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Dance students are claiming turf in a gang-free zone in Chicago

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

High school students from Forward Momentum Chicago dance company.

It’s horribly commonplace to find teens moving about in shopping malls especially in the summer time. However, it’s completely unexpected to see black youth hinging, pirouetting and perfecting other dance moves in a retail store within a city branded as one of the most violent.

But that’s exactly what’s happening in a converted professional dance studio within the Block 37 shopping mall located in downtown Chicago. Approximately 30 high school students from Forward Momentum Chicago dance company dripped in sweat preparing for an upcoming performance a few days later but afforded curious onlookers a sneak peek at three routines.

I viewed Forward Momentum and Block 37 as part of a tour choreographed by Every Hour Counts: The Third Annual National System-Building Institute, which brings together professionals who work in the afterschool/out-of-school field.

Conference sessions presented strategies for existing and emerging intermediaries – entities that plan, coordinate and manage services between organizations like private foundations and direct service providers. Sessions on creating quality improvement systems, establishing effective partnerships and instituting equitable practices filled the two-day conference.

Forward Momentum is one of more than 1,200 programs of the nonprofit After School Matters, which serves approximately 16,000 Chicago teens. Fifty-eight percent are African-American, 30 percent Latino, 3 percent white, 5 percent multiple ethnicities, 3 percent Asian and 1 percent America Indian/Alaskan Native. The overwhelming majority (86 percent) lives in high poverty neighborhoods.

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A peculiar phrase kept popping up in planners’ explanations on how to move between conference site locations. They dropped “this is a gang-free zone,” casually, like someone left a cell phone on the table. When I asked, “What is the technical definition of a gang-free zone?” the organizer described an actual map used by public officials that details the blocks claimed by gangs. She put up her finger and thumb to help us imagine the actual thickness of the document, but the magnitude of her gesture still confounded me.

I didn’t need a map to know that violence surrounded me. A day after the conference, police released a video of the shooting death of 18-year-old Paul O’Neal. An unarmed O’Neal was shot in the back while fleeing police on foot after a car chase. CBS Chicago Channel 2 reported that five people were killed and at least 36 more wounded in shootings across the city during the weekend in the immediate wake of the conference. A week before the Every Hour Counts conference, a Cook County judge appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the shooting death two years ago of black teen Laquan McDonald by a white Chicago police officer as well as an ensuing cover-up that could implicate Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel welcomed attendees of Every Hour Counts to the city and spoke as a panelist on the opening plenary. But he conspicuously did not connect the programing to violence in our midst. But Forward Momentum’s placement in Block 37 spoke volumes.

Be it through dance companies or gangs, black and brown people have been in a perpetual struggle to claim physical space. In Angel David Nieves book, “We Shall Independent Be: African American Place-Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States,” Nieves explains the struggle over landownership and property rights started since our arrival to the Americas. Violence is part and parcel, a response of acquisition to housing discrimination, under-resourced schools, economic disenfranchisement and the maintenance of these structures through policing.

The City and After School Matters’ noble efforts to provide extensive out-of-school programs as well as the concomitant violence acts caused by discrimination are all part of marginalized groups’ struggle to claim space.

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So much is gained when spaces are dedicated to youth. For the Block 37 site, Forward Momentum Chicago partners with After School Matters to deliver a seven-week residency in which students learn two dances per week under a new choreographer per week. The program is a jobs training program, so students receive stipend. Students are enriched educationally, socially and financially during a time when many children are made insecure in the summer due to a lack of access to the resources schools provide.

“We are getting to be around more diverse settings…people from different schools from different cultures…and we get to express what we love all together through dance,” said teen dancer Makyla Atkins.

Students also felt that their out-of-school program provided something schools could not. They told me that large class sizes and not enough individualized instruction dragged their educations. “Schools focus more on standardized testing rather than actually teaching what they need to have taught,” said Vivianna Jimenez.

Street gangs aren’t the only ones fighting. Dancer Briannah Cook says political gridlock “caused a budget impasse and Chicago Public Schools haven’t been able to get the funding they need, which in turn has caused a number of other problems … Principals are set to make huge budget cuts on things like the arts, and teachers aren’t paid as well so they start taking strikes.”

Clearly, there’s a need to create youth-positive spaces in the “gang-not-free zones” in Chicago. Just like Forward Momentum in Block 37, we can infuse educational and economic opportunities where they are lacking, and we can open access to where they are denied.

“The biggest problem is getting children off of the streets and I think that After School Matters has done a pretty good job doing that,  having programs during the fall so that after school kids have somewhere to go,” said Eve Taylor.

Peace, educational advancement and social cohesion will occur when more shopping malls look like Block 37. But more importantly, change will occur when we’re building shopping malls, dance studios and resourced schools in the hood.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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