Our 2021 People Of The Year

Wednesday, January 5, 2021 || By Staff || @maywoodnews 

In the first full year of the Covid pandemic — as George Floyd’s murder in 2020 solidified into a nationwide reckoning with racial equity, as increasingly erratic weather events reinforced the brutal reality of climate change and as global threats to democratic governance trickled down to local municipalities — people everywhere were forced to confront new normals.

The national reckoning in Proviso Township took the form of a Hollywood movie on a civil rights icon and Maywood native son, two parents mustering the courage and stamina to push for government transparency, a mayor and land manager confronting climate change, and the election of a Proviso lawmaker as the Illinois Speaker of the House.

As is with People of the Year designations in years past (see 2019’s here and 2020’s here), common to all of the stories we covered were people, particularly people who were themselves the news or who played critical parts in major news stories happening in Proviso Township.

This year, we picked six people who “most affected the news and our lives, for good or ill, and embodied what was important about the year.”

That quotation is from Time Magazine’s Kelly Conniff, who explained the publications’ main criterion for selecting its Person of the Year, a tradition that Time has maintained since 1927, when it created the designation for Charles Lindbergh.

Past VFP People of the Year

2019 | Steven Hunter; Kimberly Lightford; Randall McFarland; Jesse Rodriguez and the District 209 Board of Education, Emanuel “Chris” Welch;and Westlake Hospital employees.

2020 | COVID Equity Response Collaborative: Loyola; Empowerment Church; Housing Forward; Miguel Jones; Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network (PTMAN); and the Westchester Food Pantry.

“At the end of 1927, the editors of TIME looked at the year’s covers and realized they had somehow failed to put Charles Lindbergh on the cover,” Conniff writes. “He’d done his historic flight in May, but no cover. They decided they could get away with putting him on the cover months later by calling him ‘Man of the Year.’

“It was a stopgap. And here we are 87 years later. The challenge is that on one hand, we’re trying to make a decision about who best represents the news of the year. But the pick also needs to have archival value. You need the sense that it will stand the test of time. So ideally, we want our Person of the Year to be both a snapshot of where the world is and a picture of where it’s going. Someone, or in rare cases, something, that feels like a force of history.”

We know this presents us with certain limitations. There’s a lot of life in this township we don’t routinely cover. But these People of the Year selections represent our most diverse slate yet. Note, we’ve listed them in alphabetical order and not order of importance.

Jenny Barbahen and Kathleen Franzwa, co-founders of Proviso 209 Cooperative 

Jenny Barbahen and Kathleen Franzwa are administrators for Proviso 209 Cooperative, a Facebook group they cofounded in 2021. | Facebook 

When District 209 officials decided to stop live-streaming board meetings in October, Forest Park parent Jenny Barbahen and Westchester parent Kathleen Franzwa decided to leverage their people power to fill the institutional void.

During an interview in October, Franzwa recounted the origins of what eventually turned into the Proviso 209 Cooperative Facebook group.

Franzwa, who has a child at Proviso Math and Science Academy, said she was at home preparing to watch the Oct. 12 school board meeting on her laptop, when she got a text from her husband.

“My husband was at the meeting and I was home with the kids and he started texting me saying that he didn’t see any cameras setup,” Franzwa recalled. “A couple more people at the meeting were texting me telling me cameras were not set up and we were alarmed.”

So Forest Park business owner and community advocate Connie Brown tapped Jordan Kuehn, another well-known community member involved in D209 issues, to live-stream the meeting onto the page of a Facebook group that Franzwa created that night.

That’s how the Proviso 209 Cooperative was launched. The popular private Facebook group has since gained nearly 800 members and become a sounding board for D209 community members who care about the high school district, which has been the center of controversies related to significant changes implemented by Supt. James Henderson.

Barbahen, who with Franzwa administers the group, articulated its credo in October. Since its creation, the group has been a critical source of information about the high school and an important platform for productive dialogue. Members also utilize the group to publicize district accomplishments.

“If anything, we want to show that there is a middle ground,” she said. “We can be with Supt. Henderson and question the things he’s doing. This is not a group that is picking sides. We just really need transparency.”

The group isn’t restricted to the confines of Facebook. When the district declined to livestream meetings, members attended the meetings in person and uploaded their own video to the group’s page, filling in the void. Meanwhile, a change.org petition that Barbahen started generated hundreds of signatories, which along with numerous calls and emails prompted D209 school board President Rodney Alexander to reverse his initial decision.

