Matt Damon visits school in Englewood

Actor preps kids for project inspired by the progressive historian Howard Zinn.

January 31, 2012

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A group of students sat in a circle sharing their poetry, perspectives and personal takes on U.S. history. It was a kind of prep for these students at TEAM Englewood High School on Chicago’s South Side; this spring they will put on a performance to highlight anonymous voices in American history.

The student project is a spinoff from Howard Zinn’s seminal book, A People’s History of the United States. Two years ago actor Matt Damon co-produced a documentary from Zinn’s material that aired on HBO. Damon’s also associated with an offshoot from Zinn's tome, a nonprofit civic engagement outfit called Voices of a People’s History.

That brought him to Englewood Tuesday afternoon.

“Real people who have said real things or people who are doing their own experiences like Englewood Speaks and have a place where teachers can go and get these things and use them as teaching tools to help students connect to history,” Damon said.

Englewood Speaks is the name of the student performance — the only one of its kind in the city that’s connected to the Voices project.

Jerome Wade, a TEAM Englewood student, performed in the circle on Tuesday.

“This project is really important to me because of my community,” Wade said. “I mostly try to better my community with my poetry and music. To see people come here and make a big deal of it, motivates me to keep doing it.”

Damon, a native of Boston, grew up next to Zinn for the first 10 years of his life and said the historian was like a surrogate grandfather. Zinn’s work highlighted ordinary people involved in various struggles that ranged from Native American rights to the dissolution of Jim Crow. Zinn died in 2010.

Damon and rapper Lupe Fiasco, who also visited TEAM Englewood High School, are pairing up with local talent at the Metro nightclub Tuesday night to perform readings from the Voices project.