Four mentors who lead youth in Chicago’s West Side were nominated for this year’s “Brother Mike Awards” sponsored by two organizations, including one founded by Grammy-award-winning musician Chance the Rapper, who grew up in Chicago.
The annual award by Chicago Learning Exchange and Social Works, Chance the Rapper’s nonprofit, recognizes Chicago mentors who embody the ideals that the late Mike Hawkins, known as “Brother Mike” embodied, and honors leaders who work outside of schools or homes. Chance the Rapper and others such as poet and rapper NoName credit Brother Mike for guiding them in their youth to transform their lives.
“The truth is we learn by example… we have to be the example,” poet, rapper and mentor PHENOM said at the awards ceremony Sept. 19.
For the 2023 Brother Mike Awards, 36 youth leaders citywide were nominated to three prestigious $5,000 no-strings-attached cash awards. Three mentors – Arinique Allen, Maricela Ramirez and l o t i Walker, won. Yet, all nominees are “winners,” Grammy-award winning artist Rhymefest said at the ceremony. Like Chance the Rapper, the Chicago artist, mentor and songwriter, gives credit to his mentor, Donda West for guiding him towards a path that kept him “off the streets,” gang culture and violence.
“As mentors, you’re fighting a system that’s been programmed in young people,” he said.
Around the West Side, four nominees – Elaine Marthel, Jesus Hernandez Jr., Marqueisha R. Grant and Alina Hernandez- create safe havens for youth in their neighborhoods despite systemic challenges. Many see youth go through the same experiences they faced. Some want to create opportunities and spaces they wish existed for their young selves. All, know that building relationships with young people is key to preventing them from engaging – or being victims – of violence.
Becoming a mentor on the West Side
Elaine Marthel, an educator and mentor better known as Coach “M,” leads out-of-school mentoring programs in North Lawndale. She has coached Franklin Park’s baseball team for Westside Sports and mentored kids citywide. In 2020, she founded Project Impact 180 to reach local youth and help them develop life skills they need, encouraging responsibility and accountability. Last year, 34 kids participated in the nonprofit’s development program.
From the arts field, Jesus Hernandez Jr. took his own experience organizing open mics in a Little Village high school to continue to create a platform for youth expression. After school, he joined the ranks of nonprofit Enlace to bring after-school programs where about 100 young people could “enjoy themselves and feel like they belong.” Eventually, that led him to be one of the lead organizers of the neighborhood festival Villapalooza, where two dozen young people participate, perform and express themselves.
Out of Garfield Park, Marqueisha R. Grant continues a family tradition by serving as a program assistant for youth services at Marillac St. Vincent Family Services. Her grandmother worked there and growing up, Grant found it to be “a safe haven for people like me, who grew up in a rough neighborhood with a lot of gun violence.” The space serves near 120 kids and young people through their after-school programs.
Alina Hernandez guides youth from the boxing ring. Once a participant of the Chicago Youth Boxing Club, Hernandez is now a boxing coach for the after-school and other youth programs, serving nearly 50 kids weekly. She tries to be the person she wishes she had more of when she was a kid, she said. Besides teaching boxing, she listens to them and is there for them when they face issues.
Accountability and trust
Relationships are the basis for engaging youth, all mentors said. In different ways, every mentor becomes family to their youth: someone they can count on, listens to them, and accepts them.
“I talk with a lot of kids that are in gangs, a lot of them say they join gangs so they can feel like they belong,” Marthel said. Some of the young people she works with have been involved with the justice system, but the relationships she builds lead to a sense of accountability and trust. Instead of telling them what to do, “there is someone to hold them to the line and ask if that was the best decision [for them]”
Hernandez, who became a mom at 18, said working with kids from different ages and backgrounds has led her to understand why it’s so important to be patient and understanding.
“A lot of people are ready to take kids to the curb when they’re not listening or misbehaving. I try to sit down and understand what’s going on,” she said.
For Hernandez Jr., Villapalooza offers a community and support system for youth. After high school, he enrolled into college but soon dropped out because he didn’t have the “support to be successful,” he said.
“I wanted to give youth a reason to come to school,” he said. “Villapalooza might have been that for me.”
Walking and talking it
Knowingly or unknowingly, young people continuously teach their mentors to be courageous, resilient, patient and joyful, the mentors said.
“These kids are super, super resilient and they don’t even have to be,” Grant said, adding they get up and try again.
Marthel said the youth have taught her to be fearless. Earlier this year, Marthel overcame her fear of water and joined youth in summer activities after they asked her to be fearless, just like she asks them to be. “We have to model what we say to them …We’re not just talking it, but we’re walking it.