The Athletes, the Street Artists, the Troublemakers and the Ones Who Say “No”

Excavating the revolutionary history of the Southwest Youth Collaborative.

Page May

The Southwest Youth Collaborative conducted numerous street outreach programs. (SWYC)

It was a nation­al mod­el for what youth orga­niz­ing and com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment should be,” Mathil­da de Dios recalls of the South­west Youth Col­lab­o­ra­tive (SWYC). A long-time youth orga­niz­er, Dios was first intro­duced to the SWYC in 1999. A quick search online, how­ev­er, reveals sparse details about the orga­ni­za­tion, which oper­at­ed before the dig­i­tal age could sig­nif­i­cant­ly archive its exten­sive work. Yet, this his­to­ry needs to be exca­vat­ed, so that we can learn from the organization’s pow­er­ful lega­cy: youth orga­niz­ing sup­port­ed by a mul­ti-ser­vice agency and net­work that built a stronger, safer, more unit­ed and politi­cized com­mu­ni­ty on Chicago’s South­west Side.

“We treated every young person like they were the next Malcolm X, the next Ella Baker, the next Bayard Rustin. We felt like, ‘This kid could change the world.’"

The South­west Youth Col­lab­o­ra­tive began in 1992 as part of the Chil­dren, Youth and Fam­i­lies Ini­tia­tive” of the Chica­go Com­mu­ni­ty Trust, a com­mu­ni­ty phil­an­thropic foun­da­tion. The Initiative’s 10-year invest­ment estab­lished SWYC — along with six oth­er region­al col­lab­o­ra­tives — to improve social ser­vices for young peo­ple, empha­siz­ing pri­ma­ry walk-in-the-door” ser­vices, such as cul­tur­al, artis­tic and ath­let­ic activ­i­ties, child­care and after­school pro­grams, and recreation.

Since its begin­ning, SWYC’s scope cov­ered sev­er­al neigh­bor­ing racial­ly and eth­ni­cal­ly diverse com­mu­ni­ties on Chicago’s South­west side, includ­ing: Chica­go Lawn, Mar­quette Park, Gage Park, West Lawn, Ash­burn and West Engle­wood. For its first two years, SWYC built out its office in Chica­go Lawn with two staff man­ag­ing three after­school pro­grams. Their cho­sen neigh­bor­hood already had a long his­to­ry of racial­ized strug­gle, as the demo­graph­ics had shift­ed to major­i­ty Black, Lati­no and Arab pop­u­la­tions since the 1950s.

When Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr. led a march for fair hous­ing through the area in 1966, he was met with open vio­lence, injured along with rough­ly 30 oth­ers by the bricks and bot­tles of a white mob. This inci­dent led him to describe Chicago’s white vio­lence as worse than that of Mis­sis­sip­pi. One block from the march’s start­ing place, at 6400 S Kedzie, SWYC lay down its roots.

Under the lead­er­ship of found­ing exec­u­tive direc­tor, Camille Odeh, SWYC quick­ly grew to cre­ate a com­pre­hen­sive, coor­di­nat­ed sys­tem of neigh­bor­hood-based youth ser­vices, and a van­guard infra­struc­ture for cross-cul­tur­al youth resistance.

Sta­ple in the community

By the mid-1990s, hun­dreds of Black and Brown youth were in SWYC’s polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion pro­gram­ming, with thou­sands more access­ing their qual­i­ty, com­pre­hen­sive ser­vices. You could walk in, say I want my GED’ and imme­di­ate­ly get con­nect­ed to a staff per­son with the right resources,” for­mer pro­gram man­ag­er, San­dra Sosa, remem­bers. Oth­er ser­vices includ­ed sports pro­grams, job train­ing and place­ment, coun­sel­ing, tutor­ing, com­put­er class­es, after-school pro­grams and Street Law to help youth man­age police interactions.

At its height, SWYC oper­at­ed with a bud­get of $3 mil­lion, 45 staff, 15 youth pro­grams (with 1,200 youth in sports pro­grams alone), at least six col­lab­o­ra­tive sites and an impres­sive set of part­ner­ships that includ­ed the YMCA, mul­ti­ple field hous­es, church­es and dozens of K‑12 schools. They hired from their pro­grams and the com­mu­ni­ties they served, deep­en­ing the impact of their work.

By pro­vid­ing free space to grass­roots efforts, shar­ing grants, train­ing oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and offer­ing ded­i­cat­ed staff time to help sup­port com­mu­ni­ty ini­tia­tives, SWYC incu­bat­ed a myr­i­ad of new projects, pro­grams and whole orga­ni­za­tions. Their enor­mous influ­ence spread far beyond Chicago’s South­west side. But for those region­al to that area, their impact was par­tic­u­lar­ly profound.