So, the Cooperative is a township-wide force to be reckoned with in real life, which could prove pivotal in the 2023 school board elections and perhaps even beyond that point.

Fred Hampton Jr., activist and chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs 

Black Panther Party Cubs Chairman Fred Hampton speaking at an event outside of the Hampton House in Maywood in 2021. | Paul Goyette 

Black Panther Party Cubs Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. helped burnish Maywood in the popular imagination with his role in shaping the Oscar-nominated film “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which is based on the life and political assassination of Hampton Jr’s father, Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, a Maywood native.

Hampton Jr. was boots on the ground with the film’s star, Daniel Kaluuya (who portrays his iconic father), guiding the actor and other cast members through some of his father’s Chicago area stomping grounds.

Although Maywood has a bit role in the 2021 film, the Hollywood production has buoyed national and international interest in Hampton, which can only help Hampton Jr.’s quest to transform his father’s childhood home at 804 S. 17th Ave. in Maywood into a living museum centered on collective self-determination and community-building.

Three years after the Hampton House was nearly lost to foreclosure, the momentum for institutionalizing the historic home is gathering energy. In November, Congressmen Bobby Rush and Danny K. Davis both expressed support for landmarking the house.

Meanwhile, Hampton Jr. has transformed the historic home into a focal point in Maywood. Drive by the house on any given day and you’ll see a Little Free Library where residents can take and drop off books, a public ‘Feed ‘Em All’ refrigerator and Little Free Pantry for residents who need food, and artful memorials to the legacy of Hampton Sr. and the Black Panther Party.

“A hero does something and you say, ‘Wow,’ but you can’t emulate it,” Hampton Jr. said in October, referencing the Panthers. “These brothers and sisters came from our community and transcended geographical, gender and generational lines.”

Katrina Thompson, mayor of Broadview 

Broadview Mayor Katrina Thompson during a rally in Maywood in 2020. |  Paul Goyette 

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Broadview Mayor Katrina Thompson may be the Proviso area embodiment of former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s valuable dictum for evaluating the effectiveness of elected officials. When he first took office in 1975, Brown’s guiding vision was: “What can I do that would not be done, but for me?”

Frankly, many elected officials get undue praise and undue criticism for things that happen not because of them, but regardless of them. Our regular observation of Mayor Thompson last year, however, has brought us to the inescapable conclusion that there’s an awful lot that happened in Broadview — and that had reverberations across Proviso Township — in 2021 that would simply not have happened “but for her.”

On Juneteenth 2021, the village held its inaugural Celebrate Freedom Festival, which marked the first time that Juneteenth was commemorated in Broadview since the village became the first, and so far, the only municipality in Proviso Township to make Juneteenth an official local holiday — the direct result of a proposal Thompson announced during a Juneteenth celebration in 2020. In September 2020, Maywood officials unsuccessfully attempted to pass a similar measure — an indication that what happened in Broadview was no small feat.

Thompson’s governing handiwork was also apparent in Broadview’s ability to outpace many other Proviso suburbs and even the county in pandemic readiness. In August, the Cook County Department of Public Health announced an indoor mask mandate, roughly three weeks after Thompson announced Broadview’s mask mandate.

Thompson’s seeming clairvoyance extends to the village’s collaboration with Urban Efficiency and Urban Efficiency Group — two Black-owned environmental sustainability firms. Ahead of the Nov. 3, 2020 election, the firms installed Retrotec Blower doors at the entrances of most of its polling places.

The doors were installed to increase ventilation and lower people’s risk of contracting COVID-19 while inside of Broadview’s polling facilities. Fast forward to 2021, when Thompson held dialogues with the firms about making Broadview a leader in environmental resilience, which includes releasing the Broadview Alliance Sustainability Plan. In November, Thompson said she hopes other Proviso municipalities will sign onto the plan to make it a township-wide initiative.

The collaboration with Urban Efficiency and Urban Efficiency Group also demonstrates Thompson’s knack for holistic policy innovation, combining an emphasis on pandemic readiness, environmental sustainability, minority entrepreneurship and workforce readiness.

Darnell Johnson, who heads Urban Efficiency Group and sits on the board of the Building Performance Association, said the initiative to install the Retrotec Blower Doors in Broadview was the first of its kind in the country that he’s aware of.

Broadview also proved unique back in November, when Helios Labs representatives announced their plans to develop a $14 million, 52,000-square-foot cannabis cultivation facility at 2150 Parkes Dr. The building would likely be the only minority-owned cannabis production facility of its kind in Proviso Township and perhaps the state and it, too, stems from Thompson’s proactiveness.

