As a black woman born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, I went through adolescence and young adulthood unaware of the harsh realities that community members faced just blocks away from my Chatham home.
Yes, even black people can have blinders on, blocking us from the issues that surround us in our communities. My blinders slowly came off after the 2008 housing market crash, when neighbors started walking away from properties that had been family homes for multiple generations. At that time, community underemployment began to cave in on the prideful, sheltered, long-standing black middle class of Chatham.
Even then, it still felt too inconvenient and too much of a burden for me to carry the weight of the disenfranchised people who looked like me. The guilt of being a black person who “made it” was all-consuming. I received a bachelor’s degree, had career counseling opportunities that were not available to others, and planned to pursue a career as a journalist.
I could no longer avoid these realities when I accidentally fell into the work of helping Chicago youth in the nonprofit world. At first, I saw my internship with Community TV Network (CTVN), a youth media organization that has taught at-risk youth video production skills for over forty years, just as an interesting opportunity to get college credit. But it was refreshing to see youth feel compelled to speak their truths in front of professional camera equipment and be empowered by broadcasting their own stories.
Two years later, now as the Journalism Coordinator and Video Instructor for CTVN, I visit our high school video production classes. We work in several alternative schools, where many of the students have been expelled from or have dropped out of Chicago Public Schools.
At Joshua Johnston Fine Arts and Design Charter School on 95th and Ashland Avenue, students lumber into school in the morning just like any teenager would, and much like I did when I was their age. Some students file in excited and boisterous, wanting to be heard by their counterparts. Their youthful spirit was all too familiar to me. There were also quite a few déjà vu moments when I witnessed some young ladies proudly flaunting nineties hairstyles like Janet Jackson’s “Poetic Justice” box braids.
These throwback hairdos were as interesting to look at as some of the mass incarceration-themed student artwork and ancient ethnic styles of dress hung on the walls. The school’s principal, Dr. Joyce Bowen, is a big advocate of the arts. It’s ironic to me that the “forgotten youth” of Chicago get more exposure to the arts in alternative schools than I did in CPS. After losing the music teacher in our CPS elementary school to budget cuts, I started to believe that arts programs were a luxury only afforded to specialized arts and magnet schools in Chicago.
There were other things I tried to make sense of in this new atmosphere. House arrest ankle bracelets sometimes peeked out from between Nike Jordan shoes and khaki uniform pants. Occasionally, parole officers would stop me in the hallway asking for directions to the main office to check in with students on probation who were only allowed to leave home to go to school.
Regardless of their predicaments, the self-awareness and openness that came about during brainstorming sessions for video projects was a reminder that these students were all bright and gifted, but somehow lost their way, or lost sight of their potential.
Last spring, during prom season, Johnston students produced a short documentary about “flakey” relationships. Eighteen-year-old Miesah Davis, a cheerleader who would freestyle R&B lyrics in class, opened up about her interactions with high school aged guys. “I have a son, and I had a son at a young age with a high school male’,” she said on camera. “He was still in the streets, and you know doing the things that high school males do, so it didn’t work out, but we have to co-parent and all that; but it really changed my views on dating in high school and dating while you’re a teenager. So that personal experience itself was a rollercoaster. I wouldn’t want to go through anything like that now. So relationships for me right now? Naw. Do I want one? Yeah, but right now? No.” Davis graduated from Johnston in the spring of 2015 and is currently pursuing her music career.
This year’s documentary is about finding jobs. Many of the students in the video production class will be graduating this year and are fearful that jobs won’t be available for them after working so hard on getting a diploma they thought they wouldn’t get.
“Do you know who’s hiring?” the students often ask me and my coworker, Alexander Skalomenos, also a video teaching artist for CTVN.
“Have you tried applying to retail or fast food jobs around here?” I ask. Many of them have gone to several interviews and can’t seem to get employed.
Youth joblessness in the city is a harsh reality. Alternative Schools Network and University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) released a report about it in January that got a lot of media coverage and prompted politicians to encourage more local companies to hire young people. The report, “Lost: The Crisis of Jobless and Out of School Teens and Young Adults in Chicago, Illinois and the U.S.”, found that in 2014, 88.5 percent of black male sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds and 46.9 percent of black male twenty- to twenty-four year olds in Chicago were out of work—the highest percentages in the country.
After reading these statistics out loud in class, students chimed in and said they often felt discriminated against when trying to get jobs in the city and didn’t want to go downtown to look for work.
It seemed as if the few who had job experience worked locally in small black-owned businesses. If they couldn’t get jobs at big companies and there were limited jobs at small businesses, I asked them, how could they find work?
“Start our own businesses,” a reluctant Kaleem Veal said while still twisting his “Baby” dreadlocks and pondering his words. During that class session, Veal mapped out plans to have his own car dealership and worked out how much money it might cost him for car insurance and to hire a small staff.
In the columns in this series, I will be taking you with me as I attempt to guide students through what it might take to create their own job opportunities. I try to capture my students’ moments of hope and their understanding of the world and of themselves. The goal is to have students document their journey in tackling youth unemployment. You will walk through the alternative school system with me and hear the raw voices of youth excited to take ownership of their lives and their image in the media.
Marissa Warner is a Chatham resident and a graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s Journalism program. As CTVN’s Journalism Coordinator and Video Instructor, she provides resources for nine video instructors by planning and facilitating community news projects for their After School Matters and alternative high school students.
Note: Joshua Johnston Fine Arts and Design Charter School” is part of the Prologue Inc. network of schools as well as Alternative Schools Network.