SWYC was a sta­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty, help­ing to bridge and hold the peo­ple togeth­er. The neighborhood’s demo­graph­ics neces­si­tat­ed an inter­cul­tur­al approach, as Black, Arab and Span­ish-speak­ing com­mu­ni­ties were grow­ing rapid­ly. This diver­si­ty was cel­e­brat­ed, cen­tered and nur­tured as a core aspect of their work, and prin­ci­ple to their suc­cess. Always youth-cen­tered, SWYC still pro­vid­ed space for con­sis­tent, inter­gen­er­a­tional dia­logue through com­mu­ni­ty events, forums and fam­i­ly coun­cils. Their pro­grams built trans­for­ma­tive rela­tion­ships across diverse cul­tures with­out flat­ten­ing dif­fer­ences and expe­ri­ences. It was such a com­mu­nal space,” Sosa recalls.

And no mat­ter what time of day, there was some­thing to plug into and free, sup­port­ive resources avail­able for those in need. Accord­ing to Dios, SWYC was a mas­sive enti­ty of net­worked social ser­vices and robust pro­grams that, even at its largest, man­aged to stay root­ed in the grass­roots spir­it of the neigh­bor­hood.” Dios says that the the back­yard social spaces” that SWYC facil­i­tat­ed — both lit­er­al­ly and in essence — built incred­i­ble youth-to-youth rela­tion­ships.” From these rela­tion­ships, fur­ther coached by youth orga­niz­ing staff, a pow­er­ful front of youth lead­er­ship emerged.

The scale, depth and impact of SWYC’s youth orga­niz­ing is awe-inspir­ing, even more so when one takes into account the low pri­or­i­ty giv­en to orga­niz­ing young peo­ple at the time. The organization’s suc­cess can be traced direct­ly to the prin­ci­pled foun­da­tion built by SWYC’s first two orga­niz­ing staff: Jonathan Peck and Jere­my Lahoud, two col­lege friends hired by Odeh in 1994.

For the first year or two, we real­ly didn’t do a lot of orga­niz­ing,” Peck explains: We said, We want to know all the ways that peo­ple are strug­gling to make change hap­pen.’ So we’d spend half a day up in Lit­tle Vil­lage at Rudy Lozano’s, get­ting to know the neigh­bor­hood. Next week, we’re up in Uptown for a few days… We weren’t try­ing to judge any­body. We were build­ing rela­tion­ships. It was a gen­uine exchange.”

At the same time, they began to build out the infra­struc­ture of pri­ma­ry ser­vices for young people.

You got­ta get woke”

As Peck explains, Before you can get orga­niz­ing, you got­ta get woke.” The ser­vice pro­grams that brought in thou­sands of young peo­ple every year were just the begin­ning for many of those who walked through SWYC’s open doors. While the pro­grams were intend­ed, first and fore­most, to meet spe­cif­ic mate­r­i­al needs of young peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ty, they also served to intro­duce those young peo­ple to polit­i­cal prin­ci­ples and ide­olo­gies. For exam­ple, as part of the Sports Pro­gram, young peo­ple were men­tored to become coach­es using prin­ci­ples of restora­tive justice.

The arts and cul­ture pro­gram, Uni­ver­si­ty of Hip Hop,” trained young peo­ple to design Hip Hop com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment projects for neigh­bor­hood beau­ti­fi­ca­tion and trans­for­ma­tion. One of the ear­li­est estab­lished pro­grams was Free­dom Sum­mer, an inten­sive, stipend­ed polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion insti­tute where young peo­ple could spend 20 hours a week all sum­mer learn­ing about his­to­ries of resis­tance and gain­ing expo­sure to cur­rent orga­niz­ing efforts in the city.

Par­tic­i­pants in any of these pro­grams, now woke,” were invit­ed to apply for the two orga­niz­ing bod­ies of SWYC: Gen­er­a­tion Y and the Com­mu­ni­ty Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive (CJI). Gen­er­a­tion Y was an explic­it­ly youth activist orga­ni­za­tion, made up entire­ly of Black and Brown young lead­ers from SWYC’s pro­grams. CJI was a city-wide coali­tion that emerged out of the youth-led train­ings of SWYC’s Street Law pro­gram, where young peo­ple had been train­ing orga­ni­za­tions and com­mu­ni­ties for years, build­ing up a city-wide net­work of part­ners. The coali­tion invit­ed those for­mer Street Law trainees to join youth lead­ers in orga­niz­ing city-wide cam­paigns, main­tain­ing a mem­ber­ship that was 50 per­cent youth of color.