In 2019, Broadview Building Commissioner David Upshaw said Thompson asked him to get in front of the issue of cannabis legalization. Village officials eventually created an overlay district that, among other actions, paved the path for Helios Labs to start building in Broadview this year.

Emanuel “Chris” Welch, speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives 

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch during a rally in Maywood in 2020. | Paul Goyette 

Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch is, so far, the only individual selected as a Village Free Press person of the year twice. Welch was selected in 2019, the first year of the designation, for his fierce advocacy for Westlake Hospital, which closed that year, and his sponsorship of numerous bills that had national significance, including one that would allow student-athletes in the state to make endorsement deals.

In January 2021, Welch became the first-ever African American elected to serve as Speaker of the House in the state’s more than 200-year-old history. On top of that, Welch’s work behind the scenes would pay off in the announcement last year that the shuttered Westlake Hospital is poised to reopen as Woodlake Hospital this year.

Welch’s first year as House speaker is not only significant because of his race. The current Hillside resident, Proviso West alum and native of Bellwood and Maywood replaced former House Speaker Michael Madigan, whose Wikipedia entry rightly describes as “the longest-serving leader of any state or federal legislative body in the history of the United States.”

Welch, a longtime Madigan ally, has leveraged the deft political skills that got him elected speaker in his effort to oversee much-needed reforms while duly acknowledging the controversial former speaker’s significant accomplishments.

In an interview with Village Free Press earlier this year, Welch credited Madigan for making Illinois a Democratic stronghold while insisting that he plans on building on the former leader’s legacy.

Welch’s post-Madigan imprint can also be felt in some key legislative changes, including the implementation of new House rules that would impose term limits on top leadership positions in the Illinois House and Senate.

Welch said he’s also working to distinguish himself from his powerful predecessor in how he helps get House Democrats elected, offering a more robust apparatus of campaign and fundraising services.

But there’s no discounting the symbolic power of his new post, the speaker said, adding that the magnitude of his accomplishment sank in during a moment he shared with his son.

“The time that it sunk in was on Martin Luther King Day,” Welch said. “I’m at home. I hadn’t slept in a week, so I finally got some sleep and I’m having breakfast with ShawnTe and the kids and my son Tyler says out of the blue, just out of the blue, ‘Daddy, when was Illinois founded?’ I said, ‘1818.’

“And I can see his face doing the calculation. He said, ‘That was over 200 years ago and you’re the first Black person to have your job?’ I said, ‘Yeah, son,’ and that’s what King was fighting for. For us to have those opportunities. I wish I had a photo of his face or a video at that point, because his face was what really hit me. He realized what a big moment it was for our family, for me, for the state. That’s what got me.”

Wyatt Widmer, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve land manager and board director of the Save the Prairie Society 

Wyatt Widmer standing on the soil of the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve in 2021. | File 

When Wyatt Widmer got wind last year that a local developer had rejuvenated its years-long attempt to build luxury townhomes on 15 acres of land adjacent to the roughly 80-acre Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve and the 43-acre Hickory Lane buffer lands he sprang into action.

Widmer, a board director of the Save the Prairie Society, also volunteers as the nature preserve’s land manager, so he knows just how rare the ecosystem is to the local biodiversity and soil composition.

Widmer, who works at a grocery store when he isn’t volunteering to literally save the earth, dedicated dozens of hours to conducting research on the proposed development’s potential environmental effects and disseminating that information to the public.

Widmer’s argument was powerful. To disrupt the land near the prairie, he said, would also disrupt the land’s benefits to the Westchester community, particularly as climate change poses more and more threats.

“There is no more efficient form of carbon sequestration, which is getting carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turning it back into compounds that we can use and so can the rest of life than grasslands and wetlands — the two environments we have here,” he said during an interview with Village Free Press in April.

The prairie, Widmer added, also works as one of the most effective forms of flood control, retaining water from flood events and preventing the surrounding properties from being overwhelmed by uncontrolled discharges.

The work of Widmer, along with the Save the Prairie Society and many other concerned community members may have influenced the Westchester village board’s decision to axe the proposal, ensuring that the prairie would continue to flourish.

“Everything here is pretty tolerant and hospitable of the pressure we can put on it,” he said, referencing the prairie and the nearby oak savannah. “We just have to have some respect for this land and this land returns it to us. Everything we do, if it benefits the land, it will benefit us.”

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