In a musty, bare auditorium at Jones College Prep this weekend, all five or so feet and 15 years of Destiny Taylor clambered on stage. She stood for a moment, smiled nervously, and exhaled before weaving an unrelenting spoken word poem that punctuated the struggles of herself and a community, and set the tone for an hour of teen voices begging for change in a city so stained with violence and corruption.
“This is not Chicago, this is Chi-raq, where our children aren’t able to see their 18th birthday, and in some cases their first birthday,” Taylor lashed against the gun violence that has ravaged her neighborhood. “I’ve had it with talks and discussion, get out of your office and do something… Enough is enough. Don’t shoot, I want to grow up.”
Her voice gave way to the thunder of claps.
Taylor was one of 16 finalists out of hundreds who gave speeches in Mikva Challenge’s annual project Soapbox Competition last Tuesday. With the mayoral race just three months away, students from high schools across Chicago prepared exhortations declaring what they would do if given Rahm Emanuel’s coveted seat.
Issues ranged from LGBTQ debates and immigrant rights to domestic violence and police brutality, as students gave personal and visceral accounts that spun the slow bureaucracy of politics on its head.
“July 14th, 2012, a young girl woke up in the middle night, fearful her life had just ended. She yells ‘Mom he touched me, Mom he touched me’. She had just been raped by her stepfather,” said sophomore Joanna Bahena. “That young girl was me”
The judges would later declare Joanna the year’s winner, applauding her courage. She detailed sobering statistics: The United States ranks sixth in the world in rapes, one sexual assault occurs every 2 minutes, to say nothing of the trauma faced by victims, before offering solutions. Among them: immediate assistance, free medical attention to victims, and more therapists in schools – an issue highlighted by The Youth Project this summer as there is roughly 1 counselor for every 1,500 students in the school system.
For others, it was family members who bore the brunt of the trauma. The students voted sophomore Marquis Eason as their favorite speaker after he gave an impassioned rap on crime in Chicago.
“And I wonder where the country’s at? When my cousin got shot in the back and it took the ambulance at least 30 minutes to respond to that,” Marcus, who goes by the stage name “Picasso,” rapped.
And for some, it was simply the combined weight of a community’s worth of suffering. Reed Essex, a senior, threw off his golf hat in disgust, swept up his papers in passion and anger.
“I care about how modern society professes to care about the LGBT-plus, they care about the L and the G. I care that the center for American progress says that despite 10 percet of teens in America are queer, 40 percent [of queer teens] are homeless.”
His eyes and voice trembled as he laid out his policy proposals: increased social services for homeless teens and gender sensitivity training for educators.
“I do not expect that as a society we continue to neglect those in need, and I will not remain quiet,” he declared.
The statement underscored the spirit of the day, as the groundwork for protests and social action took root in a room usually reserved for choir concerts and productions of “Hair!”
After Joanna finished her speech, a woman in the fourth or fifth row Jumped up. With all eyes on her, she offered to start a rape-victim support group at Joanna’s school.
But while Mikva professes the event as an avenue for youth voices to be heard, it was just a single event, one that no mayoral candidate attended. To be fair, none were directly invited, according to the group since they wanted to keep the focus on the youth.
Still, it might not matter if no immediate policy change comes out of the speeches and performances. For some students, the support of a community, the knowledge they were not alone, was enough.
Lucero Varela, who gave a speech on the hurdles undocumented immigrants face in attending college, is currently applying for scholarships to the University of Iowa. Tuition is $40,000. Undocumented, she is not eligible for financial aid. If she doesn’t win the scholarships, she will attend community college.
“After giving my speech, the girl next to me actually turned around to me and said that she was in the same situation,” Varela said in an interview before the final round. “So I really felt better and I realized I’m not the only one in this situation, I’m actually helping someone. I’m inspiring someone at the end of the day. So I think it’s worth it.