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Humboldt Park Youth Find Voice, Leadership Roles

Sixteen-year-old Angel DeJesus believes that if the youth in Humboldt Park came together, “we could really be powerful.” Star Deshay, 15, believes a lot of people are oppressed but don’t even know it.

“I believe youth can make a difference in society,” says 19-year-old Trayjan Vivens, “and our summit today can prove that.”

Angel, Star and Trayjan are just three of the two dozen young leaders from Humboldt Park who stand this morning, one by one, to introduce themselves, their hopes and their plans to peers and supporters in a packed room at the neighborhood’s McCormick YMCA.

The declarations of belief on a clear and warm Saturday in August are mixed in with poems, songs and raps from some of the teens. They tell about the warning signs of violence in the community, about the positive and negative powers of culture, about how American society impacts life on the streets and in the homes of Humboldt Park.

The crowd loves it, and just like that the Youth Rise Up summit is off to a stirring start. For the next five hours, the presenting youth are busy leading the crowd through workshops, performances and discussions, with time to eat and just have some fun.

The summit is the culmination of Youth Service Project’s Summer Arts and Leadership program, which engaged 24 participants for eight weeks in activities that built their understanding of how the world works and what role they can play in changing it.

More than a keep-them-busy summer job, the program was designed to create a cadre of committed young people who will work together as leaders, providing the community with an active youth voice. Humboldt Park and surrounding neighborhoods are tough environments for anyone growing up, with relatively high crime rates, competing gang territories and low income levels.

“I was expecting just a job that would let me get paid this summer,” says DeJesus, a junior at Steinmetz High School who facilitated the summit’s anti-violence break-out session. “But once it started and I got involved, it was a good community and a good environment. We all came together and we’re all in it. We’re family now.”

Leadership ladders

The Summer Arts and Leadership program was launched with a “Get In Chicago” grant from the Public Safety Action Committee, a fund created early in 2013 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago business leaders. LISC Chicago was selected as a grantee because of its strong neighborhood network and experience in community safety. LISC and its partners in Humboldt Park and seven other communities used the funds to expand programs that engaged youth in safe and productive activities.

More than 3,000 youth participate in LISC Chicago safety-focused programming annually. LISC also provides planning support and other tools that help neighborhoods reduce violence and crime.

“We wanted to leverage programs and expertise that already exist in these communities,” says Keri Blackwell, LISC Chicago’s deputy director. “For us and our partners, Get In Chicago has been an opportunity that allowed for innovation and expansion around ongoing work. It’s part of our larger strategy of supporting community-driven safety efforts.”

Public safety has been a priority in Humboldt Park’s quality-of-life plan since it was created for the New Communities Program in 2005. Christy Prahl, the NCP program director at Bikerdike Redevelopment Corp., says that the Humboldt Park Youth Coalition quickly identified YSP—with support from Chicago Commons—as an ideal fit for the Get in Chicago grant.

“We’ve always worked closely with youth, but with this we really challenged ourselves to build a program in partnership with youth,” says Jessica Carrillo, the support services supervisor at Youth Service Project, which provides a wide mix of services for youth and families in greater Humboldt Park.

Carrillo says the summer program incorporated leadership ladders, where older, more experienced youth could help lead discussions and mentor the younger teens, building the skills of the youth to take on leadership roles.

Workshops over the summer covered topics like school closings, racism, feminism and rape culture, and the role of prisons in the U.S. Students learned how to use peace circles to mediate disputes, and the power of protest, art and communication in creating social change.

“The idea was to help create a critical consciousness of how to advocate for yourself and to organize people about things that are unjust,” says Hilda Franco, the youth organizer for the program.

The program’s mix of African-American and Latino youth mirrors the demographics of the greater Humboldt Park neighborhood. Franco says. The group quickly understood the importance of “brown/black solidarity.”

“Youth are taught to see each other as ‘the other’ and not notice what’s alike. That’s the root of violence,” she says. “Are you willing to step away? That’s one of the hardest things to do in a violence culture.”

For youth, by youth

At the summit, the lessons clearly had an impact. “You know how you go to a workshop and it’s just someone talking at you? We learned how to have everyone in the circle participate, how to lead a real discussion,” says Aalliah Pippin, one of the MCs.

“I believe youth can make a difference in society,” says 19-year-old Trayjan Vivens, “and our summit today can prove that.”

“There were a lot of stories shared and a lot of love given. It was an amazing experience, an amazing summer.”

The youth also learned what it takes to be organized and effective. They had to—the summit itself was their responsibility, from planning and facilitating the workshops to making sure enough chairs had been borrowed from other nonprofits to seat the crowd.

“What was distinctly different about this program—what was at its heart and soul—was that it was youth led. And developing leadership skills also means having the experience of putting an event like this on,” says Ann-Meredith Wootton, a graduate student at the University of Chicago School for Social Service Administration who worked with YSP and Franco to run the program.

“For the press release, for instance, I taught them step-by-step how to write one, but they did it all themselves,” Wootton says.

The summit’s afternoon art activities—from making screen prints to a hip-hop performance—reflected the learnings of the whole summer. The arts are a way to tell a story, to get attention, says Wootton. But they’re also a way to establish and nurture relationships.

“If this is your life’s work, we need to have a model that won’t let you burn out,” she says. “Breaking bread, building community—these aren’t extra add-ons. They’re part of the work.”

Franco says the goal was never for every youth who enrolled to become an organizer or an activist. But, she adds, no matter what their future profession—from nurse to entrepreneur—these young people will be prepared to speak out for justice and advocate for peace.

“Often we say we want youth to be leaders, but we don’t give them a chance to be in charge of something,” she says. “With the summit, they’ve been the leaders.”

The next stage

“The program was an unprecedented success in terms of engaging local youth in a fully youth-driven and youth-directed initiative,” says Prahl. “Formerly disengaged young people discovered a space where their voices and contributions held value, and more importantly, power.”

“The model is to have the youth take the lead and how can we, as adults, be allies,” says Adam Avrushin, associate director at YSP. “We’re looking to the youth to positively impact their networks and their community.”

Since the summer ended, a core group of youth have continued to meet. YSP has provided space in their office, and the youth have transformed the space—putting in bamboo flooring and painting murals on the wall.

The next step for program alumni is formation of a Humboldt Park Youth Advisory Council, which will provide youth input to YSP and existing coalitions like the Humboldt Park Youth Coalition. At times, young people have been invited to sit in on meetings, but they’ve never helped make the decisions.

“Youth should be part of the conversation,” Avrushin says, “and their voice should have a critical role.”

With the skills they’ve learned over the summer, the teens in the program are working to write grant applications and meet with funders to continue the youth council.

“This program was important. It really challenged the youth to look at the community and take control of what they can do to change it,” Carrillo says. “If they were able to do all this with just a couple of months to plan, think of what they’ll do going forward.”

For more information: 

Keri Blackwell, LISC Chicago deputy director, 312-422-9558, kblackwell@lisc.org

Adam Avrushin, Youth Service Project associate director, 773-772-6270, aavrushin@youthserviceproject.org

Posted in Safety, Humboldt Park

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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