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MIYO Case Studies: Leaders of the New School
A 29-year-old artist, organizer, and activist, Asad Jafri has been committed to improving the lives of young people on the south side of Chicago for several years through a combination of hip hop culture, martial arts, media, and health/education trainings and tools. Jafri, for example, had developed an artist collective called F.E.W. (From Every Walk) consisting of seven core members who shared a passion for hip hop culture and educating young people.
Then, in 2007, Jafri started working at the Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN), a community based non profit based on Chicago’s South Side. Through IMAN, Jafri and several teenagers living in the community conducted a youth needs assessment indicating that young people were nearly unanimous in their concern about the drugs, gangs, and violence plaguing their community. The needs assessment was conducted through two surveys, three large group discussions, thirty-five interviews, and countless analysis sessions.
Wanting to do something—and fast—the group decided to establish a project that would combine young people’s interest and passion for music (in particular, hip hop) with efforts to solve community problems. That project, Leaders of the New School (LONS), would recruit young people between the ages of 13-19 from Chicago’s southwest side to meet and discuss community issues, the importance of civic engagement, and the power of art to inspire social change.
Young people would also receive instruction in hip hop arts and elements from an F.E.W. instructor while continuing to participate in small group discussions, as well as larger dialogues that involved parents, teachers, and community leaders. Life skills and leadership development training would also be part of the process, which would culminate with participants preparing a hip hop performance reflecting community issues and solutions. The project also created a mutually beneficial working relationship between IMAN, an organization with resources that relies heavily on volunteers, and F.E.W, an artist collective with limited resources looking to engage with young people.
During the MIYO grant award period, 20 young people participated in this multi-faceted effort, which is now expanding to include 35 more young people from south Chicago. The project went beyond just the individual participants, however, reaching more than 400 community residents—parents, educators, religious leaders, and others—who took part in LONS’ activities during the grant year.
Jafri believes that LONS is a model for using art as a means to spur civic engagement, but that will only happen if it becomes financially sustainable—a challenge in these hard economic times. Auspiciously, the first class of young leaders, reflecting their newly honed leadership skills, has committed themselves to take over this task and build LONS so it can reach a wider swath of the community. Jafri calls this a “cascading leadership model”—one in which young people are “determined to make it happen with whatever limited resources they have,” including social media and the Internet.
Jafri points out:
one of the most important aspects of LONS is the relationships that develop between artist mentors and young people, among the young people themselves, and between young people and their communities—rather than the art, which is “more of a vehicle for the outcome of civic engagement and social change.”
Relationships, however, are admittedly hard to measure, so LONS is documenting its process through a series of performances, visual art projects, and youth-directed documentaries that bring these relationships to life.