5 Lessons Learned from Chicago’s First Racial Healing Youth Institute
“We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity.”
— Fred Hampton
“Radical empathy, on the other hand, means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel. Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the kindred connection from a place of deep knowing that opens your spirit to the pain of another as they perceive it.”
— Isabel Wilkerson, Caste
Chicago, IL — Summer 2020
In late May, a spark was lit in cities across the US and countries around the globe. In Minneapolis, the 3rd precinct police station, known locally as a “playground for renegade cops,” was burnt to the ground following the police murder of George Floyd. Protestors shut down and occupied the Brooklyn Bridge. Historic protests and uprisings were happening across the country in response to the police murders and a rise in white supremacist violence. Our institutions & elected officials were being forced to take the #DefundPolice conversation seriously to address the historic inequities that persist today. Across the country we were facing a racial reckoning on a grand scale.
Chicago youth led massive civic uprisings on a scale not seen in decades to change the ugly history of institutional racism, segregation and police violence plaguing this country.
On top of that it was the summer of Covid. Youth felt increasingly isolated from their peers and adults. Many young people experienced unprecedented loss, resource insecurity and structural harm. The pandemic amplified the significant disparities in quality of life that already existed for the many BIPOC youth in Chicago.
February 26th, 2020
Rewind a couple months to February, the month in which Carter G. Woodson started what would later become Black History Month. In this same month, on February 26th, Cassius Clay legally changed his name to Muhammed Ali, the Nation of Islam commemorates the birth date of its founder, with Saviours’ Day, and it’s also the incomparable Erykah Badu’s birthday. On this day of major cultural significance, we also conceived the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) Youth Institute. It all began with a circle we led with our “My Brother’s Keeper Alliance” Chicago family. After the circle, we walked back to the train and reflected on a meaningful session. Something was missing: “where are our youth in all of this?” At the time The Truth and Racial Healing Transformation training and certification was being primarily done with adults, many of whom were already healers, educators, and community practitioners. We felt the urgency to bring this to young people across Chicago. Over the next few days, we conceived the idea of the youth institute and free-flowed how to launch an in-person summer program in June 2020.
The original summer program for the Youth Institute shifted from in-person to virtual as a result of Covid. Through a partnership with One Summer Chicago, we gained designation as a youth employment worksite for youth ages 16–21, to be certified as practitioners in the TRHT framework. The Institute’s mission was to proliferate healing and equity within individuals, neighborhoods, and communities to change the prevailing race narrative, fuel transformation, erase the belief in racial hierarchy, and drive towards racial equity and systemic change. We didn’t view this as the solution but just the start to ignite collective action and for youth to bring back what they learned into their relationships, families and communities.
So what does it look like to hold space with a group of 100 Chicago youth as they are trying to understand themselves and living through the uncertain times of COVID? We thought we’d share some lessons learned from the first Youth Institute:
5 LESSONS LEARNED
- Model & Practice
“I learned to get to know people more instead of creating my own version of who they are. I realized to do that you need to listen to others’ stories to understand where they’re coming from, not simply to prepare ourselves to respond to what they say.”
TRHT Youth Participant
At the end of the summer youth led 18 intergenerational healing circles in which nearly 400 Chicagoans participated. Virtually all of the circle participants reported feeling safe to be vulnerable and share their story and journey with others without judgement.
Youth participants designed, facilitated and navigated conversations with groups of strangers, many of whom were older. Mind you, this was on Zoom. It was EXTRAORDINARY the manner in which youth put adult participants at ease to openly share and listen on topics that millions of Americans have spent generations avoiding or not being able to have honest or constructive dialogue. None of the youth who joined the institute had ever led a racial healing circle. To get to this place took weeks of modeling and practice.
This modeling and practice began with youth participants engaging in circles of their own throughout the summer. In total, program participants experienced 5 racial healing circles that were facilitated for them by program staff. Having the experience of being in a racial healing circle was critical to them being able to eventually design and lead a circle. Their participation in these circles provided our team the opportunity to model first. We were showing as we were doing. It was important for us to do deep listening so that we would get in the practice of not just listening to respond, but listening to connect and listening to understand. That’s what we call healing. Healing is beginning to tear away the things that separate us and begin to identify our sacred human interconnectedness. We modeled vulnerability. If we asked participants to talk deeply about their identity and their experiences, then we had to do it first. We told our stories, both the stories of joy, triumph and resilience, as well as the stories of tough challenges and dark times we faced in our lives. This supported youth feeling comfortable to bring their authentic selves into the space, to be willing to be vulnerable and to later lead the circles themselves.
2. Relationships and Humanity First
“I enjoyed the deep prompts and genuine vibes; the freedom to share if we want and just the; calmness of it all; confidence and respect for each other; laughs and smiles of my people.”
“Well I like that they got to know me more and that y’all deep about things that I wouldn’t even talk to my family about.”
— TRHT Youth Participants
Even during non-Covid times, creating a safe and supportive environment is the platinum rule of positive youth development. More so during the summer of 2020. Young people had been adjusting to a new reality with a large number of youth feeling isolated from caring adults and from their peers. People needed affirmation, authentic connections and celebration more than ever. We gave practitioners license to prioritize youth participant well-being over everything else. We had trained and licensed clinicians on staff to provide support to both youth participants and facilitators.
