Young lo­cal ac­tivists are work­ing to reimag­ine the fu­ture, pushing to change so­ci­etal norms



Dion­tae Chat­man hasn’t for­got­ten when, while in the third grade, teach­ers in Chicago walked off the job to de­mand bet­ter pay.

Chat­man, 17, is still close to their third­grade teacher, who loved stu­dents like they were her own chil­dren. To Chat­man, it seemed like an ob­vi­ous choice to pay teach­ers more con­sid­er­ing they were nur­tur­ing fu­ture doc­tors and lawyers.

Chat­man is on the youth lead­er­ship board for the Chicago Free­dom School, which pro­vides train­ing and pro­grams for peo­ple ages 13 to 24, and is part of a wave of young ac­tivists in the Chicago area who are pushing for pol­icy changes that will reimag­ine how so­ci­ety will func­tion in the fu­ture.

Chat­man, who comes from a fam­ily of ac­tivists, was a chant leader this sum­mer dur­ing a West Side protest. Chat­man has been fo­cused on pushing for po­lice of­fi­cers to be re­moved from pub­lic schools, an is­sue that is be­ing dis­cussed across the city as lo­cal school coun­cils vote on the mat­ter.

“What does the world look like if we didn’t have po­lice or if we had more re­sources to sup­port peo­ple, to sup­port home­less­ness?” Chat­man said. “What would it look like? Let’s make a change, and let’s not be scared of the change.”

In a sum­mer marked by so­cial jus­tice move­ments in Chicago and around the coun­try — where protests and ral­lies de­cry­ing po­lice bru­tal­ity and de­mand­ing fair treat­ment for im­mi­grants have be­come a daily oc­cur­rence — Chicago-area teens are let­ting their voices be heard.

“These young peo­ple, you see the fire in their eyes like I’ve never seen be­fore,” said Tony Al­varado-Rivera, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Chicago Free­dom School. “They are lit­er­ally fight­ing for their lives. It’s so pow­er­ful and at times heart­break­ing that these young peo­ple are lit­er­ally putting their lives on the line.”

Jac­que­line Lazú, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at DePaul Univer­sity and a his­to­rian of so­cial move­ments, said mod­ern move­ments led by youth are much more in­ter­sec­tional.

“Young peo­ple are quick to call out be­hav­iors that have com­pro­mised move­ments in the past,” she said. “They care enough to call out those in­con­sis­ten­cies.”

In sub­ur­ban Bol­ing­brook, Este­fany Her­nan­dez has spent the past year reg­is­ter­ing vot­ers, in­form­ing the com­mu­nity about the 2020 Cen­sus and speak­ing out for im­mi­grants like her­self through the South­west Sub­ur­ban Im­mi­grant Project.

The 15-year-old re­cently spoke at a rally out­side of the U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment’s of­fice in the Loop about how the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is still not al­low­ing peo­ple like her­self to sub­mit new ap­pli­ca­tions for the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals.

“I’m here to say we will fight back,” Her­nan­dez said out­side of ICE’s field of­fice. “To­day we need our mem­bers of Con­gress to hear us loud and clear, start­ing with my Con­gress­man Bill Fos­ter, you must act quickly and with courage. Re­mem­ber me when the time comes to vote for more funding for DHS.”

Her­nan­dez con­sid­ered her­self a shy per­son, but she thinks she’s opened up af­ter do­ing door knock­ing and phone bank­ing with the or­ga­ni­za­tion. She had wanted to study nurs­ing, but she now wants to be­come an im­mi­gra­tion lawyer.

“I want to help peo­ple in my com­mu­nity, and I want to con­tinue to work with SSIP,” she said.

Like Her­nan­dez, Ka­rina Her­nan­dez, 15, of West Lawn, has also thought about be­com­ing an at­tor­ney af­ter spend­ing time as a fel­low at the Chicago Free­dom School. Her mother ad­vo­cates for do­mes­tic vi­o­lence vic­tims, and this sum­mer was the first time the teen went to protests on her own.

“It felt nice chant­ing and scream­ing out about Chicago po­lice,” she said.

El­iz­a­beth Cer­vantes, the co-founder and di­rec­tor of or­ga­niz­ing for SSIP, said the or­ga­ni­za­tion was founded by young peo­ple, and that de­mo­graphic still re­mains in­te­gral to their work in Will and DuPage coun­ties. Cer­vantes said her gen­er­a­tion of im­mi­grant ac­tivists fought for DACA and for in-state tu­ition for un­doc­u­mented stu­dents. But many of those poli­cies turned into po­lit­i­cal chips.

“I think the youth are tired of that,” Cer­vantes said, ex­plain­ing how youth lead­ers are pushing to dis­man­tle ICE.

“They are com­ing of age in the Trump era where ev­ery day there are at­tacks on them and also their fam­i­lies,” Cer­vantes said. “They come into the move­ment with much


more strength and much more force.”

In North Lawn­dale, stu­dents from the Vil­lage Lead­er­ship Academy, a kinder­garten-through-eighth-grade pri­vate school, took a break Satur­day to play at the play­ground in a park that will soon be re­named af­ter Fred­er­ick Dou­glass. The stu­dents, who wore T-shirts stat­ing “no parks named af­ter slave own­ers,” have spent years lead­ing a cam­paign to change the park’s name. They’ve spent Satur­days at the park talk­ing to res­i­dents, pass­ing out fly­ers and stick­ers.

Raniya Thomas, 13, one of the stu­dent lead­ers, would of­ten ride her bike through the park that spans 161 acres on the West Side. She and her par­ents thought the park was named af­ter Fred­er­ick Dou­glass. But she was shocked to learn the park was ac­tu­ally named af­ter Stephen Douglas, a U.S. se­na­tor from Illi­nois who owned slaves.

An­other youth leader, Zari Young, 14, said she wasn’t as sur­prised when her class started to dig into the his­tory of the park.

“We still have a lot of mon­u­ments and stuff that should not be here, but it is here,” Young said.

The stu­dents want the park to also honor Anna Mur­ray Dou­glass, who was an abo­li­tion­ist, part of the Un­der­ground Rail­road and mar­ried to Fred­er­ick Dou­glass. Thomas said Mur­ray Dou­glass is an ex­am­ple of how mod­ern so­ci­ety doesn’t give enough credit to women for their role in his­tory.

As the stu­dents, who started the push when some were in fifth grade, get ready to end their cam­paign, Young said they will keep ad­vo­cat­ing for other name changes.

The stu­dents ini­tially wanted the park to be named af­ter Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old woman who was with friends near the park in 2012 when an off­duty Chicago po­lice of­fi­cer fa­tally shot her.

“We are def­i­nitely not go­ing to for­get about it and move on be­cause the ini­tial ask was to name the park af­ter Rekia Boyd,” Young said. “So in­stead of nam­ing a park af­ter Rekia Boyd, we were think­ing of nam­ing a play­ground af­ter Rekia Boyd or like a small mon­u­ment.”


Este­fany Her­nan­dez, of the South­west Sub­ur­ban Im­mi­grant Project, speaks with the me­dia dur­ing a protest out­side the Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment of­fice at 101 W. Ida B. Wells Drive in the South Loop on Aug. 4.


Mem­bers of the Change the Name cam­paign that was cre­ated by stu­dents at the Vil­lage Lead­er­ship Academy, in Douglas Park.

Zari Young

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