It takes a village

“W-Y!” Michelle High, a third-year at the University of Chicago, yelled into the cafeteria half-full of middle school girls and their UofC mentors.

“S-E!” the girls shouted back in unison, voices filling the whole room.

The cheer kicked off Communities Day, an April 30th celebration of community organizations from South Lawndale, a neighborhood in southwest Chicago better known as Little Village. Communities Day is put together each year by the mentoring organization Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (“W-Y-S-E!”). On most other Friday afternoons, WYSE holds after-school sessions at Madero to discuss topics like conflict resolution and sexual decision-making. In a neighborhood with high crime rates, where over half of the residents are under 25 years of age, WYSE provides sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade girls with a safe, supportive space to talk about issues of importance to them. Last Friday, several other groups joined WYSE to speak with local youths. Communities Day was designed to give Little Village adolescents the opportunity to find their voices by encouraging strong friendships, and a sense of purpose and identity. “I think it’s really important for young men and women to find things that they’re passionate about and understand that they DO matter,” WYSE mentor Christine Wong said. “They can always use their creativity, vivacity, and energy to explore, become leaders, and create changes in their communities.”

Lugging apple juice gallon jugs, craft boxes, and poster board, mentees and mentors walked the half-dozen blocks from Madero Middle School to one of the two Boys & Girls Clubs in Little Village, a mural-adorned building at 25th and Sacramento. Crowding into the stuffy, bright teal-colored classroom, the girls found their seats while three mentors, still finishing their pineapple pizza, thanked them all for coming.

The first speaker of the afternoon, Analia Rodriguez from the Little Village arts organization Villarte, began with a simple question for the girls, “Where do you see art in our community?” Out of the bashful group of singers, dancers, actresses, and one aspiring comic book artist, a tiny voice called out, “graffiti.” For Rodriguez, graffiti is part of the neighborhood’s effort to create for itself a positive identity, which is part of Villarte’s vision. They support local business owners, school teachers, and adolescents in the creation of artistic spaces, including skate parks, storefronts, and film festivals, to exhibit the talent of Little Village, making it a place people would like to visit, instead of hurriedly driving through.

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) gave the kids another way to engage with their community. LVEJO has built plenty of momentum in the last few years, catalyzing the Chicago Park District’s announcement for a second park for the over 100,000 residents of the neighborhood and publicizing the dangers of the local coal factories. LVEJO is constantly coming up with new volunteer projects to mobilize Little Village adults and youth alike in the fight for cleaner air and open spaces. “Our parents always tell us that we are the future,” LVEJO’s youth organizer Carolina Macias closed. “But I think that’s wrong–we are the present. Why wait for the future when we can do something today?”

Correction: In the published version of this article, we mistakenly described WYSE as working with Bridgeport youth. WYSE works with youth from Little Village.