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Messiah Equiano talking with CPD officers at his Love Pop-Up block party//Courtesy of Messiah Equiano

It’s hard to say Chi-Rise aloud without thinking of the infamous “chiraq,” a once-romanticized Drill rhyme describing the harsh realities of the hood that’s since been flipped into a derogatory identifier of Black Chicago.

That’s why Messiah Equiano dubbed his nonprofit initiative, Chi-Rise. The South Sider wanted to instill in Chicago youth a sense of hope for the future amid the ongoing bloody headlines. After the 2015 release of Spike Lee’s uber controversial film, Chi-Raq, Equiano witnessed an increase in negative sentiments regarding the city once known for its Chicago Bulls dynasty.

“Everywhere I went outside of Chicago, the first thing that people said is: ‘Man, you made it out of there? It’s chiraq up there,’” Equiano says, recalling trips to Atlanta and Los Angeles. “The Chi-Rise thing grew [out] of me thinking about what we can do to change the narrative.”

Initially, Chi-Rise materialized as a short film series of the same name in 2016. The idea came naturally to Equiano, who is an actor and playwright of the popular play, “The Penis Monologues.” Featuring an opening message from Chicago Sports Network analyst and former Bulls guard Kendall Gill, the six-minute film highlights the hard work – on and off the court – of Richards High School basketball star Jaylan Catledge.

As the possibilities for Chi-Rise grew, Equiano saw a need to expand beyond the film. His concept evolved into a multilayered organization comprised of three goals – the Chi-Rise film, community involvement and spreading love through positive messaging.

In 2016, the nonprofit partnered with the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox to pass out 10,000 Chi-Rise T-shirts at the Crosstown Classic. During the games, Equiano and both teams honored respected community leaders and police officers as well.

“I wanted to create a visual stimuli for people to go into a space of peace,” Equiano says.

So Equiano went back to his native Englewood community in summer 2016 for his inaugural Love Pop-Up block party. Bustling with kids of all ages, a bounce house and finger-painting booths, Equiano’s annual party brings unity and fun to a neighborhood often riddled with violence and tense police relations. He hosted a second Love Pop-Up party on Memorial Day on 83rd and Paulina streets.

“Chi-Rise really means everyone rising to be their best self,” Equiano explains, “and as you’re being your best self in whatever you do, you’re inspiring others to continue to be their best self and we all rise together.”

Two girls showing off their face paintings at Chi-Rise’s Love Pop-Up party//Courtesy of Messiah Equiano

Equiano also is passionate about inspiring Chicago kids and teens through academics. In 2016, he took his Chi-Rise Media Program into Paul Revere Elementary School, Lawndale Elementary Community Academy, Haugan Elementary School and Vanderpoel Elementary Magnet School, where he introduced students to the ever-evolving world of media. He’s working to bring the program back this school year.

During the summer, Chi-Rise partnered with Future Ties, a nonprofit started by Chicago Police officer Jennifer Maddox, to show about 50 teens living in Parkway Gardens how to shoot, produce and direct their own short documentary. “They like cameras. They want to be actors and actresses. So using that energy and desire that’s already within them is our goal and mission,” Equiano adds.

Unfortunately, the summer program – which lasted for seven weeks – was suspended shortly before the school year began. The documentary, which illustrates that good things and good people can come out of the South Side low-income housing complex, is scheduled to be ready for viewing this week. Next year, Equiano hopes to keep the program rolling throughout the school year so students can continue doing the things they love.

“If we keep canceling programming for the youth, then the thing that they enjoy doing isn’t available anymore,” Equiano says. “We’re working to stay engaged no matter what.”

His next venture is Love Mass, a holiday-themed party aimed at bringing together people from various religious backgrounds and beliefs to celebrate life, love and unity under one roof. The event, scheduled for December, will include performances from local musicians, poets and dancers.

“I don’t think there’s any right or wrong formula,” Equiano says about healing Chicago. “Continuous engagement is what we’re here for.”

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