Trazell Harrell, 12, has a vision for what would make the 3 square miles he calls home — one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago — a better place. If it were up to him, every time he walked outside his house in Englewood, someone would say, “Hi neighbor.”
Shaklya Banks, 9, thinks more plants and parks could improve Englewood because it would provide residents with “more beauty and oxygen.”
Harrell’s and Banks’ visions, along with those of their fellow Daniel Wentworth Elementary School classmates, are now documented in a book the children created this school year in response to violence plaguing their community.
“Peacefulwood,” a spiral-bound volume of short essays, includes photography depicting nearby abandoned homes and scattered trash around the school and vibrant crayon artwork of an ideal community. It was funded by a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation. The book’s utopian title was pulled from Harrell’s essay on how he would rebrand his community.
“One thing I love about [Englewood] is when I see people walking through and they’re happy,” Harrell said. “I would like to see people that are happy in the neighborhood they live in.”
The seventh-grader, who spends most of his summers indoors, said while he was writing his essay he reflected on how he felt when his cousin was killed. Harrell hopes expressing himself in writing shows people how he and other kids in the neighborhood “actually suffer.” In Englewood, school-age kids comprise more than a third of the population — almost 20 percent higher than the city average.
For many in the city, Englewood is synonymous with high crime and murder rates. Deborah Davis, an art teacher at the school at 71st Street and Loomis Boulevard, wanted her students to channel all that into a more positive direction.
With the help of StudentsXpress, a publication featuring CPS students’ work, the children started on the project in April and kept at it until the school year wrapped up in June.
Banks, headed to fourth grade in the fall, said the day she received the assignment from Davis “changed her life.” It marked the moment when “my fellow students got to express our feelings about Englewood.”
“I would like [people] to know how they could make [Englewood] more colorful and stop all this violence and killing,” Banks said.
She said she loves playing in the parks, but many of her peers are afraid to go outside. Most of the messages from students were suggestions on how Englewood residents could improve their surroundings.
“A lot of the time people want to think that the students don’t know and that they are kind of like these little individuals of species inside of a bubble and that they’re not impacted as significantly as they are,” Wentworth Principal Dina Everage said.
This past school year, two Wentworth students were shot, she said. Last year, one of her students was shot and paralyzed.
“Peacefulwood” was spurred by discussions already taking place in the classroom. Even before the book, Everage said, it was not uncommon for the school day to include discussions of the trauma students might be dealing with after a loved one or friend is shot.
Everage calls her 600 students “amazing untapped potential.” At the start of the summer, she put this message on the marquee outside the school: “Put down the guns. I need all my babies back Sept. 8.”
“People can see that these children have a voice,” Everage said about the book. “It might start the catalyst for change on even a grander level because this is one small collection of a lot more stories.”
Harrell, responsible for the book’s title, might be seeing his vision slowly emerge into reality. During this year’s Fourth of July weekend — one that usually records a higher number of homicides — Englewood did not log any shootings or killings.
“It would be better off with the neighborhood being peaceful,” Harrell said. “I wish I could share my book with everyone around the city so they could learn how to act in Englewood.”