Among the mom-and-pop shops and bustling crowds of North Milwaukee Avenue, a group of talkative teenagers slowly made their way towards a nondescript glass door. Past the rickety, wooden steps, they hurriedly entered a crowded room filled with blaring music.
Across a sea of bobbing heads, the words, “Young Chicago Authors” is plastered onto the wall in impressive graffiti art. Soon after everyone found seats, the commotion ended as the host hushed the crowd and began what everyone was waiting for on this rainy Tuesday night—the open mic.
From poetry slams to journalism workshops, Young Chicago Authors has been serving Chicago’s teenagers for almost 25 years. The non-profit organization has grown astronomically in the past few years, due to the success of Louder than a Bomb, its month-long poetry slam competition. Over the years it has served some 5,000 students, giving volume to voices not often heard.
Through this type of programming, Young Chicago Authors has seemingly inched toward solving the algorithm of making learning fun, as students are able to develop their literacy and writing skills in a fast-paced environment. For many who walk through the halls of YCA, poetry is their preferred escape from the real world.
“Poetry is freeform, it’s expressive, and you can make it into whatever you want,” said Noor Hasan, a Louder Than a Bomb coach, who also won the competition in high school with her team in 2009.
Poetry is the focus in a weekly, popular event hosted by Young Chicago Authors. “Wordplay” is their poetry workshop and open mic on Tuesday nights. The workshop lets students analyze poems as a group, but without the monotonous banality one would expect in a classroom setting. But here, there are no wrong answers.
In fact, this workshop is just the appetizer, and the main course is “Wordplay” for the open mic, where those who’ve signed up share their poems, raps, and songs. The nature of their art ranges from social critiques on crime and poverty to breaking up with a significant other.
It’s heartening, and quite sobering, for many to see that people so young can create art so powerful. Many of the teens who attend are participating in Louder than a Bomb, and as the competition draws nearer, some will even perform their pieces here for practice.
“You get to hear cool rhymes and meet cool people,” said Faatimat Rufai, a 20-year-old City Colleges of Chicago student. Rufai noted how the same names and faces come every week so people can hear their new work.
One of the most important aspects of YCA is its function as a safe space. Before every open mic, the host reminds the audience that no hate speech is to be tolerated and being respectful is a must. Because of this, students feel comfortable sharing their deepest secrets, fears, and dreams. And Rufai believes this is where great poetry lies.
“I think vulnerable, relatable poetry is the best, Rufai said. “It’s important people feel comfortable enough to share their real, raw emotion in this space.”
Young Chicago Authors’ goal of maintaining a safe space for poetry is also evident in its Louder than a Bomb competition. Teenagers turn deep, personal thoughts into eye-opening poems, and the LTAB audience is never against the competitor but with them every step of the way.
“LTAB is such a love, support system,” said Bea Sullivan-Knoff, a Northwestern University senior, who competed while she was in high school. “Even though you are competing against these people, everybody just comes together in a very unique way that I haven’t seen anywhere else, ever.”
The year her team won, Hasan performed the favorite poem she had written, “My Fall Out Boy AP Calculus Blues,” a piece where she described how upset she was to miss a big concert through mathematical terms.
Hasan stays involved as a first time coach this year, crediting Louder than a Bomb organizers Kevin Coval and Robbie Q. Telfer for deemphasizing the competition and creating a community.
“The competition had such an impact on morale and a sense of community in Chicago because even now, I still talk to so many people from high schools that were also in the final round,” said Hasan.
For current competitors, Louder than a Bomb 2015 can’t come soon enough. Competitors usually meet weekly with their team, performing and polishing the poems they have been toiling on.
“I’m most excited to go in as an individual poet this time,” said Tiese Austin, a 17-year-old Lane Tech student. During the summer, she was a regular at Young Chicago Authors’ “Wordplay,” but she still tries to come often during the school year.
Her friend, 18-year-old Tamara Cosey, a Westinghouse College Prep student, is excited to hear everyone else’s writing, from personal experiences to police brutality. For Austin and Cosey and many other Chicago students, Louder than a Bomb is a staple at their schools, and they both heard of the competition from their teachers and mentors.
However, for those who have been with Young Chicago Authors from the very beginning, it’s a shock to see its meteoric rise and cultivation into a formidable, cultural, and educational force.
Northwestern University Professor Robert Gundlach was heavily involved with Young Chicago Authors in the 1990s, back when it was just a small scholarship program helping local teens develop their writing skills. As a member of the board, Gundlach worked closely with Robert Boone, the founder of Young Chicago Authors, and he also held workshops for college essays.
“There was always encouragement to try literary poetry and fiction,” said Professor Gundlach, despite, early Young Chicago Authors focusing more on the academic side.
During his time at Young Chicago Authors, Gundlach wrote for their newsletter, “Harvest.” In the January 1995 edition, he perused on why humans are attracted to stories.
“We discover that a story can also be an arena for play,” wrote Gundlach, “that stories can dramatize possible worlds and worlds that are patently impossible.”