I click the link a few weeks later: “You Don’t Really Know Us,’ Chicago Kids Tell News Media.” These kids got attitude. How cute? I read on. There is a caption beneath a photo of their school: "Fifth-graders from the Bradwell School of Excellence in Chicago's South Shore area wrote an op-ed piece for The Chicago Tribune this week, explaining how they see their neighborhood." The site went on to introduce their writing. The fifth graders were “tired of seeing their neighborhood portrayed in news reports as a desolate and violent place,” so they wrote what their teacher calls a "counternarrative."
In 2014, the Chicago media, including, admittedly so, The Chicago Tribune itself, focused their news reporting on the rise of homicides, referring to the city as “Chi-raq.” The students have an important message for the media outlets in their city responsible for this portrayal: "This isn't Chi-raq. This is home. This is us."
First, they read the articles about gun violence in their neighborhood. Next, they did a collective brainstorm about what people know about where they live. This made up the raw material for the first paragraph of their op-ed:
"Those who don't know us think this is a poor neighborhood, with abandoned buildings everywhere, with wood covering the windows and broken doors. Those who don't know us see the police on the corner and think that we're all about violence and drugs. They see the candy wrappers and empty juice bottles and think that we don't care. Uneducated, jobless and thieves. You will be scared of these heartless people. When you see us coming, you might hurry and get in your car and lock the doors. Then speed through these streets at 60 mph like you're on the highway, trying to get out of this ghetto."
In the NPR interview, their teacher comments on how easily her students were able to rattle off the stereotypes. In my poetry workshops, I am often surprised at how easy it is for young people to write about where they come from. Even though the core idea in my educational philosophy is that students are the experts of themselves, I still end up shocked by how reflective and attuned young people are to their experiences.
Next, their teacher, Linsey Rose, whose ethnic background I wondered about while listening to the report, prompts them to write about the positive aspects of their neighborhood. This does not come as easily so she must push them.
"We want you to know us. We aren't afraid. We know that man on the corner. He works at the store and gives us free Lemonheads. Those girls jumping rope are Precious, Aniya and Nivia. The people in the suits are people not going to funerals, but to church. That little, creepy dog is Saianis, Lamaur's dog. We are the kids who find crates so we can shoot hoops."
“You Don’t Know Us,” transitioned powerfully into, “This is Who We Are.” Reading the students' words brought me back into my classrooms. In the NPR report, Rondayle says writing the article was not really that hard because, “he always tries to see the good out of the bad.” The sentences read like a list poem, gathering momentum line by line, both in meaning and in rhythm.
The students’ expression of desire, “We want you to know us,” is simple, yet profound. They follow-up with a statement, “We aren’t afraid.” Bold. They have read The Tribune’s articles such as their report that homicides in April and May have spiked and more than 1,250 people have been shot in Chicago in 2014. The students of the Bradwell School of Excellence know this as part of reality in their neighborhood but they are not living their lives in fear. “We know the man on the corner.” Obviously. Their community is a place “where the man of the corner” is your neighbor not some criminal element to be feared. They have a relationship with this person. As a matter of fact, they let you know in the next line that he works at the store and gives them free Lemonheads.
After listening to the interview, I clicked onto the op-ed, published in its entirety on The Tribune’s website. Nothing could prepare me for the next few words. “When the sun shines here, it's not God saying he wants to burn us; he sees us all with bright futures.” As I read their words, I wept. At the tender age of ten, these young people are passionately defending the perception of where they are from and forecasting a divine and bright future for themselves.
Where you are from matters. Ask the friends and family of Michael Brown, the unarmed teen who was shot by a police officer, execution-style, in Ferguson, Missouri. Ask the family members of the more than two thousand civilians in Palestine who have been killed by bombs from the neighboring Israeli Defense Forces. The coordinates of your longitude and latitude on Mothership Earth in 2014 determine much of your life chances. Do you have access to clean drinking water? Are you likely to be recruited by a gang? Might you be mistakenly shot by a cop? Will you graduate from high school? What type of job will you have? How much money will you make? How much money does your school district spend on education? Did someone in your neighborhood get shot last week near your local laundromat?
Rondayle and his twenty-seven classmates know where you are from matters, and more importantly, they know that the perception of where you are from matters. The children write about the laughter in their community, not the crime and violence. "Those who know us look at the ones who want to go to college, not the ones who dropped out of school. If you listen, you'll hear the laughter and the chattering from the group of girls on the corner who are best friends and really care about each other." These young people are sensitive to both the perceptions of and the problems plaguing the neighborhood they love.
Towards the conclusion of the NPR interview, the reporter asks the question we all ask little kids. “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Rondayle responds, "I want to be more public so I can make a bigger change or a bigger impact on our my neighborhood, to give back to the neighborhood . . . I think I can help my community by keep writing, keep writing what I feel. Keep writing the good things about where I live."
I hope some of us adults follow his lead.