“I am Joshua William Houston. And this is my voice,” the teen said, his spoken-word delivery commanding instant attention from the audience of 1,000 at Navy Pier.
“I am black. But being black holds so much more than just the melanin in my skin. Being black holds the stereotype that I am a danger to society. That I will at some point commit a crime. That no matter what I do, I will go nowhere in life,” Houston, 18, told those gathered for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago’s 2019 Youth of the Year Gala.
“This is the stereotype. It frustrates me that people would rather look at the stereotype than look at me,” Houston finished.
It was part of the youth’s speech, presented alongside five other finalists vying for the nonprofit’s highest local honor, presented annually to one of the 20,000 youth served citywide in recognition of leadership, service and academics.
The six finalists had been whittled down from 125 youth nominated from the city’s 20 Boys & Girls clubs, serving at-risk youth in Chicago communities grappling with gangs and gun violence.
When Houston was announced Youth of the Year, he got “goosebumps, all over my body,” he recounted in a most humble tone. The award comes with $1000, a laptop, four White Sox tickets and two United Airlines tickets.
The teen graduates this year from University of Illinois at Chicago College Prep, a Chicago Public Schools charter. He heads to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., to study psychology and pre-law next year — recipient of the uber-competitive, four-year Posse Scholarship provided by the Posse Foundation to remarkable teens nationwide — along with a support network of cohorts, to ensure success.
“Getting the scholarship was such a blessing. College would have been difficult without it,” said Houston.
That’s because when he was about 13, his father, James, suffered meningitis that left him physically disabled. His mother, Michelle, a project manager at a local hospital, supports the family. He has an older sister.
His father’s illness meant Houston became a caregiver at a young age.
“It came to a point where I had to start taking care of him, so I had to grow up and had to become like, a man, quicker, because I had those responsibilities,” said the lithe, bespectacled youth, whose voice is soft but can rise to powerful.
“I didn’t really have an outlet for like, all the emotions that were like building up inside of me. Poetry became that outlet, then spoken word,” said Houston, today a gifted young poet who this year started a poetry group at the Louis L. Valentine Boys & Girls Club in Bridgeport.
He’s attended that club since he was in 2nd grade at Mark Sheridan Math & Science Academy in Bridgeport, continuing to commute from Beverly.
“When I was a kid at the club, I’d needed people I could talk to, a space where I could vent. That’s what I wanted to create for kids currently at the club. It’s an hour on Fridays, writing, then reading what we wrote,” said Houston, who has participated in just about every program offered by the Boys & Girls Clubs in the past 11 years.
The 117-year-old nonprofit offers mentoring, tutoring and extracurricular activities as alternatives to the street.
“We’re extremely proud of Joshua. He’s just a rock star,” said Bartlett McCartin, III, the organization’s board chairman.
“He communicates what it is to be able to create real change, hope and opportunity for youth in a city like Chicago, with all of the defeating stories we hear right now about violence and lack of opportunity,” McCartin said.
“He’s a young man who has taken the responsibility for stepping up to the next level of who he can be in this world. I say to other youth who have not connected with us yet, there are still places that believe in you. We believe in you.”
Houston credits his parents; his longtime Boys & Girls Clubs mentor, Raul Rodriguez; and the club’s Passport to Manhood program for helping him become who he is today.
“My motivation is my mom, and what she instilled in me,” Houston said.
“She always told me that because I was black, I would have to work harder. My mentor, Raul, taught us that you do not become a man by finding yourself in silence and solitude, but instead, you should be open and expressive, because that is what makes us human. By gaining that single piece of knowledge, I was able to find my voice,” he added.
And at the gala, he had a message for the haters, in the last lines of his speech: “My life is a book, of which I am the author, and my skin is the cover. So when you look at me, don’t turn away, because you haven’t even flipped the first page.”