On May 6, young people of all ages gathered at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters for the first annual youth leader summit hosted by Vocal Justice, a nonprofit that engages youths in justice-oriented public speaking events. The event was designed to center young people’s voices and opinions, and empower them as they navigate the world. 

Young people have been in the headlines recently: last month, amid unseasonably warm weather, hundreds of youth gathered in the Loop, and some took part in violence. At the time, Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson issued a statement on social media that called the violence “destructive” and added that it’s “not constructive to demonize youth.” Despite that, editorial pages and some alders called on Johnson to “hold parents accountable.” But youth leaders who attended the Vocal Justice summit saw the situation as more nuanced. 

The violence was “uncalled for,” said Tae A., a 17-year-old from North Lawndale who spoke to The TRiiBE at the summit. “But at the same time, you can’t blame kids for going out and having fun when we were already cooped up for a whole year” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To open the summit, Shawon Jackson, the founder of Vocal Justice, gave the crowd an energetic welcome alongside the nonprofit’s program manager, Naomi Daugherty. The two encouraged attendees to make friends and speak up, and shared goals for the summit and a list of community norms of how participants should conduct themselves in the space and in conversation with one another. 

“Our mission is to position youth who are proximate to injustice as leaders for social change,” Jackson said. “When we say ‘proximate youth,’ we’re talking about any young person who’s been impacted by oppression: Black and brown youth, youth in resource constrained communities, queer youth and other individuals who’ve seen first-hand how those injustices play out in their lives.” 

Young people volunteered their own understanding of each community norm, and cheered each other on as they spoke. The continued cheering and excitement was a central theme of the event, as participants enthusiastically joined in on call-and-responses, games, and breathing exercises.

Jackson noted that community is a critical aspect of social change, and wanting to build community was the catalyst for the summit. In order to create a bridge between Vocal Justice’s youth across the city, this convening held space for students to meet each other in a way they might not otherwise have been able to, as well as young people who aren’t involved with the organization at all. 

“The second big part was thinking about how we can make sure adults are receiving young people’s power well, and really respecting and honoring their voice. And so we wanted this convening space to be an opportunity for adults to take a back seat and listen to what young people have to say,” Jackson said. The adults that were present were there to be a resource for young people while affirming their thoughts and experiences. 

The event’s workshops expounded on a variety of topics. Youth leaders from the Chicago Freedom School facilitated a workshop titled “Identity, Power, and Resistance: A Look At Adultism,” and adult allies from Convivir LLC led a workshop on  developing consciousness around age. Damon Williams of Let Us Breathe gave his expertise in long-term movement building, while Des Owusu, founder of the clothing brand We All We Got, spoke to young people about using fashion to spark social change. 

Young attendees gave speeches about immigration, racism and poverty, and a group of students from Thornton Fractional South High School in suburban Lansing, IL gave a presentation on mental health. Then, participants broke out into small groups for discussions on various topics. 

The support from their peers prompted many young people to stand up and speak, even if it took them out of their comfort zone. Jackson said he believes that growth in confidence is an important aspect of social change, because it may increase the likelihood that the young people will pursue projects within their respective communities.

The TRiiBE spoke with two young Chicagoans at the summit to hear more about the potential impact of such organizations, and to get their thoughts about Chicago’s social climate at large. Tae A., 17, is from North Lawndale, and Zyon M., 13, is from Englewood. 

 

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The TRiiBE: What do you think about the summit, and how do you see what they’re talking about working in your neighborhood or in Chicago? 

Tae: When I first got here, I didn’t want to speak to anybody because I didn’t know anyone besides, like, the people I came in with. But the [facilitators] being more involved made me want to be more vocal. I was thinking about something one of the kids said about redlining: my area, that was one of the biggest areas [affected by redlining] in the 1980s I think. If we look to better the abandoned buildings in the area and the location and just better the people in that community, I feel like that can be a change I can also help create, but also just as a community, pushing through. 

Zyon: I felt it was very good, it was relaxing. And it actually gave me a chance to see the perspective of other people and people who related to me. It made me get some stuff off my chest. It was kind of like a community, like we were family. 

[In reference to youth speeches] When they were talking about racism and immigrants, I liked that part because it started to open up and show peoples struggles and could help you through struggles that you probably have. The one that actually really spoke to me was Jose’s, because I had a friend not too long ago, she’s Mexican, her whole family got deported but she was stuck in Chicago. 

I made a lot of friends; most of them were high schoolers. I might actually look into going to their high schools. 

