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Englewood, Chatham, Auburn Gresham

How This Englewood Engineer Became A Full-Time ‘Defender’ Of The South Side

When Tiana Morgan began college, she was warned to stay away from the South Side — where she was born and raised. As she rose in her career, she became dedicated to challenging harmful narratives about her community.

Tiana Morgan
Tonika Johnson

As part of The Folded Map Project, Tonika Lewis Johnson and sociologist Maria Krysan interviewed 30 people about how they first confronted — and eventually combatted — harmful narratives about Chicago’s South and West sides. Block Club Chicago is publishing five of these stories. We invite you to join us June 30 on YouTube for Making Chicago’s Segregation Personal, a live conversation about neighborhood stereotypes, segregation and how you can better understand your community by getting to know someone else’s.

This is the third story in a five-part series. Read the first here and the second here.

BRONZEVILLE — Many people told to avoid the South and West sides are taught that lesson before ever setting foot in those neighborhoods.

Tiana Morgan got that message, too, during orientation at Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville. But unlike most of her classmates, she grew up in Englewood.

“I can say that was the first time I heard ‘don’t go [to the South Side]’,” Morgan said. “Probably because I’ve been on the South Side all my life.”

Hearing her neighborhood presented in such a way was jarring, and she soon found herself becoming somewhat of an ambassador for the South Side. As she advanced in her career, she found herself confronting misconceptions about the South and West sides more — and began challenging people to dissect how they developed these perceptions in hopes of helping them see how they were wrongly disparaging entire swaths of the city and its people.

“I try to speak up. I can’t help myself, because I’m South Side proud,” she said. “So when people say anything bad about it, I’m usually like, ‘Who told you? Have you been there? Or are you just going off somebody’s word of mouth? Come with me. I’ll take you around.'”

‘I have to defend it all the time’

Morgan was born and raised in Englewood by a single mother, sharing her grandparents’ house with her mom, twin brother and younger sister. 

She had “… a great childhood. I never felt like I was scared or anything like that growing up.  It was a great block. A lot of older people. My grandparents…were one of the first black families on the block when they purchased their home.” 

A valedictorian in her 8th grade class at Altgeld Elementary at 71st Street and Loomis Boulevard, Morgan became more interested in computers, science and math when she attended Dunbar Vocational High School. When it was time for college, she had her choice of schools around the state, but her uncle had always told her IIT was the place to go if you’re interested in engineering. 

She resolved to go to IIT in part because “of all the times I walked through or near the campus, I never saw anyone that looked like me,” she said. “So I vowed that I would be that one person that somebody saw and said, ‘Hey, I can go there. I see someone like me, I can go there.’”  

When she enrolled in 2000, just five percent of IIT students were Black and about one-third were international students.

“I was excited to learn about new cultures,” Morgan said. “I remember the first person I saw that was Black, when she started talking, she had an English accent. She was from Zimbabwe, but she grew up in London. I was also the first Black person she met. She hung out with me and my mom all day and we are still friends to this day.” 

But Morgan wasn’t prepared for when she, her mother and new friend sat down in the auditorium for parent/student orientation.

“I watched the presenters tell a whole auditorium of mostly-white and International students not to go east of Michigan Avenue, north of 31st Street, south of 35th Street and west of the Dan Ryan because it’s unsafe. They also told people to not ride the Red Line. I was in utter shock and my mom was, too.”

“I remember seeing my mom’s face, and she said, ‘So they basically just told people not to leave campus. Not to even travel.’”

Looking back, she realized her mom was putting up a good front for her daughter who was about to attend this school. But her “whole face changed. And it was just showing distaste. Like she was just disgusted that they would say anything like that, to a room full of people. …These are people from all over the world. And you’re telling them that their neighborhood is unsafe. So stay on campus. And do not leave.”

While Morgan explored other neighborhoods as a child, she was college was the first time she’d heard people talk so openly about avoiding the South Side — and she couldn’t understand why people would say that. 

