Chicago teens take on community stereotypes with poster project.

By Sarah Fox


Four students at a high school in Chicago’s South Side are preparing to introduce themselves to their community. Soon, community members will see what these Excel Academy of Englewood students have accomplished under the guidance of the school’s Director of Student Services, Colby Chapman. How? An innovative art project and a little inspiration from WE.

The group—made up of Deshawn Washington, Jayla Thomas, Elijah Weston and Jermaine May—is described by Colby as an example of exceptional students who are “socially responsible and conscious of the needs of their under resourced community.” These are the individuals Colby has come to depend on arriving early to school or staying late whenever help is needed.

“Help” takes on different forms at Excel Academy of Englewood. Deshawn, Jayla, Elijah and Jermaine have donated their time and efforts to projects ranging from beautifying the community by picking up litter to surprising the entire school with a complimentary lunch back in April.

“There’s people that think in an underserved community like our own, we can’t succeed like others who get all the resources they need,” says Jayla. She disagrees.

Using resources from the school’s newly formed WE club, Jayla and her peers have set out to disprove those who would tell them their futures are anything but their own to shape—no matter what the circumstances. Taking their cue from WE Schools—a service-learning program that teaches the value of local and global volunteerism, as well as social advocacy, while instilling leadership skills—students of the WE club are defying stereotypes associated with the community and, according to Jayla, “putting it out there that we can do it”—as in anything they set their minds to achieving.

And so was born the “WE Excel Englewood,” a poster project encouraging as many students across the school as possible to create inspirational posters—touting both current accomplishments and future goals—and then putting them up around the neighbourhood to showcase their successes and dreams.

Since bringing the WE Schools program to the school this past winter, Colby’s seen students jump at opportunities like this art project. For them, it’s a chance to take a leadership role in their community. Seeing students so eager to get involved excites Englewood’s Director of Student Services; she believes the power of the WE Schools program can be a motivational tool for students outside of the WE club roster. “Perhaps there’s [a student] who doesn’t want to speak out as much. They’re not necessarily the people who want to be in front of the student body, but they [can] possess raw talent, [too],” explains Colby. “[These types of students] can amplify what’s going on. We’re opening this up to the entire school.”

As for Deshawn, Jayla, Elijah and Jermaine, they’re full steam ahead with “WE Excel Englewood.” All student council members, the foursome are on a mission to gather a bulk supply of posters in an attempt to “take over Englewood” with positivity spurred by their project. Their message imbues the posters these neighbourhood kids share—each one a declaration of hopes and dreams turned into success stories.

First there’s Deshawn Washington; proudly hailing from 71st Street in Englewood, he counts playing chess on the school team as a favourite pastime and recently received a $5,000 scholarship to the college of his choice. Then there’s Jayla Thomas from 63rd Street. She balances caretaker duties at home with maintaining a spot at the top of her graduating class. Plus, she recently recently signed up for dual enrollment to take additional courses at Daley College. Third up is Elijah Weston; part of the Moore4Youth Council, which advocates in support of Chicago’s 17th Ward representative, David Moore, this budding political change-maker also happens to be captain of Excel Academy’s basketball team and just landed an afterschool job at a local grocery store. And, finally, Jermaine May, whose poster tells the story of another Moore4YouthCouncil member, who is currently weighing future options for his post-secondary career.

For Colby, empowering students like these to take hold of their potential is integral to her job as an educator. And the students are grateful. “That’s what I like about Miss Chapman. In fact, I love her because she does that,” gushes Elijah. “There’s actually a person out there that will help you.”

Crediting her experience with WE Schools service-learning program for pushing her to consider her own social impact inside and outside the school, Colby never loses sight of her responsibilities as a mentor to her students and an example within her community. “If I call myself a role model, I need to be actively provoking social action, social impact, ‘change, change, change.’ I must be the change that I wish to see,” she affirms. “I go above and beyond in this regard, to ensure that, one: I’m making the difference in being a role model, and two: that even in my everyday life—when the students aren’t around—I’m still the same person I say I am. I appreciate them keeping me on my toes.”

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