Storytelling Program Helps Chicago Teens Overcome Pain, Anxiety and Adversity

Standing among his fellow Story Squad members, 18-year-old Davosier Rutledge answers a question from the audience during a Story Squad performance at the YMCA Rise center on Dec. 19, 2017, in Chicago.
Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune

At first, the words didn’t come to Alisha Jones.

Assigned to tell a story about the adversity she has faced in her young life, the 13-year-old had much to draw from: the pain of seeing her older brother jailed and the division it caused in her family. As she struggled to find the words to describe her pent-up anger and anxiety, she realized she had never talked about it before.

Little by little, Alisha, an aspiring performer, began penning lyrics to a rap as part of a program by the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago called Story Squad. The program aims to help teens overcome their problems by encouraging them to recount heartbreaks and hardships through multimedia storytelling. Alisha found her voice in a three-minute track titled “My Real Feelings.”

“With this piece I felt like I was venting stuff I actually went through, and I got to tell my story to people who probably wouldn’t have listened,” she said.

Some of the participants, who are from South Chicago, Pilsen and Humboldt Park, face difficulties in school or at home, but the violence in their neighborhoods is a recurring theme in weekly talks, said program coordinator Eddie Ulin.

As of Wednesday, there had been 236 shooting victims ages 16 and younger in Chicago, 37 of them killed.

News outlets often deliver stories from grieving parents or other adults who talk about how their daily lives are under siege. But Ulin said the 14-week program empowers teens to tell about their often overlooked experiences, such as gang recruitment, that may be driving factors behind crime.

“People think we wake up and think, ‘I want to become a gang member,'” Ulin recalled one participant saying at a recent meeting. “He was saying: ‘My mom and dad were in a gang, and this is all I knew my whole life.’

“But what’s important about Story Squad is that we have a voice, because if we don’t tell our truth, who’s going to tell it for us?” Ulin said.

The teens perform or present their individual stories, which range from poetry to simple storytelling to short films, at an end-of-session production put on for friends and families.

At Tuesday’s performance, one teen talked about struggling to stay conscious after he was shot in the hand and mouth in Brighton Park. Another recalled resorting to picking up cans in second grade to help pay bills while his mother was sick and how, as he grew older, his sense of morality blurred when he felt he needed to provide for his family.

The initiative, started in 2014 by former YMCA coordinator Grant Buhr, was intended to give a small group of South Chicago teens a medium to channel their experiences through music.

“Grant was a social worker and also had a major in music, and wanted to combine both in one,” Ulin said. “He used music as a healing tool. He considered it narrative therapy, a way to come together and speak about traumatic events they may have experienced.”

Since its inception, the program has added weekly sessions with youth groups from Pilsen and Humboldt Park, and organizers have expanded the curriculum to include video production.

Many of the teens are attracted by the cozy recording studio in Pilsen, where kids can take to a mic behind an accordion-style room divider and learn to edit using sound-mixing equipment.

A week before the performance, the teens gathered to review and practice a mock Q&A session.

Program coordinators played a song titled “Save Me” by Kenny Wims, 17, of Humboldt Park. As other teens softly bobbed their heads to the beat, Kenny rapped about life without a father figure and the friends he’s lost to violence.

“What made you write this piece?” a coordinator asked after the song finished.

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, Tony Briscoe