Alumni and participants from a Chicago Public Library teen program are currently killing it. This week hip-hop artist Chance The Rapper beatboxed behind a freestyling Alec Baldwin for charity. Last month, rapper Vic Mensa performed with Kanye West on Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary show. High school junior Phillip Brooks participated in Chicago Fashion Week after winning a one-year paid artist residency with the Kennedy Center for his jazz-themed T-shirt designs.
All three were involved (or, in Brooks’ case, are still involved) in YOUmedia, a program started in the city’s public library system in 2009. It’s been a critical stepping-stone for all of their rising careers. But more importantly, it has helped to provide guidance for thousands of other creatives, programmers and makers from Chicago’s underserved communities.
YOUmedia operates teen learning spaces in 11 Chicago Public Library locations, including a 5,500-square-foot hub in the Harold Washington Library Center. The program helps teens build digital media skills through an approach dubbed “HOMAGO,” an acronym for “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out.” The spaces have designated zones for socializing, new media discovery and cultivating hobbies into full-fledged careers.
“They may be playing video games, but then go more deeply into a workshop, all in the same space,” says Brian Bannon, commissioner for Chicago Public Libraries.
Chance the Rapper frequently references the open mics he participated in as a teen through YOUmedia, a Chicago Public Library program. (Photo by John Davisson/Invision/AP)
Bannon explains that their philosophy encourages librarians, instructors and mentors to meet youth where they are, instead of relying on curriculums and pedagogy. “In contrast to formal education, this space is really about what interests teens and not so much what ought to interest them,” he says. “It encourages kids to learn together as a part of their social networks, so there’s a large aspect of play and experimentation.”
“We’ve always done ‘making’ whether it be producing media like music or graphic design,” says Jennifer Steele, YOUmedia’s partnerships coordinator, “but over the past couple of years we’ve gotten more into the idea of STEM and tech, using DIY and hands-on technology with things like [our] vinyl cutter, littleBits [synthesizer kit] and LilyPads [sewable electronic modules].”
One of the most popular resources in the Harold Washington Library Center is a recording studio that aspiring rappers, producers and engineers can use for free. A 2013 report on YOUmedia highlights the role digital media can play in fostering engagement and self-expression for communities that lack access to relevant tools. Researchers from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research write: “Digital media can play a role in expanding diversity and building community capacity. Forms of knowledge, culture and values associated with non-dominant and marginalized communities are far more visible today and can be tapped for educational purposes.”
YOUmedia locations had around 31,000 visits last year from around 4,000 users from all over the city. Bannon says that on average teens travel a distance of five miles to come to the Harold Washington Library Center, and that the program has grown largely through word of mouth. The largest demographic group visiting are African-American males (40 percent), a historically underserved group by schools and out-of-school programs.
Chance The Rapper (real name: Chancelor Bennett) has become the most visible alumnus of the program so far. He had been a regular at the poetry open mics put on by one of YOUmedia’s most influential mentors, “Brother” Mike Hawkins, who is credited as being a “spiritual godfather” to the Chicago hip-hop community. Hawkins told Chicagoist in 2013, “[The open mic night] really started out contextualized for poets but then I remember Chance kept coming over and being like, ‘Hey, can we do rap over here too?‘”
Bennett recorded his very first mixtape #10Day at the YOUmedia studio. His second mixtape, Acid Rap, became critically acclaimed immediately after it was released in 2013. It was nominated for Best Mixtape at the 2013 BET Hip Hop Awards and made the top 50 albums lists for Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Complex and NPR music. He frequently makes reference to YOUmedia open mics in interviews. Recently, he helped to open a new YOUmedia space at the Woodson Library in Chicago.
Hawkins unexpectedly passed away at the end of 2014, and Bennett hosted an event called #OpenMike in his memory last month.
“While these leading-edge technology like 3D printers and other things are cool and they provide opportunities to wok on interesting projects, mentorship is still the backbone of program,” says Bannon. “At the center, it’s really helping teens build trusting relationships and shared interests with adult mentors.”
Steele adds, “Once you connect them with an instructor or expert in that area, it becomes a mutual exchange — a mentor/apprentice relationship. At the same time, they’re just enjoying just having fun doing something their vastly interested in … or may become vastly interested in.”
Bannon and Steele both say the current priority of YOUmedia is to build on programming related to college and career readiness. Steele explains that in school, teens might not be getting a 360-degree view of post-high school options and the reality of life at college. “[We want to ask] not just ‘Are you ready to apply to college?’ but ‘Do you understand what going to college is and what going to college is for?’”
Meanwhile, the YOUmedia model is being replicated in 30 cities across the country. In Chicago, the success stories keep mounting. “There are lots of great examples of kids in the space that are tracking and following their interests and being exposed to career opportunities and learning tracks that they perhaps wouldn’t come across in other parts of their lives,” Bannon says.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.