WNIJ Partners With Report For America

Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. This year's cohort has been placed with more than 160 local news organizations across 45 states and Puerto Rico, including two journalists right here at WNIJ. We are thrilled to announce the addition of JuanPablo Ramirez-Franco to our news team, and a new role for WNIJ reporter Yvonne Boose.

Yvonne Boose covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This includes how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers substandard housing and police-community relations. An audio producer and journalist based out of Chicago, he’s also been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office.

He will continue Sarah Jesmer’s award-winning work at WNIJ covering issues of social justice and identity. Jesmer earned a top award from the Illinois Associated Press for reports including: Inside DeKalb County's Unincorporated ApartmentsWigs, Lipstick & Sparkles: The Thriving Drag Scene In Northern Illinois; and Kish College: Anonymous Letters And A Controversial Investigation.

These reporting positions come at a time when local journalism is already reeling from years of newsroom cuts and unforeseen challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both positions are partially funded by a grant from Report for America.  WNIJ must raise an additional $30,000 in local matching funds.  Support these important voices in our community by donating to WNIJ’s portion here.

Yvonne and Juanpablo’s stories on our community will be collected below.

Yvonne Boose

The Winnebago County Fair was canceled due to COVID-19. This included the County Fair's Queen pageant. Instead, an ambassador was appointed Tuesday evening.  

Joie Vittetow volunteered at the Rockford Park District’s Youth Police Academy this week. This is one of many events that she will attend during her time as ambassador.

“And this weekend, I’m hoping to go the Burpee Museum event for ‘Girls in Science.’ Where they’re going to be demonstrating insects and stuff,” she shares. “Other than that, I’ll be definitely doing parades if they’re not canceled.” 

Provided by Karen Fullett-Christensen

Welcome to Poetically Yours, where you'll hear the voices of Illinois poets as they share their words about the world around them. This week, features Aurora's Poet Laureate, Karen Fullett-Christensen. Her poems include, "No Longer Virgins" and "We Are All in Chains."

No Longer Virgins

We have bitten the apple

we have pulled back the curtain

we are no longer virgins

so, what do we do?

Once the forest is breached

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Most performance stages across the country are empty due to COVID-19. But this doesn’t mean playwrights have to stop writing. A northern Illinois theater is giving these artists a medium to showcase their work.  

The Kane Repertory Theatre in St. Charles started a project in May called the New Play Lab.  

Provided by Christopher Sims

Welcome to Poetically Yours, where you'll hear the voices of Illinois poets as they share their words about the world around them. This week features  Christopher Sims of Rockford. This poem is called, "Minneapolis Is Burning."

Minneapolis Is Burning

Minneapolis is burning.

For justice, we Black

people are yearning.

The hate here in the US,

we're confronting,

https://www.facebook.com/brandy.gilliam.3

Some people use their creativity to express how they feel about the world around them. Two northern Illinois musicians are doing just that.

Aurora hip-hop artist Brandy Gilliam, also known as K.I.K. and rock musician Shawnzie Gade are making a timely album. They are asking other local artists to take part. Gilliam explained the vision.

Yvonne Boose

The pandemic is still here but some people seem a little more comfortable with socializing. A monthly gathering in Aurora took place Friday after being totally virtual since April.  

A smaller than usual crowd showed up in downtown Aurora for First Fridays. People wore masks and greeted each other with fist bumps and elbow taps.  

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

14 protesters were arrested Friday during a demonstration organized by the May 30th Alliance outside the Rockford City Market. Upwards of 50 protesters gathered across the street from the market at the Joe Marino Park and called for solidarity. 

 

 

Artist - Barbara Lundeen

“Restore Illinois” Phase 4 plan is giving people the opportunity to enjoy their pastimes. A northern Illinois art center is answering the call by continuing one of its annual exhibits.

This is the third year for the Absolutely Abstract Art Exhibition at the Next Picture Show community fine arts center in Dixon.