She used to walk around the neighborhoods surrounding IIT, and “I remember … looking at the brownstones, and I was like ‘I want to live here.’ I was so amazed at how huge the houses were and how beautiful the houses were. And to hear somebody talk about it … like it’s trash or like it’s some unsafe place to be, it was just disheartening.

“But I tried to always speak up for it and say, ‘well if you’re nervous about going, I’ll go with you, let’s walk.'”

She went a step further and started bringing classmates to her neighborhood. For Thanksgiving, she’d gather classmates from around the world — India, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and South Carolina — jump on the bus and go to her mother’s in Englewood.

“I remember just sitting in my mom’s living room—it was not a big apartment—but they would come and they experienced our culture, experienced what Thanksgiving was to us,” she said.

Morgan graduated from IIT in 2004 and became an engineer. As one of the only women in her office —and the only Black woman — defending the South Side became a regular part of her professional life, too.  

A few years ago, she was attending a work banquet to receive an award and sitting with a man who was new to the Chicago area and looking for a place to live. Their office was in Indiana, so Morgan suggested to he go house hunting in Beverly or Morgan Park.

“’Oh, the South Side? Yeah, they told me to stay away from the South Side,” the man said.

Morgan said she had to pause to avoid saying something she would regret to a manager. But “…in my head I was ready to snap and ask, ‘Who told you that?’” 

“He’s not even from here,” she said. “And they told him to stay away from the South Side. The person who told him that probably has never stepped foot on the South Side. That’s usually how it is. People that have never been on the South Side, and they have everything to say about the South Side. Because of the news. And it’s like, you keep perpetuating this stereotype of this side of town. The same things are said about the West Side. You perpetuate that it’s bad.”

In their book, Cycle of Segregation, sociologist Maria Krysan and her co-author point to these kinds of “hidden in plain sight” factors that perpetuate segregation. Among them are news media portrayals and social networks that are deeply racialized and help shape people’s perceptions of communities.

Morgan could see that dynamic playing out at IIT and throughout her professional life.

“A number of people I met [at orientation] had never been around a Black person before,” she said. “When you have never been around a certain group, you tend to build up unconscious biases and stereotypes about a whole group of people that you know absolutely nothing about, and usually off something you’ve seen on TV. Then you get to a school that tells you not to leave the campus because the surrounding area is dangerous. Then you look at who resides in the surrounding area and take note that it’s Black and Brown people. Therefore, Black and Brown people must be dangerous, right? This creates racism and prejudices in a whole new generation of people.”

Her lifelong ambassadorship for the South Side comes at a cost. She admits she doesn’t always specify where in Chicago she’s from to avoid the inevitable myth busting about Englewood.

“… at some point, it gets tiring. I guess you could say that I have to defend it all the time. I definitely talk about how I’m proud to have grown up on the South Side. And to me it has made me who I am.”

More than standing up for her neighborhood, she has to protect herself against the idea she must be exceptional because she’s a successful Black woman from the South Side.

“Guess what, there are a lot of us that are successful from Englewood and neighborhoods like it,” Morgan said. “…people have that, ‘oh, you’re different, or you’re one of the different ones.’ And I’m like, ‘No, those people are me. And I’m them.’”

The racial justice movement over the past year has renewed her energy to continue dispelling these stubborn narratives about where she grew up. She connected with the Folded Map project for that reason.

“I feel like now people are open to having the conversation. Open to learning about your experiences and about your neighborhood,” she said. “I think this is perfect timing for Folded Map. People are more open to explore. And even if they don’t physically go, they’re more open to learning about why these neighborhoods are the way they are.”

She finds it discouraging to think about the fact that her mother was having these same conversations 50 years ago. She doesn’t want her kids to have these conversations 50 years from now. And she has hope this time the conversations will happen, real change will come of it, and she can spend less time defending her neighborhood and more time sharing her pride in it.

“This is the time for people to get out of your own box, and figure out what the rest of the world is about,” she said.  

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