up the pressure for increased South Side emergency health services. The week of action will end with a large march on May 23 that will start at three South Side locations and converge near the University of Chicago's medical campus.