Vocal Justice participants gathered for the first Youth Leadership Summit in Chicago, | Provided, Nick Moody

On May 6, nearly a hundred young people gathered in Chicago. The purpose? A day-long learning, sharing and collaborating experience preparing them to be change agents. Founded in 2019 by Chicagoland native Shawon Jackson, Vocal Justice is a nonprofit that educates young people proximate to injustice to become social change leaders. For its first Youth Leadership Summit, the nonprofit chose the city of Chicago to create a space where adults and young people collaborate and learn together. 

“I was very blessed that I had a lot of adults who believed in my power,” Jackson said in an interview. Vocal Justice was founded to carry on that belief and connect youth with adults who not only believe in them but share their knowledge and power with them. 

Proudly representing Chicago’s West Side, Nakisha Hobbs was the keynote speaker at the summit. Hobbs is an educator, community organizer and co-founder of Village Leadership Academy and It Takes A Village Family of Schools. Hobbs grew up and attended school in Austin and is now a resident of North Lawndale. Traveling allowed her to see communities where people’s needs are met, she said. That inspired her to bring quality education to the West Side, an education that equips young people with critical thinking skills, critical intellect and the practical skills to engage in a way that is transformational for them and their entire community.

“It was definitely an honor to participate,” Hobbs told the Austin Weekly News. “It was young people from across the city. All of whom exhibited tons of energy around being agents of a positive change in their immediate community.” 

In her session, she shared why and how schools should act as sites of liberation while local and out-of-state youth listened, drawing on the education principles taught at the Village Leadership Academy, an elementary school in Chicago she co-founded.

“I shared some key critical tangible steps they could take or engage in to make positive changes in their community,” Hobbs said. At the Village Leadership Academy, elementary students learn to organize campaigns to resolve an issue in their community through eight practical steps. 

“One of the things that happens in the city of Chicago, and honestly across the nation is that young people get lots of attention for engaging in at risk or negative or destructive behavior,” she said. “And the stories of young people like the ones that were in the room for the summit are not typically uplifted.” 

“Young people were so eager to speak up,” Jackson said, adding one of the highlights of the event was to see the session led by Karlyn Boens turn into an open mic. Boens is a spoken word artist born and raised on the West Side. As a restorative justice practitioner and poet for social change, Boens has written poetry and blogs for the Aspen Institute and taught storytelling for social change. 

“Young people definitely want attention, they want to be heard.” Hobbs said. “But we don’t give the attention and focus to young people who have ideas around positive outcomes.” 

Chicagoland youth participated in a day-long program of workshops and sessions | Provided, Nick Moody

In other workshops, youth explored wellness and movement, fashion for social change, poetry and community-building led by Chicago social change leaders such as fitness advocate Cameron Johnson, co-director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective Damon Williams and streetwear designer Des $. 

“One of the most exciting things was seeing adults whose work is exciting in Chicago connecting with youth that would not usually get access to this type of work,” Bess Cohen, special projects manager at Vocal Justice, said. 

Many young people were excited about the event, Cohen said, asking when the next one will take place. The summit also helped youth in Chicago realize they are part of a national community of youth committed to making a difference. Nayden Wilson, a sophomore student and freshman student Wiotee Kargbo flew in from North Carolina to speak on issues they are proximate to — immigration and poverty. Jose Paredes, a senior student from Oregon delivered a speech on racism. After sharing their perspectives, youth and adults participated in a dialogue to reflect on solutions to the issues affecting their communities. 

Outside the summit, Vocal Justice trains and pays high school teachers to educate students on the nonprofit’s social change curriculum. The curriculum helps students learn about self-awareness, social awareness, storytelling and social change so they can develop skills to become young social change agents. For Jackson, Vocal Justice is about working with young people to instill in them confidence to change the world. 

“They’re using their voice to speak out against injustices they’ve seen or experienced.”