Smile Politely

Dispatches from isloation: April 30th

This  column offers a glimpse into how people in C-U are working and spending their time during this stay-at-home order. You can read previous installments here. Have questions, or want to suggest a person for this series? Email us at [email protected].

How are you spending your days in isolation?


7 a.m.

A woman looks into a large bathroom vanity mirror. She is putting on lipstick. The reflection also appears in a smaller, round countertop mirror. Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

I wake up squished between a girlfriend and a beagle, readying myself like a cross-country truck driver for another long haul day.

I roll off the bed. Being clean and dressed up is usually not the highest priority while quarantined, but today I have what my girlfriend Jane calls “fancy meetings.” I put on rainbow tights and my handmade purple mini skirt.  Not so fancy, but on Zoom calls they can’t see you from the waist down. On top, I wear a suit jacket and add lipstick. 

7:20 a.m.

Two adults and a child are at a long dining table. There are breakfast dishes on the table. There is a beagle laying on the floor nearby. The view is above, likely from a staircase overlooking the dining area. Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Jane has made pancakes and eggs, which I eat with the homemade yogurt I just learned how to make — I’m trying to restore my gut from antibiotics. After four weeks of a sore throat and headaches, I have never been so happy to get a strep throat diagnosis. Our household, dubbed #Quaranteam, has been eating three sit-down square meals a day; it’s what anchors us in these uncertain times.

7:50 a.m.

Ezra and I rinse the alfalfa sprouts, which are an amazing immune system booster. I am taking vitamins C and D, zinc, elderberry, medicinal mushrooms, and astragalus everyday, following the guidance of Dr. Weil and other integrative medicine doctors.

8 a.m.

Ezra starts “school.” In mid March we started with this. A structure Jane created, channeling the many teachers in her family, to have him cover eight subjects every day, where he plans out his week pulling from pre-made assignments and ones he makes himself. It was awesome but hard for me to keep up while logging 50-60 hour weeks doing coronavirus crisis response.

Now his school looks more like this: Nestled under the plate glass window reading whatever strikes his fancy for as long as he wants. After reading, he will practice Spanish with Duolingo, Math with Khan Academy, and do the writing assignments sent by his teacher, sneaking in a game of Minecraft whenever he can. I am grateful in this moment that I can teach Ezra practical skills: cooking, cleaning, building, taking care of animals.

8:05 a.m.

Screenshot of the header of the Democratize This! website. Screenshot by Danielle Chynoweth.

Screenshot by Danielle Chynoweth.

Before work, I dial up my co-author, Elizabeth Adams, music composer and new mother who lives in Brooklyn. Since 2018, we have been working on a book entitled DemocratizeThis! How We Make the World We Want in response to the question: How do we make systems change? The book is nearing a final draft. Our DemocratizeThis! workshops for the Left Forum, Allied Media Conference, and others have been cancelled or are uncertain, so we are planning an online workshop series this summer. Hurriedly, we list guest presenters and artists to invite, deciding to provide stipends as so many people are low on work.

8:40 a.m.

I get settled in the guest bedroom-turned-office as the dog takes his regal position sitting on the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe to oversee my work for the day.

A beagle looks into the camera. It is laying on a bed or couch, on colorful blankets. The wall behind it is bright red. Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

I start by checking in how food deliveries went. Cunningham Township participants get only $6.40 per day in food subsidies so there is no way they can stock up to quarantine. With the Red Herring Restaurant, we launched a Bucket Brigade, funded by our angel donor fund. If you know someone in need, have them call Township: 217-384-4144. You can order delicious delivered food from the Red Herring and add the item “Pay it Forward” to pay for meals for neighbors in need.

This week, each bucket had a hand sewn mask made by Rachel Ingram, who is my new hero. Seriously: She and Mike (Ingram, on the County Board), have organized a crew to make 400+ masks for homeless shelters, senior centers, the jail, and township. And mad props to Jacqueline Hannah for making masks for all our township staff (and this small volunteer) weeks ago!

Next time you feel like passing out from reading the news, just think about everything our community has done to care for each other: massive community food distribution, the University of Illinois stepping up to make home grown tests and ventilators, Wi-Fi buses for kids to do their homework, awesome resource guides like this one from the YMCA, or this one by UI School of Social Work. Don’t ever give in to despair, fear, and propaganda. We have all the wisdom and resources we need to make a world where everyone is valued and cared for.

9:30 a.m.

