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18 inspiring people from 2018

December 7, 2018

A perk of this gig is the chance to talk with people about the topics they hold dear — hopes they’re chasing, loved ones they’ve lost, change they’re creating.

Here’s a look back at 18 conversations that inspired me to look at life through a lens trained on empathy, hope and justice this year. Truth be told, I could list a whole lot more than 18. (And you’ll notice a few of these include more than one person. I’m sneaky like that.)

— Sheila Quirke: Quirke’s daughter, Donna, died in 2009 at age 4 from a brain tumor. In April, she headed to Washington, D.C., with her son, Jay, to advocate for pediatric cancer funding. “Talking about Donna is how her dad and I get to parent her now,” Quirke told me. “We can’t take care of her in the traditional ways that a mother or father would care for their child, but I think telling her story has value because when you care about a child with cancer, you want to do something.”

— Tamar Manasseh: Manasseh founded Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings, a group that sits watch on the corner of 75th Street and Stewart Avenue in Englewood. I interviewed her for Mother’s Day, when she threw an epic party on the block and handed out 80 free bouquets, courtesy of Flowers for Dreams, to women whose children were killed by guns. “What if people who are completely uncared for are suddenly cared for?” she said. “How does that change you? How do you pay that forward?”

— Bake Sale for Justice kids: Once a month, a dozen or so kids set up a table outside Women & Children First bookstore and fill it with baked goods, socially conscious signs and a jar for donations, which they give to a different organization each month. “We don’t want to just sit back and watch other people make a difference,” Meredith White, 11, told me. “We want to make a difference too.”

— Sol Flores: Flores, executive director of La Casa Norte, an organization that advocates for Chicago’s homeless families, ran for the U.S. Senate in March. She lost, but I’ll always remember her reason for running. “I want to get to the end of my life and be used up,” she told me. “I don’t mean, on my deathbed, I want to be clinging to spreadsheets and proposals; I want love and family and friends. But I want to feel like the talents I have got used — and for something that’s bigger than me.”

— Phil Andrew: Andrew was held hostage by school shooter Laurie Dann in 1988. He went on to serve as an FBI agent, the executive director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence and director of violence prevention for the Archdiocese of Chicago. “We’re better than this,” he told me. “We’re a better country than this. We’re better communities than this. We’re smarter than this, and we have not made this a priority.”

— The Triibe co-founders: Northwestern University graduates Tiffany Walden and Morgan Elise Johnson didn’t see the whole story of Chicago’s black community in traditional Chicago media, so they tapped their pal David Elutilo and launched The Triibe, a digital media platform that blends journalism and documentary. “We can go from writing a piece about music to writing a piece about art to writing about gun violence in the city,” Walden said.

— Evelyn Perez-Horita: I interviewed Perez-Horita when I was writing about the Developmental Differences Resource Fair hosted by Neighborhood Parents Network, of which she’s a member. Her daughter, Lia, was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, hypotonia and a severe intellectual disability, and Perez-Horita has devoted her life to helping Lia and other families whose children have special needs. “We’re her biggest advocates,” she said, “and we will fight tooth and nail for that kid to do what she wants to do in life.”

— Colin O’Connor: I went to 5-year-old Colin’s house to see his collection of Major League Baseball pocket schedules (he wrote to every team asking for one) and left with a full heart … and three schedules he gave me for my own baseball-loving son — a display of kindness from a kid who’s learning that the world is full of it.

— Library of Congress honorees: Out of 47,000 entries, Akosua Haynes and Rylee Paige Johnson earned top honors from the Library of Congress for the letters they wrote to authors who’d had an impact on them. Haynes, 10, wrote to “Hidden Figures” author Margot Lee Shetterly. Johnson, 13, wrote to “Elsewhere” author Gabrielle Zevin, whose book helped Johnson heal from her mom’s death. “Thank you for the lessons I couldn’t live without,” she wrote to Zevin, “and the book I won’t forget.”

— Zachary Wood: The recent Williams College grad wants us to engage in dialogues with folks who aren’t just like us, and his book, “Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America,” is a moving, compelling road map. “I wasn’t satisfied hearing one side of things,” he writes, “even if it was the side I agreed with.”

— Indigo Monae: This yoga instructor/beautiful soul turned an abandoned lot in Lawndale into an organic garden and free outdoor yoga studio for neighborhood families. “I am them,” Monae said of her Yoga Gardens pupils. “I want them to see themselves in me. Some of them have never left their neighborhood. Some of them want to travel to India now. That’s what I want to give to them. An awakening.”

— Sheri Khan: Khan’s Logan Square neighbors spent the last few years turning a corner of Haas Park into Sofia Khan Garden, dedicated to the girl who drowned in a 2010 boating accident. It bears her daughter’s name, but Khan is making sure it belongs to all. “For anyone who’s lost anyone,” she said. “It’s a community. It’s important for people to know they’re not the only ones going through something hard.”

— Deb Conroy: Conroy, a state representative for the 46th District, donated a kidney to her ex-husband, the father of their four sons. “There wasn’t even any decision to make,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t just saving one life; it was saving five. My boys would never be the same without their dad.”

— Justin Tranter: The Grammy-nominated songwriter vowed to someday pay back The Chicago Academy for the Arts, the school he credits with saving his life when he transferred there to escape relentless bullying. In September, he built the school a recording studio. “For a teenager to have a safe place to collaborate, to push their boundaries creatively, to be accepted,” he said, “it’s life-changing.”

— Devereaux Peters: The WNBA star sat on a Young Feminist Conference panel I moderated and explained, beautifully, her decision to stop accepting every guy’s challenge to play her one-on-one, which wasn’t getting her any closer to realizing her dream of playing pro basketball. In fact, it was depleting her reserves and putting her at pointless risk of injury. Remember whom you answer to and why, she told the crowd. Perfect.

— Marion Kozich: I visited the 96-year-old veteran in hospice on Veterans Day, where she told me about joining the U.S. Army Air Forces at age 23. “I just wanted to go and see what it was all about,” she said. “I didn’t even ask my husband. I just figured, ‘Let me try it and see what’s out there.’”

— Konyae White: I met White, 14, at Hearts to Art, a performing arts camp in Chicago for kids who’ve lost a parent, and his courage and candor will stay with me forever. “When I lost my dad, it was like part of me left for a long time,” he told me. “When I came here, that part of me returned.”

— Sally Field: When the legendary actress stopped in Chicago on her “In Pieces” book tour, I got to interview her onstage at The Music Box Theatre. So many moments were transformative, but my favorite part was the story about her problematic boyfriend Burt Reynolds snarling at her, “Your ambition is getting the best of you,” and her replying, “My ambition is the best of me.”

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