It was here, between Gen­er­a­tion Y and the Com­mu­ni­ty Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive, that the true pow­er of SWYC’s com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing mod­el was demonstrated.

Build­ing a resis­tance movement

Remem­ber, this was the 1990s: the decade of Pub­lic Ene­my, Rod­ney King and the final phase of anti-apartheid strug­gle. Youth of col­or are being tar­get­ed as super­preda­tors,” lead­ing to increased crim­i­nal­iza­tion, hyper-polic­ing and harsh­er sen­tenc­ing. At one point, a new ordi­nance was pro­posed to estab­lish run­ning” as prob­a­ble cause. This was defeat­ed through Gen­er­a­tion Y’s leadership.

SWYC also resist­ed gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and helped estab­lish the Inde­pen­dent Police Review Author­i­ty (IPRA) to inde­pen­dent­ly inves­ti­gate com­plaints of police mis­con­duct. The orga­ni­za­tion pushed Chica­go Pub­lic Schools to adopt Advance­ment Via Indi­vid­ual Deter­mi­na­tion (AVID), an untrack­ing pro­gram” designed to help under­achiev­ing stu­dents with high aca­d­e­m­ic poten­tial pre­pare for entrance to post-sec­ondary edu­ca­tion. Arguably, their most sig­nif­i­cant accom­plish­ment was to win pub­lic fund­ing for youth jobs. One Sum­mer Chica­go, a mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar youth sum­mer employ­ment pro­gram offered through the City, stands in their lega­cy of orga­niz­ing for youth employment.

Over­all, the high vis­i­bil­i­ty cre­at­ed local­ly by young peo­ple of col­or through orga­niz­ing town halls, knock­ing on doors, throw­ing block par­ties and under­tak­ing social-change work con­tributed to inter­gen­er­a­tional shifts at the com­mu­ni­ty lev­el. What did they accom­plish? They reframed the nar­ra­tive around young peo­ple,” insists Sosa.

Pro­grams like Free­dom Sum­mer” intro­duced young peo­ple of col­or to resis­tance his­to­ries through work­shops, movies, pri­ma­ry sources, youth-led research, guest speak­ers, expo­sure to city events and vol­un­teer ser­vice oppor­tu­ni­ties. SWYC even sent occa­sion­al del­e­ga­tions to indige­nous reser­va­tions and South Africa to study anti-colo­nial resis­tance, and helped build con­scious­ness about the Pales­tin­ian strug­gle against occu­pa­tion.

Par­tic­i­pat­ing young peo­ple were pre­sent­ed with as much infor­ma­tion and train­ing as pos­si­ble, with­out requir­ing a spe­cif­ic action step by Peck or Lahoud. Orga­niz­ers let young peo­ple decide the who, the what, and the how they want­ed to learn. We opened up space where young peo­ple felt safe, where they could learn and grow with­out being attacked, and felt like they had ownership.”

SWYC’s youth orga­niz­ers built rela­tion­ships with the unusu­al sus­pects of the time,” remem­bers Peck. We sought out the ath­letes, the street artists, the trou­ble­mak­ers, the ones who say no.” Their atti­tude toward the young peo­ple they met was fun­da­men­tal to SWYC’s orga­niz­ing suc­cess. Peck stress­es, We treat­ed every young per­son like they were the next Mal­colm X, the next Ella Bak­er, the next Bayard Rustin. We felt like, This kid could change the world.’ And we treat­ed them with that respect and gave them the tools nec­es­sary to fight their battles.”

The SWYC mod­el was phe­nom­e­nal,” Sosa reflects. By 2012, how­ev­er, fund­ing short­falls brought an end to the beloved orga­ni­za­tion. In its wake, an unde­ni­able and enor­mous gap in com­mu­ni­ty ser­vices formed. While what SWYC was may have end­ed, the lives changed, the ongo­ing influ­ence of the lead­ers they trained, the man­u­als and instruc­tion of their work and the lega­cy of their exam­ple remains today — for all of us search­ing for hope in the struggle.

Page May is an abo­li­tion­ist, teacher and Chica­go-based youth orga­niz­er with Assa­ta’s Daugh­ters. She is one of the eight del­e­gates from We Charge Geno­cide who trav­eled to the Unit­ed Nations in 2014, and she was the lead author of the shad­ow report sub­mit­ted to the UN Com­mit­tee Against Tor­ture. She is also the co-host to The Lit Review, a lit­er­ary pod­cast for the move­ment. Fol­low her at @may20p.
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