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Kevin Coval

Kevin Coval

Posted: October 6, 2009 08:30 PM

A Post-Olympic Plan for a City Under Siege

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The morning after disappointment must be setting in. They four headed horsemen of a Chicago apocalypse failed to turn the South Side over to stadium contractors and decimate Bronzeville (for now). In the literal wake of Derrion Albert, and as the polity begins to wonder where these Chica-go-getters were as kids walk unsafe from failing public schools in the their own back (-of the back) yards, I got a plan. It's a plan, and there should be many, but I got a plan that works. Hear me.

Chicago Schools are failing. Arnie Duncan thought you could shuffle kids and schools around. Closing some, re-opening others, never addressing the systemic inequities and curricular reasons why schools fail, just some Hide-a-nut/Three-card Monte work from the former CEO of CPS and current Secretary of Education. The lack of forethought and understanding of how gang territories work in the lives of kids, the busing and crossing of neighborhood lines, with no acknowledgment or response to address this real issue, is in part responsible for the increase of violence toward CPS students and their alarming number of homicides. To send kids across certain lines in Chicago is a death sentence. If Duncan, Daley, et al., were real educators mining student lives as sites for teachable moments, they would be well aware of this predicament. Renaissance 2010 reeks of a pejorative top down decision-making model done in a blind vacuum. The architects of this plan are accomplices to murder. For real.

But Chicago, I got you. Well not only me but thousands of young poets and emcees from all over the city, we got a plan. The plan is rooted in hip-hop's insistence in the performance of violence as dance, as battle song and cry. This academic year we will celebrate the 10th year of Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival. This year we are calling it, LTAB 10: The Real Chicago Renaissance. It is a poetry festival and slam that brings together thousands of young people from all over the city. We have not had one, I mean not one, incident of violence going on ten years of bringing writers and rappers aged 12-21 together from every neighborhood in the city to Columbia College or The Vic Theater or The Gary Comer Youth Center on the South Side. The writers at Louder Than A Bomb are on their way to Ivy League schools and Correctional Facilities, some will pursue their MFAs at The School of The Art Institute, and some will work as a cashier at Treasure Island. All of them are seen as fully human, all of them are asked to bring their real lives into the open mics, writing workshops, and after school ciphers. More than 85% of our writers graduate high school, a rate almost twice as good than the CPS average.

This fall Louder Than A Bomb teaching artists, many of whom are former students and festival participants themselves, are entering ten of the toughest schools in the city. Alternative schools which are the last chance and stop in CPS for kids to earn a diploma. These students have been kicked out, flunked out and dropped out of at least one other school before we will see them. They have records and babies, and sometimes-bad attitudes, but they have selected to come back to school on their own accord. They want to be in school. As educators it is our job to provide curriculum and reasons for them to stay. These ten schools, and the hundreds of students we will be working with in them, will meet up this February and March at Louder Than A Bomb, with hundreds of other poets from all neighborhoods in Chicago and the surrounding metropolitan area. They will talk about the issues in their lives and neighborhoods from their on the ground vantage point. They are real-life documentarians and real world reporters from the bureaus on the block. For three minutes at time the students speak about their lives. For the other eighty-seven minutes of a poetry slam bout, they are listening to the lives and stories and dreams and aspirations of others. Kids who look like them but come from a different neighborhood, or kids that don't look like them and come from a different neighborhood. In listening, the city shrinks. The blocks form a patterned grid, neighborhoods morph into the city as a whole, and we realize we are all in the same predicament, we all rep Chicago.

I repeat. Going on ten years of bringing thousands of young people together across neighborhood, gang, socio-economic and racial lines, we have had not one incident of violence.

So, the plan.

From jump man (so to speak), we will get Mike Jordan-style poetry and emcee tournaments city and statewide. It will look like the Illinois State Basketball tournament, but the participants and teams will mesmerize the crowd with 360 degree metaphors that full circle front-to-back with a last emphatic epiphany of high flying verbal dexterity. Schools city wide will compete for the goodwill of bragging rights, the chance to represent Chicago at Brave New Voices: The International Youth Poetry Slam and for the spot they will get on Oprah's show and magazine. Yeah Op!, what an amazingly fresh show, young articulate, talented young people giving voice to the issues of the day via poetry. I think Oprah's viewers would be delighted and her magazine subscribers pleased to find portraits of the winners next to a poem they wrote spread in those glossy pages.

We get there because Mayor Daley working with Arnie Duncan and now Ron Huberman (call me back Ron!), will make Louder Than A Bomb a system wide option as are after school programs like forensics, academic decathlon and sports themselves. There will be a twenty-week curricular component written in accordance with Illinois State Standards taught in English classrooms or elective periods. The classes will lead into the after-school program and a spoken word club facilitated by a teaching artist and classroom schoolteacher who will receive a stipend for their time, as do teachers who sponsor other programs.

All this will lead to Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival which takes place in February and March. The winners and all teams will then go back to their schools and communities and in April perform and provide writing workshops in elementary schools, libraries, and park districts around the city. The city will be abuzz with language and records of now from people who are normally never heard from, the youth. Seen and now heard.

As for Obama, we invite him to be a judge at this year's finals. He can sit and listen and hear what the grassroots around Hyde Park, and city wide, are going thru. How they want to be safe, how they want their peers to be safe, here and abroad. He can give the poems Olympic-style scores, ranging from 0 to 10. He can listen to the crowd scream, Listen to the Poem! Then he and his crew can stop playing, and say they did some work to bring the games to the city. Games that matter, hope, save, and are safe.

But we shouldn't wait for politicians and celebrities to build a world and city that is just and equitable.

We do this work.

Teachers, students, rogue school administrators, artists whose work matters, parents. Regular folk who get up and work, who greet the sun. We are the ones who change culture and society.

You can be involved in supporting The Louder Than A Bomb Festival and schools we work in, in many ways. We need your help. (Please visit youngchicagoauthors.org for more info and view a 10-minute documentary film clip of Louder Than A Bomb below.)

And you can create your own plans for the city. All us, city planners with ideas of the place we want to live in and remain able to live in safely. Dream and enact these plans. We are the ones who live here. We are the ones who will make Chicago better.