White House awards Young Chicago Authors

By HermineBloom

Earlier this month, first lady Michelle Obama awarded Young Chicago Authors, and 14 other arts and humanities after-school programs across the country and abroad ,with the Coming Up Taller award in Washington, D.C.

Young Chicago Authors, 1180 N. Milwaukee Ave., provides underprivileged, inner-city teenagers from 13 – 19 years old with a platform to find their poetic voices and develop creative writing skills worthy of the White House’s recognition.

“I think we have a very clear mission,” said Young Chicago Authors’ founder Bob Boone. “It’s important to be very specific and not have grandiose plans. We work with young, creative writers. Those are the people we serve. We want to make sure they keep going, and we want to make sure they don’t give up. We want to make sure that we can give them an opportunity to expand on what they can already do.”

Young Chicago Authors was founded in 1991 by Boone, who holds a doctorate in English education and has experience with teaching and professional writing. Boone decided to start an after-school program designed to teach and assist students who enjoy writing anything from short stories to plays or poetry, he said.

Though Boone said the organization was not designed specifically for low-income, African-American and Hispanic students, Young Chicago Authors predominately comprises students from these backgrounds, serving 5,000 teens to date. Programs consist of mentorship, publishing literary magazines such as Say What, teaching creative writing classes, and incorporating spoken word and poetry with performance pieces in a live setting such as “Louder Than a Bomb,” the Young Chicago Authors’ annual teen poetry slam.

In regards to the Coming Up Taller award, Boone said that his nonprofit has a strong sense of self-awareness, which could serve as one of the many reasons why they were chosen to win the award.

Boone said that the $10,000 award money will fund either their Saturday program, their Tuesday performance program, the “Louder Than a Bomb” event or perhaps provide scholarship money for students who graduate from the program.

Though the tumultuous economy doesn’t bode well for the nonprofit community, which Boone said was the apparent buzz of conversation at the ceremony in D.C., recipients of these types of awards gain a renewed sense of purpose.

“It’s corny but it’s true. When this happens, it’s very cleansing and you don’t feel cynical and [you feel like] this has been worth it after all,” Boone said. “It’s nice just to be with other people who are uniformly pleased with themselves for a little while before you go back and start over again.”

Surprisingly enough, two out of 15 organizations chosen to receive the award were modeled after Young Chicago Authors, said director of performing arts at Young Chicago Authors Robbie Telfer, who landed the title after volunteering for “Louder Than a Bomb” two years in a row.

Telfer explained that the founder of the fellow award recipient, the Inside Out Literary Arts Project in Detroit, Mich., modeled their organization after Young Chicago Authors after seeing Boone speak at a lecture. In addition, a graduate of Young Chicago Authors now works at Project New Urban Arts in Providence, R.I., which is another organization that won the Coming Up Taller award this year.

The model for teaching self-expression through creative writing results not only in published student work, but the model exists as an outlet for those inner-city kids who otherwise might act violently in the face of hardships. Telfer said that combating violence and insecurities wrapped in economic instability can be difficult for students in low-income families, however, writing and subsequently reading personal prose for a group of supportive peers and family members reminds students that they can make something of themselves despite economic struggle.

“A lot of the students that we do get are without any sort of creative writing program at their school,” Telfer said. “Young Chicago Authors fills a void in the city where the economy continues to tank and Chicago Public Schools have always had funding problems. We will hopefully be able to step into the lives—and I think that we do—for people that need creative outlets, especially as a survival mechanism.”

For some kids, participating in spoken word performances organized by Young Chicago Authors is their first opportunity to be heard by a large group of people. Lacreshia Brits, editor of Young Chicago Authors’ Say What literary magazine, was chosen by the staff to fly to Washington, D.C. to represent the organization. Brits, 20, hadn’t even been on a plane before she accepted the honor.

At the Coming Up Taller Leadership Enhancement Conference, the first lady handed out several individualized plaques as well as $10,000 checks to the 15 outstanding arts and humanities programs from the U.S., China, Egypt and Mexico. Since 1998, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities have decided which out-of-school arts programs are especially worthy of the award.

This year, both Brits and Boone were instructed to shake Obama’s hand, thank her and keep walking across the stage. Brits said she was happily surprised when Obama stopped to talk to the award winners, asking her specifically what Chicago school she attends.

Though Brits is unsure whether the Obamas have received it, she brought an article she wrote with her to D.C. in hopes they might read her thoughts on her life-changing 2008 election night experience.