Stories of South Side youth brought into focus through art installation

“I don’t think that media [reports] are factually wrong. But they only display the negative, which is not an attempt to show what life here is actually like.”

By Isaac Stein

Last Friday afternoon, University students, local high school students, leaders of nonprofit organizations, and interested members of the public convened at the Currency Exchange Café in Washington Park. The event, hosted by the RSO South Side in Focus (SSIF), was the debut of As We See It: Perspectives of Washington Park and Englewood Youth, an installation that featured the photography, poetry, and life stories of high school students who live in the Washington Park and Englewood neighborhoods. While sweet tea and cookies were served free of charge, the main course of the proceedings was the participants’ stinging criticism of educational inequality, familial troubles, and media coverage as they relate to South Side communities.

According to its website, SSIF “aims to facilitate South Side residents in sharing their personal narratives about their communities, and to amplify their voices through public art exhibits.” Third-year Zelda Mayer, the executive director of SSIF, said that the group originated in early 2013 as an Uncommon Fund project, and “operated rogue” for an unfunded season before acquiring RSO status. In those early years, SSIF established connections with the nonprofit organizations Chicago Youth Programs and Imagine Englewood if…, and many of the participants in As We See It are members of these groups.

Mayer observed that the mixed-media content of the installation furthered its objective. “Two of our main goals with this installation are to start conversations among communities and between communities. In order to do that, we have to start talking, sharing, and listening to people. That has the potential to spur collective action through collective voices…. The poetry in particular really complements the photos that the participants took,” Mayer said.

Monique Roundtree, a junior at the DuSable Leadership Academy in Bronzeville, submitted several poems and read selections as part of the event’s poetry slam. One poem, titled “Faces of Education,” featured themes of educational inequality in Chicago and the structural difficulties associated with being a student when home life, crime, or the attitudes of peers inhibit learning.

“How can they focus on school, when their neighborhood gives them the chills?/ …they seem to compare themselves to others referring to them as the ‘higher class.’/ …some of the schools may have torn books or even broken down doors./ Now in the better schools, in other parts of town, schools are fabulous and they/ have perfect materials all around,” the poem read in part.

In reference to her poem, Roundtree said that she thinks that educational outcomes for all students would be improved if students in Washington Park had more time to spend with their parents, and students from relatively wealthy districts were exposed to conditions in Washington Park schools.

“Without a strong family support system, students here feel the pressure to drop out. I think that unemployed parents should go to job programs, but no parents should be working all the time. Half work and [half bonding with their children]. I would also like to switch it up, and have Naperville students come to Washington Park for a few days. It would give them a different perspective, and they could view the neighborhood,” Roundtree said.

Chante Platt, a Washington Park resident and senior at the Chicago Military Academy in Bronzeville, added that the intent of her contributions to the installation was to counter what she sees as a media portrayal of South Side communities as high-crime areas in which nothing positive happens. As a medium, she chose photography.

“I don’t think that media [reports] are factually wrong. But they only display the negative, which is not an attempt to show what life here is actually like. The KLEO Center [a nonprofit organization in Washington Park] teaches French, but you never see that on the news…I chose to take photos because video has its own purpose, but a still moment is beauty in itself,” she said.

In addition to the student voices, Stephany Price, the director of the Near North/Cabrini Green branch of Chicago Youth Programs, commented on the installation from the perspective of a longtime Washington Park resident. She compared the installation to an experience that she had recounting her personal story to third-year Jeanne Lieberman, the director of arts curation and event programming for SSIF.

“The project allows the students to tell a story about their community, which they are very eager to do—some of my students who don’t live in Washington Park were disappointed that they couldn’t participate,” Price said. “But before this project started, I was taking a walk with Jeanne around the neighborhood, [relating] the difficulties of growing up and life now in Washington Park. I lost one of my friends in ’98, and I showed Jeanne where she was murdered. It’s a good feeling to share your story with someone, and that’s what South Side in Focus is all about.”