Chicago youth rally for brighter future

By Contributing Writer

By Charles Jefferson, Contributing Writer

Chants of “We are young and unemployed” and signs that read “We are the future. Invest in us,” filled the Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St., as youth advocates from across the city demanded more from policymakers.

The advocates rallied April 3 to call attention to youth violence and demand increased funding for youth centers and more opportunities for summer employment.

The protest was organized by Leaders Investing for Equality, a coalition created in 2009 that brought together organizations, such as the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Enlace Chicago, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

LIFE’s aim is to increase employment, development and mentorship opportunities for youth and make communities safer now and in the future, according to its mission statement.

“The youth have been working hard on this,” said Juan Cruz, youth development coordinator for the APNC. “We want to engage youth from all backgrounds to bring attention to the violence that plagues our city.”

The Austin and Humboldt Park neighborhoods have the highest youth unemployment rate at 52 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Youth Employment and Unemployment Among Youth Summary report released August 2011.

“I see some effort, but I feel they can do more,” said Darius Anderson of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.

Throughout the rally, youth leaders gave testimonies about their communities and the problems that need to be addressed.

“Gangs and violence are the biggest issues,” said Laureano Rivera, 16, a youth leader from the Pilsen neighborhood. “There are a lot of shootings around the parks where the kids play.”

Rivera said he’s been looking for employment for two years, but many employers have said he doesn’t have the experience they’re looking for.

“It’s been hard for me because I really want to work,” he said. “I have to start somewhere.”

According to campaign leaders, there were 40,000 summer jobs available to youth in Chicago in 1984, but now there are fewer than 5,000, making the competition for open positions higher than ever.

Eric Rhodes, a member of the Robbins Youth Committee, said although many different organizations are being represented, everyone opposes one thing—a lack of responsible leadership in Chicago.

“It’s about creating jobs and making a better future for our kids,” Rhodes said. “[Youth] don’t have [the] role models they need to direct them in the right path.”

Youth leaders also raised the issue of cuts for Teen REACH, a state grant helping to improve life and educational skills that has seen an almost 20 percent drop in funding.

“Young people want to work; they want to live in peaceful communities,” Cruz said. “They are faced with increasing violence on the street and growing unemployment numbers. We have to change that.”

Luz Maria Velazquez, a youth leader from Albany Park, said she would like to have a job but cannot find one because the government isn’t doing enough.

“They say I need [a] Social Security [card] and other documents [and] I don’t have the experience they’re looking for,” Velazquez said. “They say that they are putting the money to good use, but they use it for unnecessary things.”

Cruz said their work isn’t over, as more rallies and town hall meetings are planned for the future.

“We have to send our message to our legislators and to the governor,” he said. “It’s important they hear how valuable young people are.”

Rivera agreed with Cruz and said the voice of the youth is needed in the battle for jobs and equal opportunities for

all individuals.

“It’s one big stepping stone,” he said. “People need to know that youth matter.”