There's a big mystery in Chicago: How can the city's youth stay on track for the future, especially during the volatile, violent summer months? Some activists hope art is the answer, allowing young people to express themselves while simultaneously giving them a safe haven. These three programs are among many across Chicago working toward that goal.
Young Chicago Authors
Could the solution be as simple as a poem?
Demetrius Amparan's poem wasn't simple. It was an outlet, a way to deal with his best friend's death, a way to connect to people going through the same thing. "Lost Count: A Love Story," is a goosebump-inducing tribute to all the friends he and co-writer Nate Mitchell lost while growing up. It since has gone viral and was featured on HBO's "Brave New Voices."
"Growing up in Chicago is weird," said Amparan, 23, who grew up on the South Side and attended Morgan Park High School and Valparaiso University. "Being a teenager in Chicago is learning the train systems but learning color lines as well, learning places you just really can't go sometimes."
Finding a niche or passion, Amparan said, also is an important part of keeping young people off of the streets. For him, that place was Young Chicago Authors, an organization that teaches students to express themselves honestly through the written and spoken word. The group was founded in 1991 by Robert S. Boone in hopes of exposing Chicago's youth to creative writing. In 2001, it became the home of Louder Than a Bomb, the world's largest youth poetry festival.
Jasmine Barber, 21, of Beverly, said that visiting YCA helped her realize the writing she had always done to channel her emotions had value.
"I started going every week. That was like church for me. I finally was in a space where people cared about art just as much as I did," said Barber, who attended Morgan Park High School. "It brought me networks, it brought me friends … it brought me a place of security, a place where I feel like I can be myself. They helped me grow as an individual; they helped me find beauty that I didn't think existed in me; they helped me grow and polish my talents and my art; and just recently they helped me mend the relationship with my father."
While working at YCA as a site manager and teaching artist, Barber is writing a children's book called "Tea Time with Dragons," which she hopes to publish next year.
Barber's self-discovery is symbolic of what Amparan, now YCA's director of publications and communications and living in the West Loop, named as one of the organization's goals.
"Mostly it's just remembering that the best story starts with you," he said. "Once we develop that in students and artists and anyone who comes in our space, then we begin to engage in dialogue."
Young Chicago Authors 1180 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-486-4331
Visit youngchicagoauthors.org for information on booking a teaching artist, programs, donating and more
Yollocalli Arts Reach
The brightly colored exterior walls of Yollocalli Arts Reach in Little Village are barely a hint of the creativity that lies on the other side.
While the classes like screen printing, street art and journalism are a big draw to students, it is the staff's attitude that keeps students coming back.
"We're all a little eccentric or a little weird and goofy, and there's no judgment here," said Yollocalli youth development adviser Whitney Ross, 30, who grew up in Thornton. "It's kind of a fun place to be, and you can do crazy stuff and no one looks at you like you're the weird art kid."
The lack of judgment and close relationships between students and staff kept 18-year-old Elizabeth Ortiz hooked. She was introduced to Yollocalli through YCA's Louder Than a Bomb.
"It's an environment where your opinion feels just as valid as anyone else's," said Ortiz, who now interns at Yollocalli.
Fellow intern and former student Gabriela Ibarra said the attitude is infectious.
"It feels so welcoming when you meet them because they're so cheerful and they treat everyone the same way, and you pick that up right away when you go," Ibarra said. "It's a positive energy. When you get there you can't be mad, and when you leave it's just like, 'Man, I want to make someone else feel good.' "
Brenda Hernandez has lived the full Yollocalli experience, joining the organization as a student living in Pilsen and rising through the ranks as teaching assistant and teaching artist to become the current programs coordinator. She said that while Yollocalli, which in 2009 received the prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, does have a positive effect on the community, it's a little less verbal than most.
"I think it's about showing the subtler ways of social impact," the 29-year-old said. "It's not necessarily having a social protest art project but more like making public art pieces that kind of affect the communities every day." These public art pieces have become a huge part of Yollocalli's mission—more than 30 murals across the Chicago region were created by its students.
"We believe that by you being here, this is having a positive impact on you in the long run," said Yollocalli Director Vanessa Sanchez, 32. "All of them say that they had a great time because they were with adults who wanted to see them make great things."
Yollocalli Arts Reach
2801 S. Ridgeway Ave. 773-521-1621
Visit yollocalli.org for information about classes, volunteering, donating and more
South Chicago Art Center
In the late '90s, Sarah Ward was an art therapist, working with juvenile offenders on probation. But when she arrived to pick up her patients, she was unable to bring along their siblings, who also expressed a creative interest.
"I felt like that was a really perverse model to present to a kid, like, 'If you commit a crime, this nice lady will come over and do art with you and take you out for your birthday,' " said Ward, 45, of Humboldt Park. "I started thinking about the instability in poor children's lives, and I wanted to be that stable person … to be that person who lifts them up instead of that person who is just there with them when they're at their lowest."
She founded the South Chicago Art Center 13 years ago in an 800-square-foot studio on 91st Street, and has helped raise many of the kids who have become the young adults of South Chicago.
"This is a free program where the kids can come in after school. They have a place to be off the streets and they can be safe here," said 18-year-old Katarina Otero, who lives in South Chicago. "If I wasn't here, I'd be at home lying around being lazy. I love it. I get to make art for a living. I get to work with the kids. It's not just for me; it's for the community too. It's truly incredible what an impact it has just on everyone."
A new program at the SCAC, College SmARTS, which caters to students interested in an arts career, helped pave the way for Otero's future. Ward encouraged Otero, who was worried she wouldn't be able to go to college because she wasn't sure how to prepare or pay for applications, to become an SCAC intern. There, the two worked on Otero's applications and essays and prepared her arts portfolio. Otero will be attending Columbia College in the fall for animation.
"It's much more than just an art program. It's like a very holistic approach to figuring out how to heal a neighborhood, heal the wounds and move on," Ward said. "When we work with our younger kids, they're able to create with someone and it makes everything easier to communicate because you're creating something. And then they see them on the street when they're older and maybe something's going down, they're not as scared or they'll have a friend in the street."
In the spring, SCAC will gain a new, much larger home in a 6,000-square-foot space at 91st Street and South Houston Avenue. Under a new name, Skyway Studio, Ward hopes reach even more of the neighborhood. Many kids can't get to the current location because they are unable to cross gang lines.
As at Yollocalli, Ward's approach makes her program unique from many others her students encounter, including, she said, the school system.
"I think my expectations are really high for the kids too," she said. "I don't think they have a lot of people with high expectations for their lives and they meet those expectations, which is wonderful."
South Chicago Art Center 3217 E. 91st St. 773-731-9287
Visit happyartcenter.org for information about programs, internships, volunteering and more.
Veronica Wilson is a RedEye special contributor.