12:28 PM EST, February 22, 2013
Last week, in a valiant effort and one that deserves to be applauded, the mayor and NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas took the point in an effort to raise money to expand the at-risk youth basketball program known as Windy City Hoops.
“For me, as a child in Chicago, basketball was a way that I could enjoy myself, make friends, stay safe and obtain the education I needed to succeed in life,” said Thomas, a child of the beaten-up North Lawndale neighborhood and later a mainstay of the Detroit Pistons. “I am happy to be involved with a program that will allow many others the same valuable opportunities that I had.”
The goal is to raise $480,000 in 60 days from private donors at indiegogo.com/projects/windy-city-hoops. The money will be used to start new teen basketball leagues at 10 parks in distressed and disenfranchised neighborhoods such as Roseland, East Garfield Park, Woodlawn and Englewood.
In Englewood there are some young people who have been playing a different kind of game, and that game is poetry. Many in teacher Missy Hughes' Room 324 at TEAM Englewood Community Academy are part of Louder Than a Bomb, the annual open-mic youth poetry competition of teams and individuals between ages 13 and 19.
LTAB was founded by Young Chicago Authors artistic director and poet Kevin Coval and former YCA executive director Anna West (youngchicagoauthors.org). The competitions began in 2002 with four teams and about 60 students.
This year's event has more than 750 students representing more than 100 schools. It began last Saturday and continues with the March 3 semifinals at Victory Gardens Theater, the individual finals March 6 at the Chicago Cultural Center and the team finals March 9 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
Having served as a judge at some of the competitions during the formative years, I am able to tell you that they are thrilling to watch and hear and see.
Yes, some of the poems are raw and too many of them deal with such teenage obsessions as dating and parental conflict. Yes, some of the performers are awkward and unsure. But you will hear words that you will remember for a long time.
The kids and their poems will give you insights into life that no high-minded speeches, television news reports, or sad statistics in black and white are capable of providing. They will expand or even shatter preconceived notions.
As Hughes has told me, “It is easy to dismiss communities like Englewood, to believe the lie that the kids here are not all of our kids, that the problems here are not our problems.”
But just as very few of the young people playing basketball in Windy City Hoops will ever make it on the college or professional levels, it is hard to imagine the LTAB poets making a living through words. Few professional poets can manage that.
Poet Malcolm London was the winner of LTAB individual honors in 2011, the same year he graduated from Lincoln Park High School. He now works for YCA and last fall he told me: “I do not do what I do for money. I come from a place with no money and don't expect I will ever have a lot of it.”
Again, the basketball plan is a good one. But the differences between that and LTAB are important ones. LTAB exposes kids to others who live vastly different lives in vastly different places. The high school junior from Austin meets the sophomore from Glenview. Whatever the level of talent onstage, those performing and those in the audience get to taste life beyond the borders of their own neighborhoods and suburbs, and there is great world-expanding value in that.
Over the years I have talked with many of the young LTAB poets, and this is some of what I heard …
“Poetry is an outlet because it takes you out of your shell.”
“Poetry takes my negative energy and makes something positive out of it.”
“The words become part of who I am.”
“I get to learn that other kids feel the same way about life as I do.”
“Color and money don't matter when it comes to you speaking your mind and soul.”
I don't know whether or not the mayor will be at any of this year's competitions but he is quoted on YCA's website as saying, “(LTAB) is a celebration of the talent of our children and our young adults here in our city.”
That may not be the most passionate way of describing LTAB, but early in 2011 the mayor also put his money where his mouth is after promising to donate $5,000 to any organization chosen by the creator of the wildly popular and then-anonymous Twitter account @mayoremanuel.
When Columbia College journalism professor Dan Sinker claimed authorship of the site and chose YCA for the mayor's donation, the mayor wrote the check, which was immediately kicked up to $12,000 through other donations.
That money helped. Money matters, whether for hoops or poetry or …
I doubt that Robert Frost, arguably America's best-known poet, ever played basketball. But he could write, and he once wrote this: “Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.” (You can watch him recite one of his most famous poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” here: youtube.com/watch?v=hfOxdZfo0gs).
It's a lovely poem, but he wouldn't stand a chance against the kids you can see in LTAB.
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