Community centers partner to create youth storytelling project on South Side

Chicago Stories on the Block offers youth participants the chance to gather and share stories of their communities through storytelling, art and music.

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Participants of Chicago Stories on the Block gather around guest speaker Simeon Frierson (center) from Free Spirit Media.

Participants of Chicago Stories on the Block gather around guest speaker Simeon Frierson (center) from Free Spirit Media.

Cortesía de Historias de Chicago en el Bloque, Ministerios del Puerto

Myra Hernandez has lived in Back of the Yards all her life, but for years was ashamed to admit it. Violence and crime gave it a reputation as a dangerous, gang-ridden neighborhood.

But Hernandez doesn’t focus on the violence. As an artist, she searches for the beauty in her neighborhood. 

“I know a lot of young people that have a lot of amazing talent and skills and just don’t really have a space or an opportunity to be creative,” Hernandez said.

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Hernandez wanted to provide that space for young artists across the South Side, so she went to her team at the Catholic community organization The Port Ministries, where she’s an administrative assistant. 

They created Chicago Stories on the Block, a three-month-long community arts project on the Southwest Side, with community organizations including the Wilburn LUV Institute, the Firehouse Community Art Center and the ABJ Community Center.

“There’s so much attention to the violence, it’s almost oversaturated and romanticized,” said David Gonzalez, executive director of Chicago Stories on the Block. “We keep on talking about stopping the violence and putting the guns down, but we’re really not focusing on what we should be picking up.”

Since the program started July 6, 40 people ages 16 to 24 have been creating a mix of art — storytelling, visual and performance. Through the city’s One Summer Chicago jobs program, the participants are paid $14 an hour while working 20 hours a week.

Each month will have a different artistic component as the focus of workshops and projects. For July, participants focused on storytelling.

Fifteen-year-old painter Larryah Harris used the storytelling portion of the program to interview her mom about her struggles growing up on the South Side. 

“She was talking about how having her father pass away at a young age and her mother being on drugs while she was young, she didn’t really have nobody,” Larryah said. “She had a mental health problem and she tried to get help for herself but all the clinics were on the North Side.”

For Larryah, the interview showed the disconnect the city has with the neighborhoods she’s lived in — Back of the Yards, Roseland, Englewood. 

Hearing her mom share her story, Larryah said it’s “pretty obvious” to her that the city thinks the struggles her communities face are unimportant.

“There’s a lot of medical problems in Black communities and Latino communities, but the resources are all on the North Side,” Larryah said. “I’m hoping that (the project) will shed a light on the root of the problem and help other people to see that our neighborhoods are not all bad, that we actually need help. That we’re important.”

For Gonzalez, Larryah’s hopes are his as well.

“I want young people to understand how important they are,” he said, adding that through their creativity, the youth can be the ones to change the narrative of which communities are violent neighborhoods.

In August, stories like the one Larryah heard from her mom will be used to create one of four murals around the Southwest Side. The murals will then be used to inspire music for September.

Larryah’s time in the program has inspired her to think of new ways she can help her community. She said she hopes to leave the project with an idea for a future program she can create to inspire others in her generation to uplift their communities.

No longer ashamed to admit she’s from Back of the Yards, Hernandez hopes the project will tell other young artists they don’t have to be ashamed either.

“Chicago Stories on the Block can ... create a sense of pride so you can proudly say, “I’m from Back of the Yards, I’m from Englewood,” said Hernandez. “We can start changing the way that people see our neighborhood.”

The project’s works will be revealed in a special filmed event in October. The murals will include QR codes linking to the stories that inspired them, and a small book of poetry written by the participants also will be published.

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.

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