The Sue Duncan Children's Center remains a pillar of the neighborhood as well as grounding for the whole Duncan family. Started in church basements and now housed in an elementary school, its walls are crowded with books and photos of alumni, including actor Michael Clarke Duncan (no relation) and Kerrie Holley, now an IBM fellow.
Sue Duncan, now in her 70s, still goes there daily. And Arne Duncan's brother, Owen, and his sister, Sarah, work in education. It's "the family business," jokes Owen, now the center's director.
As he grew up, Duncan had a razor-sharp view of inequality. During the school day, he had every opportunity imaginable at the elite Lab School, a private school affiliated with the University of Chicago in the Hyde Park neighborhood where he lived. In the afternoon, he was at the center with his mom, learning with and tutoring kids from Kenwood.
"I grew up with folks in mom's school who were smarter than me, more talented, harder working, and just didn't have the opportunities [I had]," Arne Duncan says.
In a neighborhood where everything else pointed to Duncan's differences, basketball became a point of connection. And it was one of the few arenas where the scrawny white teen, who soared to the height of 6 ft., 5 in. much later, didn't have an advantage. But he began wandering Chicago's South Side and the west in search of games, crossing gang territory and playing near crack houses.
"If you want to get better, you have to find the best people to play with," Duncan says during a recent trip to Chicago to play in a charity basketball tournament. "It was pretty simple for me."