July 6, 2016

Chicago’s poets want to break the cycle of violence in their neighborhoods

Young Chicago Authors empowers youth through poetry

Daryn Alexus performs at a recent open mic event hosted by Young Chicago Authors. Photo courtesy of Young Chicago Authors

Young Chicago Authors was founded in 1991 as a weekly workshop for inner-city youths interested in creative writing. Today, the organization serves 10,000 Chicago students every year through seminars, workshops, mentorships, and open mic events. YCA’s annual Louder than a Bomb event is recognized as the largest youth poetry festival in the world, and in 2016 the organization received a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Demetrius Amparan is YCA’s Director of Publications and Communications. He discovered YCA as a high school student and credits his enduring success as an artist to the organization. 

— The Renewal Project staff

It’s one of those days in Chicago when you think there must be a puppeteer stringing away at the changing weather in the sky. On my way to work, I pass a crew of young guys on the corner of Jackson and Western. They always let me know “they got me” if I need weed. I tell them “I got them” if they want to step their bars up—lingo for growing as a lyricist. Most of these guys spend their days free-style rapping on the corner, being watched closely by the police, and hustling up as much of a profit as they can before disappearing into a night of sirens and maternal uncertainty. This is Chicago—a city with culture oozing through segregated city blocks; a city filled with young people whose voices are constantly being silenced by systematic oppression.

When I see these guys on the corner, I ask myself: Where do they put their raw emotions that come from growing up in a place like this? How do they heal? Can a voice fester like a deferred dream? Or can we give it a chance to grow?

I ponder these questions as I head to Young Chicago Authors on the blue line train. YCA is a 25-year-old nonprofit in Chicago, providing free programing for more than 10,000 youths in the city. Our mission is to transform the lives of young people by cultivating their voices through writing, publishing, education, and performance. I serve as the organization’s Director of Publications and Communications. It’s a dream role for me. I have the opportunity to shape the narrative of an organization I called home as a student from 2005 to 2008.

Before joining YCA, I was a high school kid coping with the realities of living in a ruthless city. In my heart, I knew it was only a matter of time before violence took someone close to me—but that foresight didn’t make the pain any easier. When my best friend Eddie was killed by an off-duty police officer in a hit and run accident, I suddenly found myself in a spiral of raw, unprocessed emotions. I was lost, because where I’m from, young men are taught to suppress these feelings.

In my heart, I knew it was only a matter of time before violence took someone close to me—but that foresight didn’t make the pain any easier.

One day, my friend Cydney took me to an open mic at Young Chicago Authors called WordPlay. I’ll never forget the moment when a young woman walked onto the makeshift stage and shared a poem about her mother’s battle with drug addiction. I remember the pain in her eyes as she recalled the first time she saw her mother put a needle in her arm. As she exited the stage, dozens of young people waited to hug her, relate to her, and let her know everything would be OK. Her willingness to share such intimate details about her life allowed me to understand how words could heal.

Looking back at that moment, I know my life could have gone in two different directions. I could have let the anger I felt from loss and a lack of direction tear me down; instead, I entered and won YCA’s Louder Than A Bomb festival. I could have wound up on the corner slinging dope; instead, my poetry was featured in an HBO documentary series. I could have been another young man memorialized on a RIP t-shirt; instead, I went on to complete college and tour the country showcasing my art.

Helping youth learn to heal and empower themselves is a powerful privilege that YCA doesn’t take lightly. Many people begin labeling the students I work with before ever hearing them. But there is a resolve like no other in these kids. They are unapologetically fighting for a place in a more equitable city. They want the same resources and opportunities as anyone else. They want people to understand that amazing things can grow, even in the most unexpected places.

All they need is someone to listen.

Demetrius Amparan

Director of Publications and Communications, Young Chicago Authors

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