News Column

Activists fight bid for Obama library

May 12, 2014

By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY

A long-running battle in President Obama's old Chicago neighborhood is winding its way into the competition over the future Obama presidential library.

A group of young Chicago activists are arguing that the University of Chicago -- a leading candidate to host the library and museum -- should be ruled out unless it takes action to restore adult trauma care at its medical center.

The lack of an adult trauma center at the hospital has been a perennial source of tension between the elite university and the predominantly African-American community surrounding the campus since the university medical center shuttered its unit in 1988, citing financial pressures.

With universities in Chicago, Honolulu and New York preparing to submit their bids for the Obama library before next month's deadline, activists from a group known as the Trauma Center Coalition have begun a campaign to raise questions about the suitability of the University of Chicago to host the library.

The activists note that Obama made access to health care and stemming gun violence focal points of his presidency and argue that he shouldn't reward the university they charge has neglected the needs of a community that is at the epicenter of gun violence in a city that saw more than 400 murders last year.

"Mr. Obama has worked hard to try to raise awareness about gun violence and the issues facing young black males in places like the South Side," said Victoria Crider, 18, an organizer with Fearless Leading by the Youth. "The University of Chicago has done nothing at all to provide resources to solve the epidemic of violence on the South Side."

The University of Chicago has personal connections to the Obama family and is widely seen as the front-runner to win the library. First lady Michelle Obama grew up on the city's South Side and was an executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center before moving to Washington in 2009. The president spent several years as a constitutional law professor at the university.

University of Chicago spokesman Jeremy Manier suggested the activists' push to link the trauma center to the library bid was out of step with the broad enthusiasm on the South Side to win the library for Chicago.

"The University of Chicago contributes critical medical services that are available nowhere else on the South Side, including the area's only burn unit, a pediatric trauma center and a neonatal intensive-care unit," Manier said. "Shifting extensive resources to create an additional trauma center could reduce the medical center's ability to provide other lifesaving services."

Activists dismiss the university's reasoning. The medical center's endowment stood at $782million at the end of the last fiscal year. "The university is not the type of institution that is so cash-strapped that they have to make a choice between scarce resources," said Emilio Comay del Junco, a University of Chicago doctoral student and Trauma Center Coalition activist.

Chicago has six trauma centers -- all on the west and north sides of the city -- providing trauma care to roughly 3million people. Gun violence in Chicago occurs most frequently on the west and south sides of the city.

A 2013 study in the American Journal of Public Health that looked at a decade's worth of data from the Chicago area found that those suffering gunshot wounds more than 5 miles from a trauma center were more likely to die from their injuries.

Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democratic lawmaker who represents a large swath of the city's South Side, has pushed for more federal money for trauma care. His son Huey Rich, 29, was shot just a few miles from the University of Chicago Medical Center in 1999. He was transported to the nearest trauma center several miles away, where he died four days later.

Rush told USA TODAY that "the U of C has the capabilities" to have a trauma center, but he suggested that he opposes mixing campaign for the center with the university's bid to win the library.

The "effort to help bring jobs and economic activity to this area should be considered separately … as our community is also suffering from a dearth of economic activity," Rush said.

Obama for America via AP

M. Spencer Green, AP

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Source: USA Today

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