The Rise Of Chicago Teen Activists: ‘The Voices Of Youth Are Very Powerful’

“I am not a menace, nor a rebel, but a dedicated freedom fighter,” said one teen who was recently injured leading a protest.

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Jasmine Bradley, the sister of Caleb Reed, a youth activist and victim of gun violence, speaks during a memorial for her brother outside Mather High School on Chicago's Northwest on Aug 4, 2020. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ
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Jasmine Bradley, the sister of Caleb Reed, a youth activist and victim of gun violence, speaks during a memorial for her brother outside Mather High School on Chicago's Northwest on Aug 4, 2020. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ

The Rise Of Chicago Teen Activists: ‘The Voices Of Youth Are Very Powerful’

“I am not a menace, nor a rebel, but a dedicated freedom fighter,” said one teen who was recently injured leading a protest.

Derrianna Ford remembers inviting her boyfriend, Caleb Reed, a 17-year-old who was fatally shot on Chicago’s Northwest Side last week, to an organizing meeting for teens about a year ago.

Derrianna thought it would be a good fit for Caleb because he had a passion for social justice.

She was right. It just took one meeting for Caleb to become active with Voices Of Youth for Chicago Education, an organizing alliance that promotes education and racial justice. He learned about advocacy and grassroots organizing.

Caleb’s family, who describes him as loving and compassionate, said he was an innocent victim of gun violence. That’s one of the issues the student at Mather High School on the Northwest Side was working to combat.

“It’s not fair that you fight for something that you just died for,” Derrianna said during a memorial for Caleb earlier this week. “That shows that our city needs to start paying attention. This young person was telling you to pay attention.”

Now Derrianna, an incoming senior, has pledged to continue Caleb’s work and call out the issues that deeply affect Chicago teens, including police in schools and racial inequality.

In Chicago, many Black teens like Derrianna and Caleb have been at the forefront of recent marches spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in May. They knew just what to do after years of organizing — long before this summer’s wave of demonstrations, they have been part of a movement for social justice.

Much of it is driven by their own experiences of loss and tragedy due to gun violence and racial discrimination.

“I have to worry about the police pulling me over just because I am Black and a man,” said Derion Smith, one of Caleb’s friends. “I have to worry about people asking me what gang I am in when I don’t even gang bang.”

Like Caleb, Derion was dragged by a friend to a VOYCE meeting.

“After a while I am like, ‘This is actually more educational for me,’ ” Derion said. “I got to meet my alderman; I got to talk to many powerful people. And I got to know that my voice alone and the voices of youth are also very powerful.”

A growing grassroots movement

Today, a new crop of grassroots organizations that help empower teens are also taking center stage. One of them is GoodKids MadCity, a youth-led violence prevention organization.

“The young people are the ones at the forefront, checking in with families who are losing loved ones, creating healing spaces, creating safe spaces,” said Carlil Pittman, one of the co-founders of GoodKids MadCity. Pittman, 27, grew up on the South Side and said he’s been around violence his whole life.

He has been teaching teens to manage the organization’s social media, apply for grants and organize their own fundraisers.

“They are not waiting for the assistance, they are getting the tools they need to make it happen themselves,” Pittman said.

Pittman co-founded GoodKids MadCity in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., two years ago.

When these types of tragedies happen, he said, Black neighborhoods often get more of what they don’t want — police in schools and on the streets.

That kind of response spurred students to action. After the Parkland shooting, school walkouts took place across the country. Students from North Lawndale College Prep, a charter high school on the West Side, demonstrated with red tape across their mouths, carrying pictures of students who’ve been shot.

“In Chicago, we have been going through violence for decades,” said Alex King, a recent North Lawndale College Prep graduate and a GoodKids MadCity co-founder. He spoke to WBEZ before the walkout in 2018. “It’s been too long where we have had to be silent throughout our struggles, our pain.”

Seizing the moment

Groups like VOYCE and GoodKids MadCity grew out of a strong lineage of local organizing in Chicago.

Long before the Parkland shooting, teens and their families on the South and West sides have been organizing around gun violence and demanding more investments in their communities.

In this summer’s wave of protests, they were ready to show up in large numbers with a clear message against police misconduct and racial inequality.

Leading the way has been 18-year-old Miracle Boyd. She said her teeth were broken by Chicago police during a protest last month. Video footage appears to show an officer hitting Boyd as she is backing away from him during a protest calling for the removal of the Columbus Statue in Grant Park.

“There is no way I should have left a protest bruised and battered for exercising my freedom of speech and freedom to assemble,” Boyd said during a recent press conference.

Boyd is also with GoodKids MadCity and has been speaking out for the last several years on many issues, including school closings. She’s one of many Black teens who say they refuse to be silent bystanders and are using what they’ve learned to demand change.

“I will not run from the truth or hide behind any friend,” Miracle said. “I am not a menace, nor a rebel, but a dedicated freedom fighter.”