Screenshot of a Ring doorbell video. Screenshot by Danielle Chynoweth.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Next up, I walk the three blocks to Township and slip in the back door, shouting hello from the hallway before going into my office. Our space is not big enough for social distancing for all staff, and many of us are homeschooling children, so over half of our team now work from home. The rest wear masks and stay in separate offices. The phone still rings off the hook, but the walk in traffic has slowed and we answer the door using a video doorbell.

I sign $45,000 worth of checks to 150 struggling Urbana households, many of whom just lost their jobs in the pandemic. At the end of February we only had 96 cases. We are bracing for 200 cases by summer. Amongst the newcomers there was a check for a young piano teacher who can no longer teach at the neighborhood church. And there was the check for a man just released from prison: His education stopped at fifth grade and as he explained in his application, he would like to “clean, do yard work, and care for the elderly.” I want that for him too.

11 a.m.

A child holds a tablet and is video chatting with a woman. On the tablet screen, both faces are covered in clown facial markings, including big, red noses. Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

I go back home to help Ezra get started on Facebook Messenger video for a history lesson with his grandmother. All of the cousins have gathered from the French Alps,  the mountains of New Mexico, and the People’s Republic of Urbana to discuss what they know about their birth stories. “History isn’t something that’s just out there,” says my mom to the children. “It is something each of you have.” They end the lesson by making ridiculous clown faces.

11:10 a.m.

I start our daily Zoom call. Township is the ER for poverty and homelessness — an already existing crisis made worse by the pandemic. To hold #TeamTownship together in these times, we have a daily check in where we gather to troubleshoot, prioritize, and distribute the load. #LookingLikeTheBradyBunch

Screenshot of a Zoom video call with seven different video calls. Screenshot by Danielle Chynoweth.

Screenshot by Danielle Chynoweth.

Today is our intern Naomi’s last day and we share praise and laughs: “I will never forget that day right before we shut down when I sprayed you with Lysol!” During the call, we surprise Naomi with a delivery of doughnuts to her Chicago apartment.

12:10 p.m.

I break for lunch Ezra and go check on the chickens, and they have once again dumped over their food and water. My first reaction to pandemic panic was to buy chicks, worried we would some day find ourselves without my favorite superfood: eggs.

12:30 p.m.

A child leans up and into a lilac bush, smelling the flowers. He is wearing a blue coat and gray sweatpants. Behind him is a yellow house with purple trim. Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

We walk around the block to move our bodies and practice identifying spring flowers: bleeding hearts, violets, trillium, and tulips. You could call this “life” but right now it is called “science class.” Ezra has a rapturous moment with the lilac bush.

1 p.m.

We have dithered for too long so lunch is a rush of canned soup and sandwiches. I check Ezra’s work. He is sailing through Duolingo and wants me to buy the premium version so he can earn more hearts. I say “no.”

1:45 p.m.

Screenshot of video call. Carol Ammons is pictured in the large, full screen window. In a smaller window in the bottom right hand corner is Danielle Chynoweth. Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Screenshot by Danielle Chynoweth.

I jump on a meeting with our State Representative Carol Ammons and the Illinois Housing Development Authority. The short version is housing developers get massive tax breaks for developing “affordable” units (that end up costing on par with market rate rents). As part of this deal, they agree to set aside a certain number of units to be filled from the Statewide Referral Network (SRN), a list of people in need of housing who are homeless, disabled, or vulnerable.  But the SRN is not working, or being ignored by some properties (like that shiny new development in North Champaign called Bristol Place). IDHA takes our concerns seriously. I’m relieved the meeting went well. (See how serious Carol and I look?)

2:45 p.m.

After I shake the sweat off of my State Officials talk, I hop into the middle of a presentation by undergraduates in Social Work who did a series of projects for Cunningham Township this semester. “Zoom hopping” sounds like train hopping, but much less exciting. Much of each day, I pop in and out of rooms full of people sitting in their offices (or bedrooms) feeling self conscious of watching themselves on video.

4 p.m.

The day is winding down when I get another message about the young woman who was brutalized by Urbana police on Good Friday while it was captured on video from above and close up. My body has been shaking about this for weeks. This is the same woman who was tasered without warning in the county jail when she protested being put in a cell with women coughing and throwing up, breaking the jail quarantine for two weeks. She is the same one who was put on trial and found guilty without any representation by the City of Urbana and Police Chief last Monday. She is now facing up to 12 years in prison. I ask you to please become informed and speak your conscience about this event: [email protected] and [email protected]. I pause to pray for her future and for all those involved, including the officer who was injured, our elected leaders who are called on to respond, and the many dozens of members of the public who have spoken out and have yet to have a single word of theirs printed in the paper.

