South and West Side Youth On What They Need

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“There is an endless amount of queer youth of color in Chicago that are trying to do different types of things, whether it’s activism, whether it’s a podcast … Chicago youth are so creative,” explained Kaya Thomas, a Chicago public schools graduate and a freshman at Northeastern University. “So if you really care about the youth in Chicago, then you need to be reaching out to them and actually tapping into what they’re doing.”

Kaya is one of the cohosts of the Frankly. Podcast, a project from the University of Chicago’s Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3). Ci3’s mission is to reduce barriers that create disparities in adolescent sexual and reproductive health.

The podcast came about as a way of disseminating and contextualizing the findings of Adolescent X: a two-year art- and story-based research study that looked at the messages young people from the South and West sides of Chicago were receiving about their bodies, identities, and sexual health. The podcast further explores these issues, like what experiences South and West Side youth have around exploring their gender, sexual assault, and learning what healthy friendships should look like.

For most listeners, these will not be not new topics. But what’s so important about this project is that you’re hearing directly from South and West Side youth.

“There’s a lot of media out there that talks about young people, but through a very adultist, agist perspective,” explained Ireashia Bennett, the Audio Visual Production Manager at Ci3 and co-host of the podcast. “And because that’s a prevalent thing, we wanted to break through that barrier and ask young people directly: what do you want us to know? How can we support you better?” 

According to Thomas, one of the main things they wanted to get across through the podcast was that Chicago youth need to be supported by simply being heard. “A lot of people think they’re helping, but they don’t listen to the communities they’re trying to help. And what we need is to be heard and not to be talked over.”

“People often assume that youth of color on the South and West Sides don’t know how to talk about their own bodies and they assume they know less, I guess because of their identities as youth of color in underrepresented neighborhoods,” added podcast producer Alizha Vernon. “I just want people to understand that we know what we’re talking about. Kids know what they’re talking about and they’re not wrong for asking for the things they want.”

Vernon, a senior at the University of Illinois in Chicago, explained that growing up in Chicago and attending a predominantly Black public school, she still felt underrepresented in the media and the arts. She had a hard time finding stories from people like her.

“Something I learned about my community [in producing the podcast] was that problems I faced growing up were more universal than I thought, like learning about consent,” Vernon explained. “It’s easy to think that those are problems that just affect you. But no.”

Projects like this podcast pull double duty: they can help the communities they are representing feel seen while also dispelling stereotypes.

“We say the ‘South and West Sides’ all the time, but it’s not a monolith,” Thomas said. “There seems to be a specific profile of what a child or a teen or a young person from the South or West Side looks like or what they need. I think this podcast and other media that’s already locally created by young people of color in Chicago dismantle the idea of this monolith and that we are all disadvantaged in some way. There are so many beautiful, vibrant, diverse stories that are coming out of Chicago. And I want the young people — whose stories they are — to be at the forefront of telling them.”

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Jera Brown writes about being a queer kinky polyamorous Christian on their blog scarletchurch.com. Their sex and relationship advice column, Just the Tip, is hosted by Rebellious Magazine. Follow them on Twitter or Instagram @thejerabrown.