Janeicia Williams, middle, shown with elected officials and community leaders during the first annual West Side Youth Empowerment Conference held Aug. 6 - 7 at the Downtown Hilton Chicago hotel. | Courtesy Kenneth Cook

Janeicia Williams, 23, still remembers the NAACP conventions she would attend during the summers when she was much younger. The experiences allowed her to network with other young leaders and gave her something purposeful to do on trips to cities across the country, she recalled.

Williams said she wanted to provide a similar experience for other young people, particularly West Side youth.

“A lot of kids we work with haven’t experienced a Downtown hotel in a controlled space,” said Williams, the community liaison for Project Exploration, an education nonprofit based in Chicago.

“A lot of times, students go Downtown because it’s trending or they just want to link up but it’s without productive activities to do and it changes the nature of what they do while they’re down there,” Williams said.

Williams is also a grant program administrator for the state’s Restore, Reinvest, and Renew (R3) program, which drives 25% of cannabis tax revenue to fund grants for violence prevention, reentry, youth development, economic development, and civil legal aid in disinvested areas of the state.

Williams leveraged those organizational resources to organize the inaugural West Side Youth Empowerment Conference, which was held at the Downtown Hilton Chicago hotel on Aug. 6 and Aug. 7.

The event was sponsored by the Chicago Westside Branch NAACP, Project Exploration, the R3 Westside Collaborative Project and Bright Leadership Institute. Other community organizations, including Habilitative Systems Inc., also helped fund the event.

The weekend conference included workshops on violence prevention, mental health and leadership. The roughly 100 young people who participated also enjoyed live music and spoken word performances.

“The kids had a great time,” Williams said. “We debriefed recently with some of the chaperones and they said the kids are still ranting and raving about how cool the experience was.”

Cierra Tillman, a 17-year-old student at Michele Clark Magnet High School, said the weekend event taught a lot of things about effective communication.

“I learned that having assertive communication skills will help you get a long way in this world and how to effectively use my communication skills,” she said.

“I also had a conversation among my conference peers about what we need in our neighborhoods and what we can do to see a change,” she added. “We talked about how we can use the resources we have to eventually be the resource.”

Alicia Rodgers, a 15-year-old Prosser Academy student, said she “learned the importance of self-care and connecting with my inner vibration.”

Williams said she and her co-organizers are already planning next year’s conference. This year’s inaugural event was the result of expansive collaboration between a range of West Side institutions, she said.

“Convening this conference with students from over 11 organizations across the West Side was no small feat,” Williams said. “Had it not been for these organizations willing to lend their teams and give their time throughout the summer, this wouldn’t have been possible. They put the kids first over everything else.”

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