Youth activists in Chicago area reimagining the future

From how we name our parks to law enforcement agencies, youth activists are using their voices to challenge — and change — societal norms.

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Raniya Thomas, 13, and Zari Young, 14, are members of the Change the Name campaign created at the Village Leadership Academy, where youths have spent years leading a campaign to change the name Douglas Park from that of a slave owner to an abolitionist.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Diontae Chatman hasn’t forgotten when, while in the third grade, teachers in Chicago walked off the job to demand better pay.

Chatman, 17, is still close to their third-grade teacher, who loved students like they were her own children. To Chatman, it seemed like an obvious choice to pay teachers more considering they were nurturing future doctors and lawyers.

Chatman is on the youth leadership board for the Chicago Freedom School, which provides training and programs for people ages 13 to 24, and is part of a wave of young activists in the Chicago area who are pushing for policy changes that will reimagine how society will function in the future.

Chatman, who comes from a family of activists, was a chant leader this summer during a West Side protest. Chatman has been focused on pushing for police officers to be removed from public schools, an issue that is being discussed across the city as local school councils vote on the matter.

“What does the world look like if we didn’t have police or if we had more resources to support people, to support homelessness?” Chatman said. “What would it look like? Let’s make a change, and let’s not be scared of the change.”

In a summer marked by social justice movements in Chicago and around the country — where protests and rallies decrying police brutality and demanding fair treatment for immigrants have become a daily occurrence — Chicago-area teens are letting their voices be heard.

“These young people, you see the fire in their eyes like I’ve never seen before,” said Tony Alvarado-Rivera, the executive director of the Chicago Freedom School. “They are literally fighting for their lives. It’s so powerful and at times heartbreaking that these young people are literally putting their lives on the line.”

Jacqueline Lazú, an associate professor at DePaul University and a historian of social movements, said modern movements led by youth are much more intersectional.

“Young people are quick to call out behaviors that have compromised movements in the past,” she said. “They care enough to call out those inconsistencies.”

In suburban Bolingbrook, Estefany Hernandez has spent the past year registering voters, informing the community about the 2020 Census and speaking out for immigrants like herself through the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project.

The 15-year-old recently spoke at a rally outside of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s office in the Loop about how the federal government is still not allowing people like herself to submit new applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

“I’m here to say we will fight back,” Hernandez said outside of ICE’s field office. “Today we need our members of Congress to hear us loud and clear, starting with my Congressman Bill Foster, you must act quickly and with courage. Remember me when the time comes to vote for more funding for DHS.”


Estefany Hernandez, of the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project, speaks with the media during a protest outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at 101 W. Ida B. Wells Drive in the South Loop, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Hernandez considered herself a shy person, but she thinks she’s opened up after doing door knocking and phone banking with the organization. She had wanted to study nursing, but she now wants to become an immigration lawyer.

“I want to help people in my community, and I want to continue to work with SSIP,” she said.

Like Hernandez, Karina Hernandez, 15, of West Lawn, has also thought about becoming an attorney after spending time as a fellow at the Chicago Freedom School. Her mother advocates for domestic violence victims, and this summer was the first time the teen went to protests on her own.

“It felt nice chanting and screaming out about Chicago police,” she said.

Elizabeth Cervantes, the co-founder and director of organizing for SSIP, said the organization was founded by young people, and that demographic still remains integral to their work in Will and DuPage counties. Cervantes said her generation of immigrant activists fought for DACA and for in-state tuition for undocumented students. But many of those policies turned into political chips.

“I think the youth are tired of that,” Cervantes said, explaining how youth leaders are pushing to dismantle ICE.

“They are coming of age in the Trump era where every day there are attacks on them and also their families,” Cervantes said. “They come into the movement with much more strength and much more force.”

In North Lawndale, students from the Village Leadership Academy, a kindergarten through 8th grade private school, took a break Saturday to play at the playground in a park that will soon be renamed after Frederick Douglass. The students, who wore T-shirts stating “no parks named after slave owners,” have spent years leading a campaign to change the park’s name. They’ve spent Saturdays at the park talking to residents, passing out flyers and stickers.


Members of the Change the Name campaign, which was created by students at the Village Leadership Academy, sit in Douglas Park — which they worked to have renamed after abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Raniya Thomas, 13, one of the student leaders, would often ride her bike through the park that spans 161 acres on the West Side. She and her parents thought the park was named after Frederick Douglass. But she was shocked to learn the park was actually named after Stephen Douglas, a U.S. senator from Illinois who owned slaves.

Another youth leader, Zari Young, 14, said she wasn’t as surprised when her class started to dig into the history of the park.

“We still have a lot of monuments and stuff that should not be here, but it is here,” Young said.

The students want the park to also honor Anna Murray Douglass, who was an abolitionist, part of the Underground Railroad and married to Frederick Douglass. Thomas said Murray Douglass is an example of how modern society doesn’t give enough credit to women for their role in history.

As the students, who started the push when some were in fifth grade, get ready to end their campaign, Young said they will keep advocating for other name changes.


Members of the Change the Name campaign that was created by students at the Village Leadership Academy, in Douglas Park.

James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The students initially wanted the park to be named after Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old woman who was with friends near the park in 2012 when an off-duty Chicago police officer fatally shot her.

“We are definitely not going to forget about it and move on because the initial ask was to name the park after Rekia Boyd,” Young said. “So instead of naming a park after Rekia Boyd, we were thinking of naming a playground after Rekia Boyd or like a small monument.”

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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