Michael Glenn is the executive director of the center. He said there are all sorts of media on display. One includes alcohol ink, which he calls a throwback. 

Tensions escalated during a “Back the Blue” rally held Saturday on the west side of Rockford. In all, 17 protesters were arrested at that and other events over the weekend. 

 

 

The rally drew hundreds of law enforcement supporters to the Winnebago County Criminal Justice Center. Dozens of counter protesters also gathered to disrupt the rally.

 

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

Over the weekend, State Representative John Cabello replied to a Facebook user who asked him if, “now is it time to lock and load? Asking for a friend.” Cabello replied to the comment by saying, “not yet but be ready.” 

Winnebago State’s Attorney Marilyn Hite-Ross said in a press release that the representative’s rhetoric is unacceptable. She said that, "In my office, if anyone made comments of that nature, they would no longer be employed by my office."

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The Freeport Masonic Temple is looking to renovate its nearly century-old building but it needs assistance.

Bill Leser is the chairperson of the fundraising committee for the temple. He said last year’s winter was not kind to the building, specifically, the top.

“We've actually got five roofs here. The worst one is the auditorium, which has to be fixed now," he explained. "So that's scheduled to be repaired by Labor Day.”

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Some religious groups are LGBTQ-affirming. But this hasn’t always been the case. A few individuals remember a different time.   

LGBTQ-affirming churches do not consider homosexuality a sin.

Frank Langholf is the pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Rockford. He identifies as straight.

He said he began to question his thoughts about accepting the gay community into churches after his own life changed.

Yvonne Boose

Some northern Illinois residents felt a sense of normalcy as they enjoyed live music at the park. A city band continued its 166th season with a few changes.

The sun was starting to set in Hopkins Park as the DeKalb Municipal Band filled the air with sweet melodies Tuesday evening.

Kirk Lundbeck is the conductor of the band. He said as soon as Illinois went into Phase 4, he started working hard to put the season together.

Rockford Police Department

The Rockford Police Department announced that the use of force at a police protest in May was lawful and justified.

 

 

After reviewing 120 hours of video footage and 90 police reports, the Rockford Police Department concluded that its use of pepper spray, tear gas and less lethal munitions during the May 30th protest were within proper procedure.

Mayor Tom McNamara said the decision was unanimous.

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Cities across the country have used murals to enhance the look of their neighborhoods. Monday, Rockford unveiled a community mural at SecondFirst Church located at 318 N. Church Street.  

Tia Richardson is a community mural artist from Milwaukee. She worked with the church and Jeremiah Development to raise $30,000 for the mural.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

In Rockford, a parade of cars filled the streets for a demonstration against schools reopening during the pandemic. Quetzia Ramirez is a parent liaison at Jefferson High School and her sign read, "25+ Students In One Classroom Cannot Social Distance."

The car parade began at 10:00 a.m. at Rock Valley College and included upwards of 50 cars. The cars were covered in signs and writing that expressed concern with schools reopening in the fall. Ramirez said that’s why she joined the car parade in the first place. 

 

 

Yvonne Boose

Lots of outdoor concerts normally happen during summertime. COVID-19 hampered some of those plans. But the beat went on for one northern Illinois city.

On a pleasant summer night, people sat in small groups within Woodstock’s town square. They listened to "I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost!"-themed music performed by the Woodstock City Band as part of its 136th Season.  

Daniel Campbell is the managing director of the Woodstock Opera House. He said there were thoughts about canceling the series.

Connie Kuntz

People are still buying houses during the pandemic. But what happens when the demand is greater than the supply? You get a seller’s market. This June marked the biggest year-over-year housing inventory drop in Rockford’s history.  

Conor Brown is the CEO of Rockford Area Realtors. He said there were a number of factors contributing to this housing shortage. COVID-19 was one of them.

Sarah Holmes

This year we witnessed numerous protests across the country. But protesting isn’t new to America. A northern Illinois music library showcases different protest readings and music from the past through an online exhibit.

