‘I’m fierce about what I’m doing’

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For photographer Martha Brock, a hug means a thousand words. Brock, 39, has been a tutor for the past three years in the Working In The Schools (WITS) program.

She grew up a sharecropper’s daughter, one of 15 children, in a rural Mississippi town. But there was always time for sage advice, support for education and hugs. As a 1st-grade tutor at Manierre Elementary, Brock wants to instill similar values. Manierre serves 500 students on the Near North Side.

“I’m fierce about what I’m doing,” she says. “When I’m in class, I often give the students a hug to show them love. [Outside school] some students get hugs, but many don’t. To me, actions are so much greater than words.”

Brock owns her own company, Martha Brock Photography, based in Oak Park. She shoots images for Vibe, Essence, Ebony, and Jet magazines, WGCI radio station and the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Defender newspapers. She’s also a member of the Professional Photographers Association.

And it was her photography that led her to WITS. While trying to photograph John F. Kennedy Jr., Kevin Costner and Maria Shriver at a National Democratic Convention soiree in Chicago, she was given a WITS brochure by one of the founders, Marion Stone. “I was trying to take pictures, and this lady got in the way,” she recalls, laughing. “I wasn’t interested in reading the brochure. Later I did and decided to call.”

Brock has been tutoring ever since. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Mississippi Valley State University in Ittabena, and attended Humphrey County Elementary School and Humphrey High School.

She is still surprised by the differences between the North and the South, where education was limited and blacks and whites grew up separately, she recalls. Her most unforgettable childhood memory was the day the Ku Klux Klan terrorized her school bus.

“I’ll never forget that day. They were hiding in the bushes and made the bus driver, who was black, stop. They were looking for an African-American male, but of course they didn’t use those words. The bus driver told us to crouch down in the seats while the Klan got on the bus to search.”

Today, she finds there is often a weak link between students and their parents. Tutoring sometimes helps to close that gap.

“I know we’re not supposed to get close to the kids, but it’s hard not to care,” she says. “When I was growing up, there were times when we didn’t have enough to eat. I didn’t have tutors; there weren’t these machinations in place. I let the kids know, ‘I could be doing something else, but I choose to be with you.'”