In addition, a sizable number when first joining told us directly they were just doing this because it paid money and they needed a summer job. We were able to meet an economic need. We named it and we were cool with that. To get to the point where the majority of youth participants found value and meaning in the process meant connecting the summer job to their actual lived experiences.
3. Identity & Youth Experience at the Center
“Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future.”
— Paulo Friere
All content started and ended making connections to the Chicago youth identity and experience. So often, especially for BIPOC individuals, there are few opportunities to share their story uninterrupted or unadulterated by someone else’s lens or someone else trying to explain their experiences.
Young people’s favorite part was naming themselves. When dealing with white supremacy, a lot of people get to name youth and marginalized folks based on their perspectives and bias. In this practice, our youth got to define themselves for themselves — reconnecting them with their own sense of self-determination. They were invested in the experience. It was inspired and many times brought us to tears seeing how geeked they were to stand in their own name and love on each other in that way.
We were also very intentional about acknowledging the history and contextualizing the politics that the Youth Institute was happening in. We were able to contextualize much of the history of why we do the work of the Youth Institute by focusing on Chicago. Using examples such as the history of the Chicago Black Panthers, Puerto Rican migration and the 1966 Division Street uprising, the history of redlining and policing, and current case studies of Chicago youth leaders helped participants better understand why their current context and reality exists. We felt that it was important for youth to see examples of youth movements who have successfully fought back and the tools and strategies they used. For us it was super important that context comes with the tool so you understand why the tool is necessary.
4. Remote Learning vs. In-Person
There is not a huge difference between quality “in-person” facilitation and “remote” facilitation. Someone facilitating remotely still needs to…
Show care and concern for youth’s mental, social-emotional & developmental need
Make the sessions engaging and interactive
Foster a collaborative & respectful learning environment
Encourage & value youth ideas & share decision-making power
Be good at explaining things
Use a mix of platforms, tools & tech (music, art, videos, social media, etc)
Have a plan A, B & C in case things don’t go according to plan
But where the learning curve is is how you deliver the tools and content. By the end of the summer we all earned our masters and in some cases PhD in Zoomology.
The type of tech and material prep changes, online and offline coordination is different, not all participants have the same levels of tech access or connectivity, or the same level of skills with using the technology. And sometimes, tech just doesn’t work like you want it to.
One of the biggest adjustments was how to check-in with participants. In our new remote learning reality we had to utilize breakout rooms during sessions to be able to support participants who needed additional 1:1 support. Or, we’d have them turn their cameras and microphones off and call them so that they could remain in the large group without calling attention to them having to need a 1:1 moment.
5. Continuous Improvement
From the start we remained committed to getting better through a weekly process evaluation. At the end of each week youth participants provided feedback through a short survey. The answers helped us understand what things we wanted to continue, areas to improve and new things we wanted to add for the next week.
Immediately after the surveys were filled out we did a quick analysis and put together some slides with the results, direct quotes and recommendations for improvement. We presented the results to the facilitators with reflection questions and a discussion for next steps. Based on the shared decisions with the facilitators we presented the feedback and next steps to youth participants at the beginning of the next week. We were intentional about explaining the WHY behind all program decisions and always transparent of what we knew and didn’t know. This led to both Youth and Staff valuing and using the real-time data and feedback loop.
The majority of the feedback was positive, and this served as an affirmation and motivator for facilitators. Each week it was a helpful tool to celebrate the dedication of everyone involved. The areas for improvement often led to small tweaks that made a big difference in the quality of the program. There were hundreds of comments and data points from youth that pushed us to get better. Listed below are some examples of the feedback we received from youth participants along with some of the adjustments we made over the course of 6 weeks.
Participation (Sample Youth Feedback)
“Get more people involved & Talking; I think some people hide behind the fact that we can’t make anyone talk. So it’s kind of hard when 3 people are the only ones participating”
What we did…
We tried all kinds of things. Sometimes it was giving people a heads up that we would call on them during the session and giving them the questions beforehand. If we were comfortable enough with the group we would cold call on participants if some were not participating. Other times we would call someone right after session or even during if we noticed they were not participating to figure out why and how we could support them better. Over time facilitators all had a long list of reflection questions they could ask if the existing ones were getting youth to participate. We encouraged but never forced youth to have their videos on and to participate.
Breaking up the videos (Sample Youth Feedback)
“If a video or audio is long can there be in between questions?”
What we did
We found ways to break down the videos into smaller digestible chunks where they could engage with portions of the video at a time. We took breaks in between podcasts & videos. We found the sweet-spot for videos was about 7–8 minutes before we needed to pause, so if there was a 30 minute video we needed to watch, we stopped it 3–4 times to check-in and dialogue.
Offline work/Asynchronous work (Sample Youth Feedback)
“Making the self work assignments available earlier; More interactive offline work.”
What we did
We struggled the most with this one. We tried to improve the offline work each week. This was still an area that we could not fix completely. One of the most effective solutions was to have small groups offline led by peers or facilitators to go through the offline content.
We hope you found our insights and lessons learned useful. We are doing the Youth Institute again! If you know of any Chicago youth, ages 16–21 who are interested please contact Steven Rosado: firstname.lastname@example.org