If you want to meet the next breakout music artist or poet, look no further than the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Division Street in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.
Every Tuesday, raw artistry is brewing between the brick walls at Young Chicago Authors, a literacy organization that provides free poetry, hip-hop and journalism workshops for young people in the city. Dozens of people, ranging in age from 12 to 25, line up every week to show off their talents at Wordplay, Chicago’s longest-running youth open mic—where artists like Chance the Rapper, Jamila Woods, Noname and Mick Jenkins performed some of their earliest art.
“A large part of what we do is giving young people a platform to express themselves and to really believe in the power of their own story,” says singer-poet Woods, a YCA alumna who now serves as the nonprofit’s associate artistic director.
“In the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks, who is our matriarch and a really big influence on how we teach, she always talked about writing what’s under your nose and writing what’s going on in your community,” Woods adds.
Woods finds this especially important for Chicago youths, whose stories often get told through the lens of nightly news.
“It’s called ‘Chiraq,’” she says. “It’s talked about in terms of the inner-city, intercommunal violence, and you never get a sense of the ways that the city government or the laws and the structures in place actually influence a lot of those dynamics.”
In many ways, YCA serves as a direct response to the structures that have had a hold on Chicago’s young people. The organization created Louder Than a Bomb, the largest youth poetry slam in the world, on the heels of an anti-gang loitering law that put 45,000 black and brown Chicago youths in jail by making it illegal for groups of young people to gather in public spaces.
Young Chicago Authors has been around for 25 years, and it’s no secret why young people keep coming back. Once YCA students climb up the rickety wooden steps on Milwaukee Avenue, they’ve entered a safe space that prides itself on its ban on “racist, sexist, homophobic, gender-biased, ableist, ageist or otherwise derogatory” language. Everyone is held accountable in this space, and Woods says that it not only provides a healthy learning environment but also makes everyone’s art better.
The work at Young Chicago Authors goes beyond its weekly workshops and open mic nights. Being a poet has become a badge of honor for many artists in the city who are eager to show off their newest work every Tuesday. For some black and brown youths in the city, YCA is home.
“It’s just such educated and smart people with such bright ideas coming in to one area, and you think the whole room is going to explode because you can’t have that much knowledge in one room,” says YCA student and poet Emily Jones. “It really does feel like a family, and for someone that doesn’t have a family, this is home.”