With ‘Louder Than A Bomb’ (LTAB), the world’s largest youth poetry slam competition, Young Chicago Authors provides the performers a platform to showcase their talent. The LTAB semifinals were hosted in Metro Chicago (Wrigleyville), attracted a large audience and brought performers from all over the city together.
Chicago has been one of the most segregated cities in the US for decades. Young people, by becoming the voices of the communities throughout the city, hold the key to bring the different communities closer together and fight inequality. Chicago’s segregation is the perfect fuel for racial and economic inequality, but Young Chicago Authors (YCA) is an organization that tries to contribute to society by teaching young people from different backgrounds to “understand the importance of their own stories and those of others.” As a result, these young people not only become voices for themselves, but also for their communities.
YCA has created an environment where everybody feels respected. Young people from different communities can feel marginalized in various ways, but at YCA they all have a sense of belonging because of their shared love for lyrical art. Here, they learn to express themselves and learn about perspectives from people with different backgrounds. Not only does this environment create the voices of the future, but it also gives them the open mindset that is needed for the city to come together.
Dominique Chestand has been involved with YCA since she was thirteen years old — first as a student and now one of the people that forges the new generation. “I didn’t really have a social life, so the great thing about YCA was that I met others who were also considered outsiders and who also loved writing,” she says. “It is especially the feeling of belonging somewhere that makes YCA so attractive.” This community-based environment is therefore the perfect place where communities can be brought together by raising awareness about inequality and marginalization.“I teach them that no one else but them can tell their story, and while they sound like the people close to them at first, they soon start to understand their own uniqueness,” Chestand explains. “And in YCA’s safe place they can express their uniqueness and connect to people from other communities.” Young people find their unique identity while being influenced by people from other communities, which helps them create a mindset that will enable them to bring the communities together.
As a teacher, Chestand tries to transfer her enthusiasm to her students, which ensures a very friendly and energetic atmosphere at YCA.
One of the most important rules at YCA is that performers cannot use any type of derogatory language to ensure that everybody feels respected and accepted. If performers do choose to use derogatory language their peers may shout “ouch” to say the lyrics were offensive, and the student that used the language has to have a face-to-face conversation with the teacher after the event.
“The teachers showed me that I could actually have a career in writing,” Chestand says. From being the student who aspired to have a similar career as her teachers, she became the teacher that inspires the new generation of students.
One of her students is Darius Arzola, a young queer man who grew up in Humboldt Park on Chicago’s West Side. “I have learned to deal with people from different hoods, and now I understand that they have similar experiences,” he says. “This way, I have learned how people from different communities perceive certain things.” According to Arzola, YCA is a place where people get an open dialogue, and this increases the possibility to engage with issues like segregation. After all, here at YCA, the voices of different communities shape each other, which can close the gap between them.
“I teach them that no one else but them can tell their story, and while they sound like the people close to them at first, they soon start to understand their own uniqueness.”
Being exposed to all the different perspectives that exist inside YCA, the students increasingly desire to be more involved. Darius Burks, another YCA student, says that since he started at YCA, “I have been eager to be more involved with my own community.” Similarly, Arzola aspires to teach poetry in his community because he feels like it is a perfect instrument to create an inclusive environment. “Environments where people from different hoods respect, influence and inspire each other can contribute a lot to the city of Chicago,” he says.
All in all, YCA does not only teach the students how to improve their personal lives, but it also raises awareness about how important their stories are and how they can contribute to their community. By creating an environment where voices from different communities are respectfully forged, YCA has given these voices a space to be heard. This can be the instrument to bring communities from across Chicago together.