Javier Suarez & Raziel Puma

It’s a typical afternoon at Harold Washington Library Center’s YOUmedia studio, and throngs of high school-aged teens are playing video games, using computers to work on homework, drawing, or sitting around and talking. A group of boys erupt into laughter as one wins the video game. “Man, you were so close!” one exclaims. Not much about the relaxed environment in this 5,500-square-foot, twenty-first century teen-learning space would suggest it, but this and other YOUmedia studios around the city have become breeding grounds for Chicago’s freshest artistic talent. 

The list of Chicago-born artists affiliated with YOUmedia is impressive: Chatham’s Chance the Rapper recorded his first mixtape, #10Day, at Harold Washington’s YOUmedia studio, and in February, the artist was on-hand for the opening of YOUmedia’s newest site at Woodson Regional Library in Washington Heights. Vic Mensa and Saba used the studio’s recording equipment to develop their earlier work; Bronzeville rapper Noname Gypsy participated in open mic poetry slams at Harold Washington’s YOUmedia studio before going on to take third place at the Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam and releasing her own tunes. In 2013, Noname featured on a track on Chance’s best-selling mixtape, Acid Rap—the two met through YOUmedia programming in 2011. Effectively, YOUmedia is the origin story of some of the best music to come out of Chicago.

“A lot of my friends did YOUmedia. We’d meet at the library and use it to record live,” says South Side rapper and 2008ighties rap crew leader Calez. “Chance the Rapper, Alex Wiley, lots of SAVEMONEY [rap crew] dudes. Everyone was at these poetry slams expressing themselves and using [the studios] as a platform to network with other high schoolers who wanted to be within the scene.”

Access to production equipment through the YOUmedia studio, says Calez, has transformed the public library into a convening point for Chicago’s community of young artists. “If you want to get the message out about your show, you use the library. That’s why Chance was able to get such an early fan base.” According to him, by putting up fliers and talking their shows up to fellow YOUmedia program participants, Chance and other local artists have been able to generate a grassroots following among their peers.

Since 2009, the space has been attracting students to socialize, study, use digital media equipment, and create art. Developed through a partnership between the Chicago Public Library, the Digital Youth Network, and a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, YOUmedia’s founders designed the studio to become a place for Chicago’s teens to learn while hanging out. The program has expanded from the original location at Harold Washington to include eleven sites targeted at middle school and high school students around the city.

With access to music production and recording equipment, computers, 3D printers, games, and arts supplies, there is ample room for exploration and production at YOUmedia studios. Writing, design, and other skills workshops give students the chance to learn how to use the digital media tools in the studio, while unstructured time allows them to hang out, get to know each other, and in some cases, collaborate. Poetry slams and other evening events give participants the opportunity to show off their work in front of an audience for the first time and get feedback.

These studios aren’t only used to make music. Sarah Alexander, the YOUmedia librarian at Woodson Regional Library on 95th and Halsted, says, “Our recording workshops are the most popular thing, but in general [the studio] is a real creative outlet. It’s a lot of equipment that these students wouldn’t have access to anywhere else,” she says. “Some of the kids are artists. Several of them are working on their own graphic novels.”

“The twenty-first century digital learning skills they’re learning in these spaces are connected to their lives and to their futures,” says Yvette Garcia, the YOUmedia manager at Harold Washington. We’re giving them a higher level of skill and appreciation, and it’s the same thing with photography, design, fashion. Really, whatever they’re interested in.”

Jeff Lassahn, a local Chicago artist, has been working as a YOUmedia mentor and staff member at Harold Washington Library Center for three years. Lassahn teaches workshops focused on photography and fine arts, and works one-on-one with students to develop their creative skillsets. “It’s a combination of teaching the hard skills, as well as the artistic principles behind them,” he says of the workshops. “We get positive feedback, and very tangible results where we see students getting internships and jobs based on skills that they wouldn’t have had without YOUmedia.”

It isn’t hard for kids to get involved with YOUmedia—after filling out an intake form with basic information like their name, address, and phone number, they’re able to hang out in the space, use digital media tools, and check out equipment like books and mic stands. While studio staff report that the program does use social media, some neighborhood engagement, and advertisements on the CTA as outreach tactics, most students show up because they heard about the program through their friends. Daily attendance varies at each of the eleven sites: Garcia reports between forty to fifty teen attendees at Harold Washington Library Center on an average weekday, while Bravo sees about twenty regulars at Back of the Yards.

Though the YOUmedia program strives to make program entry as easy as possible, according to Lassahn, transportation can serve as a barrier to students who don’t live in close proximity to a YOUmedia site.

“There are areas of the city where students have a difficult time getting around, where they don’t have access to have reduced fare bus passes during the summer,” he says. With only eleven of eighty CPL sites hosting YOUmedia studios, a significant number of teens served by public library system lack easy access, and with large numbers of students coming in on a daily basis to the Harold Washington branch, Lassahn also cites limited YOUmedia hours as a challenge to student access—the Loop’s branch of the studio is only open until eight. 

Still, YOUmedia’s influence and role in teenagers’ creative growth remains clear. A 2013 report from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research on the impact of the studios confirms Alexander and Garcia’s positive evaluations of the program. Researchers, who spent time studying students at Harold Washington, found that YOUmedia participants viewed the studio as a safe space to explore their creative interests, and where they felt a strong sense of community and support.

As YOUmedia alumni like Chance, Noname, and others stay producing best-selling albums and garner national attention, they continue to give back to the program that gave them their start. Earlier this year, Chance the Rapper and poet Malcolm London organized an open mic event to honor YOUmedia coordinator and their mentor Mike Hawkins, who passed away in December. The objective was to give aspiring artists a chance to take the stage, an opportunity that Calez says is supported by YOUmedia resources, staff, and mentors in Chicago Public Libraries.

“They’re very resourceful,” he says. “There’s so much you can find at the library.”

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