There's a space on the first floor of the Harold Washington Library carved out specifically for teens that is a stark contrast from the reality a lot of them face outside on the streets. A place where creativity is fostered and relationships are formed across racial, gender and socioeconomic lines, the YOUmedia program has become a safe haven for the city's youth. A place where they can just be themselves.
Started in 2009 and born out of a research project initiated by the MacArthur Foundation to study ways students engage in learning outside of the classroom, YOUmedia is billed as "an innovative new 21st Century learning space for high school students." The program has housed thousands of young people since its inception who are in search of ways to productively channel their energy and creativity.
"We're a neutral learning space in what can be an otherwise volatile community," says Brian Bannon, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library.
Through financial support from the MacArthur Foundation, among others, the program is designed to expand students' learning opportunities past the traditional school day, utilizing mediums including books, computers with software for media creation and even a recording studio. Bannon believes offering activities that students are already interested in is an effective way to connect with youth.
"There was really a need to increase services to teens," Bannon said. "We engage them and provide them with a voice."
And there's no better time to see that voice in action than when students turn up for the highly anticipated open mic on Wednesday evenings. In front of an audience of their peers, students perform hip-hop, poetry, original songs and more.
Hosted by Chicago hip-hop artist and youth development practitioner TehRay Hale Sr., also known as Phenom, the space takes on a complexion of hope and creative energy, with Phenom acting as a guiding force for the students.
"I show them that they have the power to change their environment," Hale said. "My objective is to increase the youth voice and strengthen the relationship between youth and adults. Sometimes they can be ignored by elders. I have a great ability to put myself in their shoes and say ‘Hey, you have permission to let your creativity live.' "
Hale is a favorite among the students, who view him as a mentor they can talk to and trust with things that some won't even reveal to their own parents. It is this mentorship aspect that has enabled YOUmedia to become a home away from home for many students who may not have otherwise had a place to participate in such activities.
"It's really the people, not the technology, that are the most important elements of this," Bannon said. "We are always hearing from the students that it is really the mentors that make this space work."
Hale takes his role seriously, using music as a tool to connect with the students and speak to them in their own language.
"I want people to feel like these kids are worthy," he said. "This is a holistic approach to rebuilding the community through hip-hop. I want them to show what they've got so that they can start gaining respect."
One well-respected talent, and YOUmedia alum, is rising homegrown hip-hop artist Chance Bennett, better known as Chance The Rapper.
Bennett said he first started to frequent YOUmedia during his sophomore year at Jones College Prep and credited the program with being an overall outlet for his art and teaching him important skills such as how to use recording equipment.
"It's definitely a really dope program," Bennett said. "There's not a lot of youth programs that are positive like this without overly pushing their own message.
"Beyond performing, it helped mold me as a person and gave me the ability to speak freely, which is important."
Bennett is not the only one who sees the importance of YOUmedia.
According to Ruth Lednicer, director of marketing for the Chicago Public Library, the program has also helped reading among the youth involved skyrocket by placing books that interest them directly into their space. She also points out that even the White House has taken notice, hailing YOUmedia as a model program and prompting the building of 30 more programs just like it across the country.
"We're that non-judgmental place for students," Lednicer said. "We don't grade you. We simply help kids to express themselves and to become better."
Anthony Roberts is a RedEye special contributor.
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