Aliyah Young walked onstage in Douglas Park while a group of girls stood off to the side, watching her. She looked around with a smile, proud of the friends behind her.
“I’ve never had a collection of black girls to just be around,” Young said. “To be able to have beautiful black girls and women to be around and share [my experiences] with has been beautiful.”
Young is in A Long Walk Home’s Girl/Friends program. The organization hosted The Visibility Project: Black Girls Takeover Douglas Park last week. The one-day public art event that brought black girls and young women from across the city for a night of poetry, dancing, and singing.
“When I walk around I am always aware of how I look, how I act, how I talk and I feel like my body isn’t my own,” Young said. “For a long time that’s just how I thought I was supposed to feel.”
Aja Reynolds, program coordinator for A Long Walk Home, says events like this are crucial to the growth of girls and young women.
“The act of visibility is to make sure our girls feel seen and heard,” Reynolds said. “What happens after you feel seen and heard? Then you feel like you can take risks and they are willing to challenge themselves to be artists. Some of them may have not written before the program but then they come to the program and then they’re poets.”
Asia Willis is also in the Girl/Friends program and was emcee for the Thursday night event. The program has helped her feel comfortable with who she is.
“Growing up I was always insecure about the color of my skin. I didn’t see girls like me, I didn’t have toys like me because it wasn’t the norm,” Willis said. “It wasn’t until I came to the program that I was able to express myself because I never told anyone how I felt.”
The organization has strong ties to Douglas Park and continues to do things for the community. Reynolds says many of the girls in the program are from the North Lawndale neighborhood, and one of their first protests was held after a young black woman was sexually assaulted in the park.
“We also continue to return to this park because of Rekia Boyd,” Reynolds said. “Her last moments were spent in this area. This is a sacred space for us to come back and remember her and also remember other black girls and women who have been murdered by police, murdered by gender violence. So this has become a place where we come to say their names.”
In 2012, Boyd was near Douglas Park when she was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer.
The officer, Dante Servin, fired at Boyd and a group of friends following a dispute. The city settled quickly and awarded the Boyd family $4.5 million. Servin was later acquitted on criminal charges but resigned from the Chicago Police Department four years after the shooting.
“We are reclaiming this space,” Willis said. “When you think of Douglas Park, you think of tragedy, and a lot of times when you think of black girls, you think of tragedy. You often don’t think of the good that black girls do.”
Boyd’s brother Martinez Sutton attended the event. He works closely with the organizations to help black girls and women affected by violence. Douglas Park is always a difficult scene for him to visit because of how close it was to where Boyd was killed, but events like this have helped him as well.
“Seeing these young women and girls celebrate [my sister’s] life, and not only her life but the life of other missing girls, and girls who were murdered, is a beautiful thing,” Sutton said. “The love couldn’t get any greater, it changes the whole direction of my feelings. Usually, when I come here it’s because I’m grieving, but today it’s about fun and enjoying life.”