Four Chicagoans—and one cute and persistent dog—joined together in the Chicago Humanities Festival panel “Youth Leading Change” to discuss grief, collective action, hope, and radical love.
The panel began in silence, a moment to memorialize Duante Wright, Adam Toledo, and so many other lives lost to police violence. This moment of silence flowed into moderator Maira Khwaja’s first question, as she asked how the three panelists were coping, and what they were feeling, in the face of the release of police video of Toledo’s death earlier in the day. The collective grief and frustration set a tone for the rest of the discussion, one in which grief jostled alongside hope, despair beside action, a reminder of the emotional and physical toll of structural white supremacy and police violence, as well as the toll exacted by organizing work.
Each of the three panelists came to activism while young. Poet, spoken word artist, and GoodKids MadCity activist Damayanti Wallace, who attended Betty Shabazz International Charter School, spoke of the ways in which her school prepared her for activism. She also spoke of the roadblocks she and her friends ran into as they tried to create safe spaces and places where other kids’ voices could be heard. Wallace spoke highly of the importance of mentorship: when she and her friends found good mentors who believed in them, they were able to take off, founding GoodKids MadCity, among other initiatives.
Family can be foundational in activism, as both Oscar Sanchez and Taty Chante noted. Sanchez, of Alliance of the Southeast, spoke of his parents’ expectation for him. Unlike them, his American citizenship makes him safer—so what was he going to do with that privilege, to improve others’ lives? Indeed, Sanchez credits his mother with eventually convincing him to organize on the Southeast Side, including his home neighborhood of Hegewisch.
Chante, of Brave Space Alliance, spoke of the ways in which their activist mother and their Seattle childhood prepared them for their work today. (Their very cute dog, meanwhile, provided moments of levity throughout the discussion.) They grew up in activism, working with their school’s gay-straight alliance in middle school, advocating for students in college, and then branching out to their work today.
In the midst of Khwaja’s questions, discussion between panelists, and dog cameos, all three activists offered up tips and suggestions—both for those wishing to get involved as activists on the ground, and for those who, for whatever reason, might have a different place in the revolution than the midst of a demonstration. There is, as Wallace reminds us, plenty of room for everyone’s unique talents in the movement.
All three stressed the importance of trusting young people. Wallace, who with several friends founded GoodKids MadCity, talked of the frustration of being sidelined as a kid. Sanchez pointed out that kids need to know that they aren’t alone, and that people have their backs—but they also need to be trusted, and listened to, and given the space to make change—because they can. Chante echoed this forcefully, about the importance of not locking kids out of the conversation. When people claim they aren’t discussing things with kids, or allowing their involvement, Chante argues that it has nothing to do with perceived innocence—kids see and understand more than we give them credit for—and everything to do with fear of change.
Activism is a lifestyle, as Wallace noted, and it can take a toll. Chante spoke of exhaustion: they’re no longer sure if what they do has an impact, and watching anti-trans bills roll out across the country, coupled with the inherent violence of structural white supremacy, the ongoing pandemic (including one fewer vaccine), and the lack of progress from last year is taking a heavy toll. In this space of grief and exhaustion, Wallace spoke of the power of radical love, of trying to meet everyone on the street in a spirit of love and acceptance built around bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions. Sanchez, meanwhile, recommended organizing by sharing: he’s no leader, he said, and he works to build up others so that they can lead instead.
The conversation ended with an audience question: what might something better look like? It would, Wallace, Sanchez, and Chante agreed, be a safer world. A kinder world, one in which people matter more than profits, in which communities are empowered to care for each other, and binaries are toppled down.
Chicago Humanities Festival has compiled a list of organizations that Wallace, Chante, and Sanchez recommend for those looking to get involved but perhaps not put their own boots on the ground. Meanwhile, more information about the panel is available through the Chicago Humanities Festival website.