Sarah Holmes is the music catalog librarian and the interim music librarian at Northern Illinois University. She said the library wanted to do an online exhibit since, because of the state shutdown, there wasn’t anyone in the building.

Mona Buss

Many artists have had to put their shows on hold due to COVID-19. A Lincoln presenter found himself in the same boat until he had a conversation with a musician friend.  

George Buss has presented himself as Lincoln for the past 30 years. He became a full-time Lincoln presenter after he retired from teaching. He said his interest in Lincoln was piqued as he read a history book in seventh grade. It mentioned the City of Freeport.

Farmworker & Landscaper Advocacy Project

The Farmworker & Landscaper Advocacy Project just this week collected upwards of $30,000 in grant money to address the impacts of COVID-19. The group’s mission is to improve working conditions in low-income households including farmworkers, restaurant workers, and meat and poultry workers.

 

To date, the organization has distributed more than a half million dollars in direct cash distributions in the form of one-time $500 cash donations to more than 1,000 Latinos in the region.

 

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An Aurora-based nonprofit with a mission to cultivate community through the arts had to leave the space that housed its bookstore and community center two years ago. The group is now looking to purchase a new building but needs help to do so.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

Governor J.B Pritzker was in Rockford Thursday to encourage everyone in northern Illinois to take the census.

 

He announced that Rockford is running a percentage point behind the rest of the state in its census response rate.

 

Rockford's average response rate is 65.5% compared to 66.9% for the state. And that number ranges within Rockford with some neighborhood neigborhood response rates below 35%.

 

Belvidere is currently well above the state's response rate with 73.1%.

Yvonne Boose

You may not see many young people spending time at coffee shops. A Black business owner wants to change this by making his shop an art resource for more Brown and Black youth in DeKalb.

Jeff Foster is an artist and the owner of Common Grounds Coffee. This shop opened in 2016.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

 

Rockford University announced a new scholarship this week aimed at Black students interested in pursuing business.

 

Between Rockford University and the Puri Foundation, twelve Black students per year will be able to pursue a business degree and graduate with zero debt. That’s thanks to a new scholarship, named after Rockford’s first Black mayor, Charles Box.

 

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An Illinois coalition that advocates changing the state from a flat to a progressive income tax is highlighting public support for an amendment on the November ballot that would do just that.

July 15th is the deadline for filing this year’s income taxes. The Vote Yes for Fair Tax group is using this week to remind people of the upcoming Fair Tax amendment.  This includes voters from Rockford, DeKalb, Peoria, Springfield, Chicago and Metro East.

https://www.gorockford.com/things-to-do/public-art/

Lots of art is exhibited in downtown Rockford. But most times, there is a cost associated with this. Donor support is allowing the continuation of a certain public display.

The Rockford Sculpture Walk is normally presented for two years.  

Kristen Paul is the director of destination development for the Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

She said the 13 sculptures were due to come down in June but the pandemic spoiled that plan.

Photo provided by George Buss

Creativity is not taking a back seat to COVID-19. Some performances are happening with the use of the technology. An Illinois history group is joining in on the fun.

The Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition will virtually host: “Lincoln, The Great Communicator.”

Sarah Watson is the executive director of Looking for Lincoln and the Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area. She said seven shows will take place live. Partner communities will host them on their Facebook pages.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

Rockford’s Board of Fire and Police Commissioners voted unanimously to dismiss a formal complaint against the city’s police chief.

Commissioners found no probable cause to proceed to an evidentiary hearing over a formal complaint alleging that Police Chief Daniel O’Shea violated policy by showing bias and discrimination.

The complaint arose over a comment O’Shea made in May during a news conference.

https://www.sandwichfair.com/

COVID-19 has changed the landscape of the world. Not only does it threaten our health, it’s removed things we may have taken for granted. One is attending large gatherings. A northern Illinois county fair is the latest to feel the blow.

The 2020 Sandwich Fair has been canceled. This is the first time that’s happened since its inception in 1888. It's normally held Wednesday through Friday after Labor Day. 

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