On February 14th, a group of young people gathered at the Chicago Freedom School (CFS) to participate in the inaugural session of the Young Leaders For Justice (YLJ) program. YLJ is the result of a collaboration between CFS and us at Project NIA.
We conceived of this program as an opportunity to support young people ages 17 to 24 to develop their knowledge about criminalization and to learn new organizing skills. Over the past 8 sessions spanning 4 months, participants have learned about the dynamics and nature of the prison industrial complex, oppressive policing, the juvenile justice system, healing justice, using social media as a tool for organizing, and more. In the final couple of sessions, participants will learn about strategies for grassroots fundraising and will participate in a walking tour of Chicago. YLJ participant Dan reflects on what he’s learned so far:
“Throughout this program, I have learned so much about living in America in 2015. I’ve had a chance to talk with so many wonderful people who have ideas that will positively impact the world. We’ve discussed the school to prison pipeline, prison industrial complex and so many concepts that have restricted the freedom and movement of black and brown bodies. I decided to apply for this program so I could better understand how this world works. I have received more than I thought possible through this program. What I’ve learned in these sessions will carry with me for the rest of my life. We were never meant to survive, so we must act and build to remember.”
This program is also born of a need for more spaces in Chicago for young people to engage in collective political education. A couple of YLJ participants commented on this in a reflection about the program. Latia highlights the importance of being able to develop critical consciousness for action:
“Being a part of this program has allowed me to critically think about and analyze the history of policing and mass incarceration. In this space, we are able to ask questions and look at the prison culture in ways that are impactful. We are able to talk about the world in ways that can create change. It is great to be around like-minded, passionate people that are eager to create a new way of living. I have learned so much from each individual and I am eager to put all of our discussions and lessons into action. The question of imagining a world without prisons is one that we should all think about!”
Hugo stresses coming to consciousness about state violence through his participation in the program:
The YLJ program is rooted in a philosophy that activism is a life-long pursuit so it’s therefore important that it be infused with an ethic of care (including self-care). Some participants shared their reflections about the impact of this program on their identities and selves. Josephine spoke to the effects of YLJ on her personal development as an activist and human being:
“We have been problematizing the idea of prisons, capitalism, police and other tentacles of the State. It has been a radical experience to be part of a group where everyone is open-minded and transparent. If there were more places and opportunities like CFS/YLJ, the world would be a better and revolutionary place.”
“The YLJ workshops have been crucial to me as an activist and as a person living in Chicago. It has made the city and the history of its people, particularly black people, very intimate to my own sense of self and convictions on justice. The workshops not only teach us how to be more efficient, erudite activists of color, but teach us how to take care of ourselves, how to take up space, how to “be okay” in our bodies. The workshops have been holistic and healing and I always leave feeling full with a knowing that I am learning and becoming the kind of human being I need to be.”
YLJ has helped participants to see their worlds with new eyes. This has been a recurring theme throughout the sessions. Makiah, a high school senior, describes an awakening over the past few weeks:
“I’m learning to think critically about the patterns I see every day. You notice instances where cops are present. You, as a POC, know that you are targeted unjustly. But this program really gives you insight. We can all sit down and have conversation. We leave knowing, okay, this is what is going on. And this is why. And then we all go back to our own communities making all these new connections. We all have these suspicions about what it happening but we get them validated in this program. Now we’re in a phase of learning, ‘what now? what do I need to do’.”
Lynda speaks to incremental changes in her perspective as she’s learned more about criminalization through YLJ:
“I notice the impact of my experience with YLJ in small ways. I have slowly developed a more critical lens when it comes to police in our communities. When my neighborhood association printed posters with the words ‘we call the police. We report all suspicious activities to the police,” I viewed it as a narrow-minded approach to safety. While we live in a police-centered world, we can’t rely on them to keep us safe. I still don’t have the answers but at least I now question more deeply.”
At the end of the 10 sessions of political education (end of June), some YLJ participants will execute action projects over the summer. We are excited to see how they apply the knowledge that they have gained through tangible projects. Stay tuned for future updates this summer!
We have cobbled together resources to run YLJ over the past few months. We received no significant foundation funding and have relied almost entirely on individual financial and in kind donations to make the program happen. We at Project NIA have volunteered our time to plan and co-facilitate this program because we are committed to youth leadership development. However, there are program costs that we have incurred including food and stipends for participants. We are still fundraising to support our work. If you are able and feel moved, please make a donation HERE today. All donations are tax-deductible to full extent of the law.