Chicago Youth Leadership Academy provides alternatives for South Side teens

On Aug. 4, more than two dozen African American teenage boys lined up in even rows inside the banquet hall at Apostolic Church of God on Chicago’s South Side. Dressed in sharp black suits, they sat and rose again in unison as a police commander called out instructions. On cue, they sang songs that were popular decades before they were born, including “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire and “Black Man” by Stevie Wonder. One young man broke away to explain how “life … ain’t been no crystal stair,” reciting Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son.”

What’s this all about?

If you had asked the teens, they would have responded in accord: “Breaking the cycle.”

That is the underlying goal of the Chicago Youth Leadership Academy—ending a cycle of issues that often plague families in high-risk neighborhoods by providing alternatives to gangs, drugs and teen violence. The program, held each summer on the University of Chicago campus, is led by officers from the 2nd, 3rd and 7th districts of the Chicago Police Department in partnership with the nonprofit Woodlawn Public Safety Alliance and UChicago. The UChicago Police Department also supports the academy.

The police officers and community members who serve in the program are all volunteers.

“It’s based on friendship and dedication to what we’re doing,” said Officer Charles O’Connor, who was inspired to start the program after observing youth playing inside an abandoned building in the Englewood neighborhood because they were afraid to play outside. O’Connor, who grew up in Englewood, got the support of his department, then recruited fellow officers and longtime friends to join him.

Still, O’Connor said the program did not get off the ground until Rudy Nimocks, director of community partnerships in the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, got involved. Nimocks helped secure University resources to support the program and has raised funds from external sources every year to run it.

Started in 2009, the Chicago Youth Leadership Academy is open to South Side youth between the ages of 13 and 17 who live within a five-mile radius of UChicago. For three weeks, teens in the academy spend weekdays doing police-led exercise drills and participating in educational and leadership workshops. They spend the night in a campus residence hall, returning home on weekends. The program is usually open to boys and girls but was limited to boys this year.

The educational workshops were organized by Denise Jones, a former employee of the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital. Jones began volunteering with the academy in 2014, after attending a fundraiser the actor Charles Dutton put on to support the program in 2013. Led by her own experiences with drugs, crime and dropping out of grammar school in fourth grade before turning her life around and completing college, Jones wanted to help make a difference for today’s youth.

Of the 17 speakers she brought in to talk with the teens, some were professionals such as doctors and engineers, but she focused on reformed drug dealers, gangbangers and others “who took the hard way,” including her own sister and their mother, who introduced them both to drugs and criminal activity when they were kids. Hearing their real-life stories encouraged one 12-year-old in this summer’s program to tearfully share that he had family members involved in criminal activity and that he wanted to be the first in his family to take a different route and go to college.

“We’re taking the story of breaking the cycle to the streets,” said Jones. “If I can save one life, my job has been done.”

This year, for the first time, the program included music. O’Connor, who is also a percussionist in a local band, persuaded a college friend to donate his time.

E.C. Brown, a Dallas-based music teacher, spent three weeks in Chicago to lead sessions on piano, voice, and general music education. “It gave them the opportunity to have a fun discipline to be involved in,” said Brown, who noted that the boys were not always eager to do the tough exercise drills. “We didn’t have to look for one boy when it came time to practice on music.”

O’Connor said the program monitors students’ performance in school and has begun to track how many of its participants go on to college and graduate. He hopes to increase fundraising to expand the program beyond the summer.

Deonte Lemon, an alumnus of the academy, said it has had a lasting impact for him. “The thing that impacted me the most was the recreation behind the program,” said Lemon, who recalled playing basketball and performing skits on the UChicago campus. “Being at the University of Chicago also gave me a focus on college and realizing this is what I wanted to do.”

Lemon, now 23, graduated from Grand Canyon University in Arizona in 2015. He recently auditioned for Second City.

“The Chicago Youth Leadership Academy prepares young people in challenging situations to take advantage of educational and other positive opportunities that come their way,” said Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement at UChicago. “It is one of the ways we partner with the city and with local organizations to strengthen communities.”

Since the program began, 217 youth have completed it. The scene at Apostolic was the graduation ceremony for the 2016 class. More than 200 family and community members turned out to watch the teens receive their certificates, and to encourage them.

“My prayer and my hope is that you leave here as different men,” Cortez Trotter, executive director of the Woodlawn Public Safety Alliance, said as he addressed the youth. “Be the men that we know you can be.”