YOUmedia Teens Make Their Creative Mark

April 04, 2014
By Educator Innovator

When Chancellor Bennett was suspended during his senior year at Jones College Prep in 2011, few would have guessed that just two years later he would be featured in major news publications and headlining Lollapalooza. During the ten-day suspension, Bennett, who is now more commonly known as “Chance the Rapper,” took to Chicago’s YOUmedia space to cut his first mixtape, aptly titled “10 Day.” The tape was an underground hit, which has since been downloaded over 100,000 times. In 2012 Complex Magazine named him one of “10 New Chicago Rappers to Watch Out For.”

While it’s a surprise that Chance the Rapper has ended up on this path, even more remarkable is that he’s not alone. Chance is one of many YOUmedia youth who are making their creative mark on the world, and taking the skills they honed with YOUmedia’s mentors to college and beyond.

“As soon as I found out about YOUmedia, I started going there every day,” said Dominique James, who is now pursuing a double major in English and French at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “It was a very interesting mix of people hanging out and being productive.”

YOUmedia started in Chicago as an out-of-school digital space for teens at the public library. It has since spread nationwide. The dedicated spaces in libraries, museums, and other community venues all focus on using digital tools to spark creativity and learning and to connect teens’ interests, peers, and academics in a meaningful way. The key is that YOUmedia is a space for teens, and the programs on offer there are interest-driven and peer-led.

Amy Eshelman led the Chicago Public Library team that created Chicago’s first YOUmedia space, and has been integral to their expansion as the program leader for education at the Urban Libraries Council.

“If someone walks to a Learning Lab space, they’ll see kids having fun and playing video games, or maybe taking part in a workshop,” she said. “But there’s so much more to it than that. As you peel back the layers of the onion, you start to understand that the teens have created the learning pathways for themselves and how engaging that is, and how it can be a bridge between in and out-of-school.”

“A lot of kids who are 16 and 17 don’t have anything like YOUmedia,” said Katie Klema, a YOUmedia participant who’s now pursuing a photography degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “It’s an age where you’re old enough to want to be with your friends, but you’re too young to go to parties. Having a place to teach you how to make art and express yourself can really help kids.”

Dominique, who recently self-published her first book “Saffronia,” spent a lot of time hanging out in the music studio, which houses technology a digital audio workstation, which allows users to record and edit their own audio for spoken word and other projects. “You were able to create something, and hang out with your friends at the same time. We had never experienced anything like that before,” she said.

Miona Grae Short had similar feelings about the space. “For me, it was a place to learn. I so admired the artists who would take to the stage during the open mics, and I would just listen to how they built their poems and created sly metaphors and rhetoric,” she said. “I loved how human the whole experience was, watching these imperfect people share their stories and frustrations in a safe place.”

“Watching people sometimes succeed, and other times go back to the drawing board made me a little more daring and able to take risks with my poetry,” she said.

Katie said that the space helped her break out of her shell. “I used to hate writing,” she said, “but one of the mentors pushed us to write. It was the first time I wrote anything I was ever proud of.”

Participants regularly cite YOUmedia’s mentoring—by professional artists, filmmakers, and musicians—as one of the most influential pieces of the program.

“It was the mentors who challenged me,” said Miona. “They nurtured my writing, and allowed it to grow in exactly the way I need. To be honest, I know that I would not have gotten into the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts scholarship at University of Wisconsin-Madison without the help of my team and mentors. Without them, poetry and performance would not be as large a part of my life as it is today. I am beyond grateful for that.”

Dominique agrees. “YOUmedia has definitely played a role in my major choices in life,” she said. “I had super-specific interests that I learned did not have to be isolated from one another. The space gave me the option to collaborate with peers, but also allowed me to realize that I could pursue my very specific dreams on my own.”

“When you’re there, you’re either making friends, learning that you can do things, building community, or growing personally,” said Dominique. “My biggest impact from YOUmedia was learning that I could do anything I wanted, and that I shouldn’t limit myself.”

By Kelsey Herron
Screenshot/ YOUmedia @ Chicago Public Library