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It takes somewhere around an hour to commute from a Bickerdike Redevelopment apartment in West Humboldt Park to Chinatown if you hop on the No. 65 bus at Grand and Karlov, then catch the Red Line to the Cermak-Chinatown stop.
As you head east, toward some of the most recognizable Chicago landmarks adjacent to Lake Michigan, there’s a transformation. It didn’t take long for LaCreshia Birts to see the transformation for what it was: a different world.
“My commute home from my high school, I got to see a lot of the city,” LaCreshia said. “I could see within my commute the difference in how the city was divided.”
There are people who won’t notice the coin laundry on the corner transform into four- and five-star hotels that charge a month’s rent for one night in a matter of blocks or how restaurants flip from fast-food to fine dining by crossing the river. LaCreshia noticed and began to ask questions and, more importantly, look for answers.
“Growing up poor probably had the biggest impact on my worldview,” LaCreshia reflected. “Not only was I poor, but my whole family was poor. I didn’t know any rich people. I didn’t really even know any people who graduated from college. That wasn’t immediately accessible to me.”
What was accessible to her was a first-hand look at the intersection of history, housing and the interplay of racial and economic realities.
“I grew up in Bickerdike housing. It’s a low-income housing development,” LaCreshia said. “It was interesting. My immediate environment was very diverse.”
“My neighbors were a little bit of everybody,” She continued. “We had a Cuban next door, Puerto Ricans, there was a white lady from Alaska - her and her sons used to wear shorts in the winter time.”
It was a pocket of racial diversity sharing a common struggle with poverty and geographic isolation.
LaCreshia’s early life experiences set the table for community-centered work. The reflective observation time during her commute to school and the lessons learned by watching her neighbors day-to-day grind created the motivated, determined community organizer that she has become.
“Coming from lack made me want to fight for Black people to have everything that I feel like we deserve in this world,” LaCreshia said. “When you learn our history and how we were treated by our colonizers in this world and in this country, it just really made me want to fight for everything that our ancestors deserved.”
For more than a decade, LaCreshia has been intentional in her work for the Westside, advocating for police accountability, combating gentrification and gender violence, predating movements that have garnered widespread national attention such as Black Lives Matter.
“Since 2014, I’ve been involved in community organizing around police accountability,” She noted. “For the past 10 years, I’ve been doing community organizing work in that vein.”
In 2019, her years of learning and evolving as a community organizer extended beyond volunteerism when she co-founded the Black Remembrance Project, a grass-roots Westside-based organization dedicated to uplifting Black American history.
Her foray into leadership was about change and education. The Black Remembrance Project sought to have Juneteenth recognized as an official holiday by the City of Chicago.
“Growing up, I didn’t know about Juneteenth,” LaCreshia said. “I actually found out about it from another community organization that was doing an event in North Lawndale.”
History books may have omitted the day or downplayed the significance in our country’s history, but LaCreshia, like many others who first learned of the day as adults lamented, “Why didn’t I know about this?”
Her plan was to ensure Juneteenth would be overlooked no more.
She reached out to every one of the Chicago aldermen and found the partner she needed in Maria Hadden, Alderperson for the 49th Ward.
Hadden wrote the ordinance and worked with the Black Remembrance Project to push it forward in the Chicago City Council. In 2021, more than two years after she began the effort, the city of Chicago recognized the holiday in an official manner.
“I didn’t think it would take two years. That was my naivete, not understanding the political scale, what was really happening.”
That effort led to subsequent recognition by the State of Illinois and, eventually, a national spotlight.
“When we had to fight for it, I wasn’t going to let them give us trinkets or placate us with a resolution,” LaCreshia said. “We wanted the full recognition.”
LaCreshia and the Black Remembrance Project’s work in Chicago paved the way for the writing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, an effort that collected more than 1.6 million signatures in support of the measure that would be signed into law in June of 2021.
“It’s a day to be prideful and to acknowledge all that we’ve been through, our struggles, and our triumphs as well,” she said. “I want everyone to feel proud to be Black. Even the people who aren’t Black, I want you to feel proud of Black people.”
LaCreshia has done some heavy lifting to drive forward initiatives she believes in, channeling a dogged determination into results not only for herself, but for her city.
“It takes a community. You cannot do anything in this world alone,” she said. “I know some people are going to think I’m crazy when I mention it, but I’m fighting for Black American descendants of U.S. chattel slavery.”
“That’s my next fight,” she stated. “It’s a tough battle.”
It’s an uphill battle for LaCreshia, an acknowledged challenge for her and those who support the cause - a challenge they’ll take one step at a time in the name of progress.
“There is a change coming.”
LaCreshia Birts is one of 18 up-and-coming Westside leaders selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of Community Leadership Fellows. Community Leadership Fellows (CLF) is a leadership development experience that involves educational workshops, tactical training, collaborative learning, coaching, mentoring and networking. We believe that the investment in homegrown talent will lead to sustainable, vibrant communities.
LaCreshia Birts CLF ’23 Community Activist and Co-Founder of Black Remembrance Project. Hear most about her mission to change her community.