What do you think the city should be doing for young people, especially young Black people on the South and West Sides? 

Tae: I feel like it starts with our schooling system, like our education system doesn’t really prepare us for real-world problems. It prepares us for solving a2 + b2 = c2, but it doesn’t protect us and prevent us from being submerged in tax debt or credit card debt; you kind of just jump into those things. I’ll start learning those things when I’m in college, but I’m already going into debt, trying to go to college. 

It kind of feels like prison, like it feels like prison. Horrible food, you got to be in this class, then you gotta be in here; that’s basically just like being in a jail cell for this amount of hours, then you finally get to go out and have your time on the yard.

Zyon: I see [it as] a process because there’s multiple [organizations] that actually get people together, and they have a form of “vocal justice” they put together to make Chicago better. 

What do you wish you saw more of in your neighborhood? 

Tae: I wish I seen people more together. The neighborhood I’m from is so divided. I feel like when I was younger we had a sense of community, we had a sense of culture, and there was a common ground of respect. 

Zyon: I feel like the City could provide more counseling to help people get stuff off their chest or speak about things they feel like they can’t talk to people about; more stuff like that. I wish I could see less guns on the street, and more people who need help getting the help they need. 

Do you know of any violence prevention programs? 

Tae: Honestly, I’ve never heard of one. I feel like it starts with the person who sees it. Honestly, I feel like those different [organizations] only work when it comes to the people actually putting the effort in. 

Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson has talked about starting a summer jobs program for young people. What do you think about that? 

Tae: I feel like it’s a beautiful thing to see that, as a young person myself, we’re being more [included], we’re gonna have more of a choice. It’s helping us because sometimes our parents don’t always have the resources. So I feel like it’s a good thing to see that now we can provide those resources for ourselves through the money that we’re earning from the government or whoever’s supplying that resource.

What are you looking forward to this summer? 

Zyon: Going and having fun with my friends with no worries.

Tae: Money. I want to better myself. Also, I want to become the person that I envision myself being, I want to go to the gym more and just be a better person in general. I wanna be different from people I see messing up our generation.

What are you worried about this summer? 

Zyon: If we feel that we wanna go somewhere, that it’s not safe. 

Tae: Honestly, I worry I might lose my life. And I feel like that’s a daily thing. Considering I’m a Black male, I got dreads, I fit the stereotype. So I feel like I’m worried that I might lose my life. I’ve been in a lot of predicaments where I could have, so it’s like, it’s always a worry. I’m also worried that, kids, we might lose a lot of people this summer—not even just my life, but it’s a lot of kids my age who have been in a lot of predicaments, and we’ve been losing a lot of young [people] lately. I feel like I’ve seen a lot of people die around me, so I feel like that’s something that’s going to scare me.

What do you think about the situation involving young people gathering downtown? How do you feel about the call for more policing? 

Tae: About the whole situation, I feel like you can’t blame the kids. Honestly, it was a bad thing,  jumping on cars and stuff like that. That was uncalled for. It was dumb. But at the same time, you can’t blame kids for going out and having fun when we were already cooped up for a whole year; we couldn’t do anything. So it’s like, we’re getting older, we’re working now, we’re being more mature. But some kids just don’t have the mindset to go downtown to have fun. Go, be positive, go shopping, make sure the city stays beautiful. [But some] were more on some, “I seen this person over COVID say they said that I was this and that. So when I get down there, I’m gonna fight ‘em, I’m gonna go beat ‘em up, we’re gonna jump ‘em.” And it’s like, y’all didn’t actually think to take care of the community.

We come from our hoods to go downtown because it’s a new place, somewhere we could just chill and be peaceful. But we brought chaos, we brought where we’re from to somewhere it’s not supposed to be. 

I feel like the solution is respect. It’s not the fact that they were down there. It’s not the fact that kids were there until four o’clock in the morning. It’s the fact that we didn’t respect our community.

I don’t think kids should be arrested — if you were jumping on cars you were doing too much — but if you were down there in the middle of the street doing what you saw other people doing, I don’t think you should be arrested. Not all parents teach their kids to not follow the leader or have respect. As a whole I feel like our communities don’t teach our kids to be independent. 

I feel like it starts with the parents, because nobody wants to listen to a police officer. It’s a lot of people who’ve lost their lives to police officers. You can’t blame a parent for their child basically not following their guidance, but you can blame a parent for not enforcing that guidance. Just because you teach it, doesn’t mean you implement it into what you have going on with your child. 

is the South Side Weekly’s community engagement editor.