By: Julian Towers
In the heart of violent, crime ridden West Chicago, Bob Muzikowski, 62, is showing off. This is because Chicago Hope Academy, the faith based, preparatory high-school that he founded in 2005 to lead underprivileged, often gang-related youth to higher education, has a fresh jewel in its crown: a new cross country track. Pointing to the track’s curves and its fine trim of flattened grass— their beauty expressive of the hard work put in by Hope’s volunteering students— Muzikowski positively beams. Pacing outside, unprotected in the chill summer downpour, he doesn’t even seem to notice that he’s completely exposed to the pouring rain. But it’s not as if running off to his parked car could take him away from the storm. After all, Muzikowski only lives a couple blocks away. As he would say, “I’m in it everyday.”
Actively entangled in the sort of inner-city ills that even the most charitable would rather keep at a safe, checkbook sized distance, you could never call Bob Muzikowski self-aggrandizing, and certainly not a hollow white savior. All eleven of Muzikowki’s children (which include four adopted African boys), have or will attend Chicago Hope Academy, and he’s at the school everyday, working with students one-on-one.
He likes to tell the story of how, on election day in 2008, Barak Obama came over from playing Basketball to ask him what the “secret sauce” for cleaning up Chicago was.
“I told him, if you wanna fix an inner city neighborhood move into it. If you wanna fix an inner city school put your own kid in it,” he, and then with a bitter laugh. “Though of course he’ll never do that. Or Rauner. Or Rahm. It’s just talk.”
But for someone so composed of action, with a scorn for empty rhetoric that implicates nearly all other forms of activism (“Go adopt a kid. Have him in your house every single day instead of going to all the bullshit marches in Washington. That’s so fucking, y’know, collegiate.”), a lot of what makes Muzikowski such a curious and invigorating Chicagoland figure is the way he speaks— itself kind of one long, prolonged bitter laugh. Harsh truths escape from him with a nervous, scientific intensity that, though disarming in its humor (“People are dying all over, and we’re trying to make more drugs legal and figure out which bathroom to use! America’s like the big fat kid in Willy Wonka— just spoiled shitless”), seems nearly despondent— born of grief and experience.
“You know it’s tricky,” he says. “You’ve got to be with the people if you want to get anything done. As Christians we believe god made himself into a man and came down to earth to be with the people. Of course that didn’t go so great for him, but we do it anyway.”
Active and engaged faith is an integral part of Hope’s daily program, in both senses of the word. While the school is proudly non-denominational (“ Episcopal, baptist, whatever, who gives a shit.” he says, “You’re either following Jesus or not.”) the trust it demands of students and their families is, in fact, quite discerning. The school’s policy of responsibility begins with a mandatory down payment that ensures parents have “skin in the game—” a show of confidence for future of a child that Hope will then carry into the classroom.
“In the Bible, Jesus is asked ‘how many times should I forgive my brother if he sins against me? Seven?’ and he replies ‘seven times seventy.” says Muzikowski. “So here at hope, if a kid keeps misbehaving, we have a saying: 491. We want these kids to succeed.”
Knowing a little about Muzikowski’s own history helps fill in where this faith comes from. Despite intelligence and promise, the Columbia University graduate spiraled his youth in addiction, waste, and abuse.
“I was a slut, an alcoholic. I did all that.” he recalls. “It was selfish, shallow, and superficial.”
It wasn’t until the age of 28, after landing in a jail cell following a bar fight at the age of 28, that Muzikowski sobered up with the help of religion and Alcoholics Anonymous. Since, each of his own children have gone off to college celibate and substance free, “exorcising [his] demons for him.” Meanwhile, the lessons Hope teaches spread the message further.
“The spiritual part is important.” he says. “I don’t want education to create a bunch of really smart, selfish bad people. Y’know The most important commandment is love your neighbor as you love thyself. We’re creating kids with this judea-christian worldview where its most important that they be good, active people, and if they do really well, that’s good too.”