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Students step up to ‘Soapbox’ in Millennium Park

Deja Boyd, 17, performs a poem during the Pop-up Soapbox, part of the Mikva Challenge mass action day at the Cloud Gate on July 24, 2017. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Deja Boyd has often felt too ashamed to talk openly about the frantic, swirling thoughts that sometimes swamp her mind.

And even on Monday, it took a shove from a friend before it all spilled out.

“Have you ever been able to feel the weight of every thought inside your head?” barked the 17-year-old Whitney Young High School student, the jittery pace of her spoken-word poem echoing her mood. “I have more phobias than germs in my mouth. I’m afraid of the day I trip up and leave my curtains wide open.”

As she spoke, a circle of her peers whooped and clapped and generally urged her to let it all out.

Boyd was one of a dozen or so Chicago Public Schools high school students and recent graduates who put aside their fears at “The Bean” in Millennium Park and took part in the “Pop-up Soapbox,” which offers youths about 3 minutes each to speak about weighty issues. It was part of the Mikva Challenge Mass Action Day to encourage youths to consider careers in politics, government and law.

“How often do adults get to see young people just speaking out about how they make the city better?” said Joshua Prudowsky, the Mikva Challenge’s chief program officer. “You only really see blood and guts in the summertime when you talk about youth. So we want to change that story.”

Most of those who spoke tackled difficult subjects, from animal extinction to racism to meaningless sex.

As they spoke, babies in strollers wailed as their parents stopped for selfies with The Bean. A performance artist with white feather wings, who calls herself “The Angel Bird,” swooped and soared nearby.

But from time to time, people stopped to listen, including a little girl dressed in a “Girls Don’t Stop” tank top and wearing a puzzled look on her face.

“I was extremely nervous,” said Cit Lalli, 18, who attends Truman College. “There was part of me that said I’m just too nervous to do it. . . . Sometimes you’ve just got to go.”

Cit Lalli, 18, performs a poem titled “”We Live in a Word”” during the Pop-up Soapbox, part of the Mikva Challenge mass action day at the Cloud Gate on July 24, 2017. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Lalli too stepped into the circle, reciting a poem titled, “We live in a world.”

“We live in a world where Kim ‘K’ gets paid more than a doctor, women are told to be proper,” she said. “We live in a world where people only begin to care when you’re six feet under.”

Boyd said she relished the opportunity to talk openly about her anxiety and depression — things that she’s been dealing with all of her life.

“This is an opportunity for them to present their realities and, unfortunately, their reality can be grim, but we’re working with them so that they can change that,” Prudowsky said.