Column: Chicago youth storytelling program focuses on art and beauty, not violence

Nyjah Johnson is searching her Englewood neighborhood for stories untold, stories that push back on the narrative drummed into Chicagoans’ minds that the place she calls home is solely a place of violence, misery and decay.

Many news stories reveal the bad that exists in Englewood, but no place is all bad. Few places are even largely bad. There are stories everywhere of friendships and loves, of simple acts of kindness, of gardens and gatherings and all the good things that make a community.

So Johnson, along with about 40 other young Chicagoans from neighborhoods across the city, is out to find those stories and bring them to light through art, movement, music — whatever it takes.

The 19year-old is part of an ongoing project called Chicago Stories on the Block, launched by a Back of the Yards charity organization called The Port Ministries in conjunction with an array of other community groups. The goal is to encourage young people to embrace the good things around them and not be caught up in the violence that plagues many city neighborhoods.

“We invest so much time on what’s wrong with Chicago,” said David Gonzalez, executive director of The Port Ministries. “I think we need to equally invest in the creativity and the power and talent that people have. What if we celebrate the voices of young people?”

The positive, hopeful voices of young people in neighborhoods like Back of the Yards or Lawndale aren’t ones people usually hear or read about. That means those same young people aren’t hearing good or hopeful stories about themselves or where they live, and the absence of such stories does real harm.

It can leave young people stuck or resigned when they should be growing and believing they can make the world better.

The first stage of Chicago Stories on the Block has involved training on the importance of storytelling and ways to gather and process tales of people and places. During the month of August, the young people — ranging in age from 16 to 24 — will work with four different muralists to take the stories they’ve gathered and incorporate them into large works of art. The murals will eventually be displayed in four neighborhoods: Englewood, Back of the Yards, South Shore and Lawndale.

Once the murals are done, music and performance art will be created to carry the stories into complementary formats. The completed projects will be presented in their respective communities in the fall.

“I want people to be OK challenging the narrative that most of the country thinks about Chicago,” said Johnson, who along with the other young artists is working 20 hours a week and getting paid $14 per hour.

Mayra Hernandez, who works with Gonzalez at The Port Ministries, said: “Paying them is important, because we want young people to see their art is worth something.”

The money comes from One Summer Chicago, but that funding only runs through mid-August. The program lasts through the end of September, so organizers of Chicago Stories on the Block are now trying to raise money to continue paying the young artists for the additional six weeks. More on that later.

The program includes a financial literacy component, along with the art and storytelling workshops.

“This isn’t just about the art process,” Gonzalez said. “It’s getting kids together who wouldn’t normally meet each other and talk. It’s making Chicago a little smaller. Getting brown and Black people together, not just for a protest, which always has a negative root, but for something positive, highlighting stories of resiliency that people can identify with and relate to”

Cosette Nazon-Wilburn is executive director of the LUV Institute (LUV stands for “Love, Unity, Values”), a nonprofit that works with high-risk and underserved youth in Chicago and is part of the Chicago Stories on the Block program. She said many of the children in the program have experienced trauma, and she believes telling their stories is therapeutic.

“Storytelling is cathartic,” she said. “It’s a way to understand what’s going on inside.”

And it’s making a difference: “What we’re seeing is a shift. They’re starting to reimagine what’s possible.”

Nadia John, a 24-year-old working in the program, said she has been identifying themes to focus on including kinship, people watching out for each other and genuine relationships.

“I think about images of a block party,” she said. “And I think the way we’re approaching this, the things we’re trying to express are things that are universal to people in the neighborhoods, so they will have a sort of visceral reaction.”

Gonzalez loves what he hears.

“Putting your story out there, in a mural or music, you start believing,” he said. “Telling your story and seeing who you are, that’s so important. Being silly enough to think that your story should be shared. That’s what this is all about. I think young people need to know how dope they are.”

Johnson’s eyes grow wide as she imagines what it will be like in the fall when they have the chance to share the work in their communities: “I think I’ll say, ‘Wow, we really did this. We created it, we designed it. We did this.’”

That, as Nazon-Wilburn told me, is how young people build their own legends. And legends of hopefulness and positivity, legends that focus on the beauty that prevails rather than the violence that haunts, stand a far better chance of happy endings than the stories we’re used to hearing.

If you’d like to support Chicago Stories on the Block so they can keep paying their young artists and bring more youth into the fold, you can visit The Port Ministries at