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Still hoping for change 

Four years later, five Chicagoans reflect on the president they helped elect

Page 4 of 6

Shahshak Ben Levi knows no election will ease the grip of poverty. But Obama still represents hope.

"I graduated from sidewalk high and the college of necessity," Shahshak Ben Levi says.

Levi, 56, spent most of his life in Robert Taylor Homes, the infamous south-side housing project that was demolished in the 2000s. He grew up there with his father, who was a machinist, his mother, and ten brothers and sisters. When he was in seventh grade he got in trouble for "roughhousing" and was transferred to a school for kids with behavior problems. He quit school instead and started bagging groceries at the neighborhood store and washing car mats at the car wash. He's been scraping by ever since.

Levi is six foot six and thin, bearded and graying. He makes a little as a part-time housing activist; a subsidized apartment and food stamps keep him afloat. In 2008, he got a chance to do something he never thought he'd be able to do: help elect a black person president.

He remembers a mix of feelings among blacks in his circle when Obama was running the first time. He and his friends shared an "overwhelming fear" that if Obama were elected he'd be killed. "That's what has always happened to our black leaders," Levi says. "I'm thinking, 'Do he live to see the end of those four years?'"

There was a second fear: "You had those who felt he was a token nigger, bought and paid for by the white corporate structure—that he was only gonna carry out their means.

Shahshak Ben Levi knows no election will ease the grip of poverty. But Obama still represents hope.
  • Shahshak Ben Levi spent most of his life in Robert Taylor Homes and relies on a subsidized apartment and food stamps to survive.
  • Andrea Bauer

"And then you had the overwhelming amount who was just rah, rah, rah that we had a black person who could actually end up president," Levi says. He himself "got caught up in the excitement" on occasion. "But at other times you just looked at the sheer reality. Whether he win or he don't win, is that actually gonna change my life one bit? I was unemployed the day before I went to vote, I was unemployed the day that I voted, I was unemployed the day after. So what dramatical difference did it make for me personally? None."

"I understand that there were things he needed to do before he could turn his attention to us. But I also see that it was never about us anyway."

Almost four years after Obama's election, times are still hard for Levi and the former Robert Taylor residents he knows. The last of the Taylor high-rises came down in 2007. Levi still lives nearby. Jobs remain scarce, and the neighborhood's poverty hasn't abated. But Levi doesn't blame Obama.

"The majority of us knew that before he can do anything, he's got to deal with eight years of [President George W.] Bush," Levi says. "There was economical devastation, housing devastation. What's the likelihood that he's gonna turn everything around in four years after what this man did, and the two wars he done started? It's gonna take you easily your first three years to get a grip on what's going on. So I understand that there were things he needed to do before he could turn his attention to us. But I also see that it was never about us anyway."

By which Levi means he isn't especially optimistic that things will improve much for the poor if Obama wins a second term. During the presidential campaign, "there's been no talk on either side of the aisle about extremely low-income families." He'd like to see more help for public housing residents who were displaced when the projects were razed. "But there are in the minds of others far more pressing issues than public housing," he says. "That's been the history of things. No one tends to care about the poor."

That's certainly true of Romney, Levi says, and for good reason. "You cannot ask someone who has been one of the most extremely rich persons to comprehend what it is to be poor. It's irrelevant to him. It'd be like me trying to run a big corporation. What can he possibly bring to the table?"

Levi's proud of what Obama has accomplished so far, given the circumstances. He credits him for extending food stamps and several other safety-net programs. He praises him for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Obama has "shown many of the neocolonials that black people actually can think and function on levels that they never imagined."

And he holds out hope that despite the political constraints, Obama will find a way in a second term to do more for the disadvantaged than he's done so far. "I know you can't just come straight out and say I'm fitting to sign this bill and it's gonna help the extremely low-income, because your adversaries will eat you alive," Levi says. "But indirectly there are things you can do."

Steve Bogira

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