Adults Step Back, Young People Lead

Mia and Clancy took the stage together. As they sashayed across, they paused at the imaginary microphone to say… “Airplane food, don’t you know?” These two high school sophomores – let me rephrase that – these two artists, were practicing their stage manners in preparation for their art world debut.

Five artists will represent Territory at “Imagine This: A Safe City For Youth” hosted by the Teen Creative Agency at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Friday May 18, 6-8 pm. Our team will step up and talk about Walk In Our Shoes, a youth-empowerment walking tour that features public sites in Chicago where young people go to be themselves, to play, to share, to cry, to socialize, or just to chill.

In April 2017 the team led the first iteration of this tour in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood for an audience attending a national art conference, Open Engagement: Justice. A year later, they are meeting with community members in Austin and have a project underway in Uptown. The team’s goal: to find and mark spaces across the city where young people have stories to tell, and to share those stories using old-fashioned and modern wayfinding tools: public art, signage, interactive activities, and apps.

How Does Territory Step Back, And Let Young People Lead?

Territory recruits our teams from neighborhood high schools. We often find ourselves in a classroom of 30 or more young people, with a few minutes to convince possibly one person to join our team. We open our pitch with a call and response: “Raise your hand if you live in Chicago.” Everyone lives in Chicago, so this is how we make sure we have the room. “OK, now raise your hand if you want to change the city.” A few hands drop. “”Now, raise your hand if you have already changed the city…” At this point, most people have dropped their hands, so we ask: “Why haven’t you changed the city? Just shout out your reasons.” Inevitably teens face three hurdles: “money” … “skills” … “power.”

Money Skills Power

This is our mandate, straight from the souls of Chicago high school students. We adults step back by building a network of people who want to invest in young people, ranging from aldermen to art teachers. We develop partnerships with civic, economic, and social agencies, find the money, and create a safe studio environment where team members come to build and hone their civic engagement and design practice skills.

Our current team is showing us how it’s done. Sitting on the stage with MCA Manager of Youth and Family Programs Grace Needlman, the team slowly pieces together their accomplishments.

“Last summer, we created places that would attract people so they could gather and interact.”

“A year ago, we created a walking tour where we could share our stories with adults.”

“Now we are putting the two parts together, designing places where people can gather, and hear our stories. These are people’s spots, places that are safe for teenagers, and well, everyone.”

I am the design team facilitator. Aside from a friendly prompt, I didn’t need to say anything.

Grace glanced at the team, “You just said teenagers are creating safe places to gather in public, where people can hear their stories. You might not know what a big deal that is. That’s art.” Or something like that. And then, not five minutes later, four teenagers, four artists, were striding up to the imaginary microphone to test their stage voices.

We hope you can come on Friday May 18, and hear from young people across the city, including Territory. It’s FREE, but registration is required.