4:35 p.m.

Deep breath. I lay flat on my back to reverse the damage of computer time. Now it is kid time. Ezra and I have been studying the ancestral roots of different animal kingdoms. Today, quite spontaneously, he points out to me that the ancestral roots of the bee are older than that of the dinosaur.

5 p.m.

A child with blond hair enthusiastically sprays seedlings with a water spray bottle. There is a table of seedlings in three trays in front of a window. The child is yelling, his mouth open and tounge out. Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Ezra waters his zennias and Jane’s tomatoes while rocking out.

5:30 p.m.

Ezra and I play John Prine’s Paradise on ukulele and guitar. Every time we do this, I feel my father, who passed away two years ago, draw near. My son is playing the same uke I played and my father played. We are playing the same song my dad and I sang when I was six, and for the next 40 years. Time feels telescoped and precious.

6 p.m.

Mark Enslin and Carol Huang stop by to grab the black raspberries I have pulled from my yard. Just before the virus hit New York, Mark drove all the way there to rescue Carol, who teaches at CUNY.

6:30 p.m.

Frankly, at this point, I am tired. I want comfort food that I don’t have to cook. We order takeout from Stango Cuisine, a Zambian restaurant that had the misfortune of moving into a bigger space right before the pandemic hit. I don’t know how they are paying rent. I only know that their plantains, beignets, and curry chicken are melt-in-your-mouth amazing, and that the owner, Betty, will personally answer the phone: (844) 497-6835.

7 p.m.

On a large front porch, Danielle Chynoweth is pictured in the foreground, wearing a knit hat and a red jacket. There are bowls of food on the table in front of her. Her son Ezra is pictured on the left, leaning into the frame. On the other end of the porch is Miriam Larson, who is seated alone and also eating. Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Our friend Miriam Larson, the new Executive Director of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, joins us on our front porch. We set up a separate table ten feet away, sanitize everything, and eat while chatting about our days and drinking beer from the Blind Pig brewery. These days, I consciously keep as much of my money as possible local. I call in an order of groceries for curb side pick up from Common Ground Food Coop, shop online for books from Jane Addams Book store (pick up is Saturdays 1-4 p.m.), and order art supplies for delivery from the Art Coop.

8 p.m.

Jane goes to sand the floors of her “Tiny House,” an abandoned little farm house in East Urbana that she is bringing back to life. Ezra and I play our favorite game of ping pong: how many continuous times can we hit it? Our record is 20. We make it to 15 before devolving into a game of Loco Ping Pong where we go crazy until we break a ball and are laughing too hard to play.

8:30 p.m.

A boy reads an illustrated book while lying in bed. He is wearing a blue astronaut shirt. Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Ezra reads to his grandmother and then she reads a Nancy Drew chapter to him.

As always requested, I sing the Hobo’s Lullaby to Ezra. I try to change the words to be funny, but he stops me.

9:15 p.m.

A half hour later I wake up realizing I have fallen asleep while singing. This is typical.

9:30 p.m.

I stay up trying to turn the chicken scratches in my journal into this dispatch. I know that if I don’t do it now, it will not get done.

3 a.m.

Jane comes home covered in saw dust, washes off and gets in bed.

Danielle Chynoweth has been organizing for social justice for 30 years. Danielle currently serves as Cunningham Township Supervisor and Field Instructor at the UI School of Social Work, as well as on the boards of the Housing Authority of Champaign County, Champaign Urbana Public Health and the Independent Media Center, which she co-founded in 2000. From 2014-2016 Danielle was the Organizing Director at the Center for Media Justice, where she coordinated a national network to win campaigns for net neutrality, prison phone justice, and broadband expansion for low-income families. In 2014 she managed the local campaign for Carol Ammons for State Representative. In 2011, she became the mother of Ezra Shine. In 2009 she managed the national campaign that won passage of the Local Community Radio Act. From 2001-2008, she served on Urbana City Council, spearheading the creation of the city’s public arts program, living wage ordinance, and civilian review board of police. She was Vice-President and partner of Pixo Tech. She was awarded McKinley Foundation Social Justice Award in 2018, Woman of the Year by Central Illinois Business Magazine in 2011, the Ace Award for Creative Community Service in 2007.

Top image by Danielle Chynoweth.

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