CYIC Hosts Social Justice Expo at Truman College

Audio Slideshow: 2010 CYIC Social Justice Expo Poetry Slam audio slideshow, including an excerpt of the poem “Temptation of My Mind.”

By Matt Gentile and James Mazurek

The Chicago Youth Initiating Change (CYIC) hosted its fourth annual social justice expo on May 20 at Truman College.

Students from all areas of the city and the nearby suburbs attended the event. The CYIC uses its social justice exposition every year to aware of issues to bring about social change.

The event featured student displays reminiscent of those presented at a local science fair. Except instead of focusing on scientific topics, they focused on housing foreclosures, racial and gender discrimination and immigration rights.
Other major topics included gentrification, media manipulation and improving meals at schools. The CYIC is constructed of volunteers, ranging from activists, teachers and students. Shanti Elliot, a volunteer that is one of the primary forces in coordinating the expo every year, said the organization is mostly student driven.

“The students who have been involved in this event…[were] also involved in the [Chicago Public Schools] protests,” Elliot said. “Specifically focusing on the budget cuts and the affects it’s going to have on the students as well as cafeteria food.”

The recent CPS cuts were the topic that received a lot of attention at the expo. The cuts have caused made many organizations, students, and teachers around Chicago go to the picket line. CPS students did a study-in to protest the state’s budget cuts and lack of funding toward education on May 25 outside of Daley Plaza. Some districts throughout the state have been forced to cut staff due to lack of funding.

The CPS hasn’t made any sweeping staff cuts, but the Chicago Tribune reported last week that CPS CEO Ron Huberman is preparing for the worst while preparing next school year’s budget and is considering raising the class sizes to as high as 25 percent.

“[Students] have been [protesting], in terms of the budget cuts, sports programs being cut at J.V. level,” Elliot said. “A lot of the AVID and I.B. programs have been cut. The class size has been raised to 37 students. Students are asking the administrators to make other cuts at the top instead of making more cuts that are going to hurt the students.”

Besides the displays, the expo included workshops, discussions and speeches on topics such as the CPS budget cuts and policies, militarization of schools and immigrant rights. There was also a Half Pint Poetics poetry slam. The poetry slam was composed of 10 teams with students from ages 8 to 14. Each team hailed from either an elementary school or community group.

The poetry slam is presented by Kuumba Lynx, an arts and education organization founded in 1996. Kuumba Lynx offers programming in the forms of workshops, special events, and ensembles, said Jaquanda Villegas, one of its three founders. Villegas said Kuumba Lynx is a tool to make young people aware of the social problems around them.

“I point to how violence in Chicago is out of control,” she said. “We really need to stop and teach them at [8-years-old and 14-years-old] while they’re still developing their ideas. We serve as a space and let kids interact with others in the community.”

One team, the Purpose of Life, performed a poem that keyed in on racial and social equality. Quraysh Ali Lansana, one of the team’s coaches, said the kids on their team range from 10 to 14-years-old. Lansana, who is also an associate professor at Chicago State University in english and creative writing and specializes in studying hip hop related arts and social justice, said members of the team write their own material based off group discussion.

Lansana and his wife then help mesh them into group pieces. He pointed out that many children understand the world from their own lived culture or language they access in media but that nowadays, both have become mainstream. He said the poetry they are doing, however, can make children more aware to social justice issues.

“Eighteen years ago, Snoop Dogg debuted on Dr. Dre’s [The Chronic album] and was the world’s most dangerous emcee and now he’s selling us Chryslers with Lee Iacocca,” Lansana said.

“These boys, and many young boys and girls, have to navigate both those worlds. [They] have to understand the tongue of their nouns because it’s cool, and it’s in the moment. While at the same time being able to be serious about their minds…[and] thinking about other kids and thinking about other issues.”

While the CYIC was happy with the outcome, as viewed by the homepage of its web site, not everyone agrees with the way the organization presented the expo. Some of the messages conveyed there might have raised a few eyebrows. The admittedly conservative blog, ChicagoNewsBench.com, suggested the event spread communist messages to children by having displays on Che Guevara and Malcolm X as well as a poster saying, “Impeach Daley and the CPS Board.”

However, Elliot denied in a phone interview on May 28 that CYIC is using the expo to spread communist propaganda.

“The [Social Justice Expo] and the curriculum are based on issues that students identify with in their lives,” Elliot said. “Some students are dealing with injustices, inequities or other issues in schools, and it gives them a way to speak to an issue.

“This had nothing to do with teaching particular schools of thought. But, it gives them ways to see how to deal with injustices in their lives.”

This poster is one of many that raised a few eyebrows at the CYIC expo. (Photo by James Mazurek)

The event had a smaller number of elementary school students than middle school and high school students.

In fact, the only third grade students at the expo were from Inter-American Magnet School and Lincoln Elementary School.

However, Elliot said the organization also has concerns about some of the content being shown to children at the expo.

“Both the students and CYIC leaders do worry about age appropriateness,” she said. “We think third graders aren’t going to understand most of those messages. No one, at any age, is forced to look at that and understand that. [The expo] gives students a space to explore what they feel they need to know. “Adults in CYIC are there to support the curiosity of students. We don’t say ‘you have to be behind that.’ Our meetings are facilitated by students. The adults just put logistics into place.”

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