Youth Speaks: A collaboration between Chicago Youth Centers and I Am We

What if youth ages 9-11 years old were empowered to use their voices to motivate others, promote peace, and end violence in their community?

Photo of Christy Beighe-Byrne
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In early April of 2016, two organizations serving Chicago’s South Shore came together and asked, “How can we combine resources to better serve our children, families, and community? The result was Chicago Youth Speaks, a collaboration between Chicago Youth Centers (CYC) and I Am We, that empowers children to use their voice to advocate for social change. During the pilot phase, skilled staff worked with the Transformers classroom at CYC-Rebecca K. Crown Youth Center, a group of 9-11 year old girls who are dealing with social, emotional, and physical changes. Over a week long period, they created a youth-led 1:01 minute video clip, titled "I Need," where youth shared powerful statements about what they need at this age and in this community to grow, thrive, and succeed. Youth in the program reported that they experienced: a) increased confidence in their communication and creativity skills; b) increased self-awareness and self-esteem; c) a stronger connection to their larger community. CYC and I Am We will build on the success of the pilot and offer Chicago Youth Speaks as part of their agencies’ fall curricula. Youth will continue to explore storytelling, poetry, and video-making as a means to express their voices and promote peace in their community.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)
  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Illinois

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Illinois

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Chicago (in South Shore community, located on the South East Side of the city of Chicago).

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Twenty-seven percent of residents in South Shore live below the federal poverty level, and about one in five residents do not have a high-school diploma. Crime and gang-related activities plague the community, and safety remains a major concern among its residents. Particularly within the radius served by the CYC-Crown Center, the rate of violent crime is much higher than the city average rate of 25.5 violent crimes per 1,000 residents. When youth grow up exposed to violence, they can internalize and act out the negative behaviors that surround them. Chicago Youth Speaks aims to break this cycle. We teach youth how to articulate their emotions and express themselves in peaceful, healthy ways through poetry, spoken word, and storytelling. By giving youth an opportunity to express themselves through the arts, they learn that it is peace—and not violence—that empowers them to have a voice.

Chicago Youth Speaks gives children in vulnerable communities a voice and a platform to discover their unique potential, sense of self, and connection to the larger community.

As youth work in teams to create spoken word performances, they strengthen their ability to communicate effectively, collaborate with diverse groups of people, resolve conflict, build positive relationships, overcome obstacles, and lead others responsibly. These critical 21st century skills will help them navigate school, their daily lives, and ultimately, the workforce. By helping children develop these social-emotional skills early, we set them up for future success and well-being.

The program also empowers youth take an active role in their communities. When children are exposed to violence and poverty, they can feel hopeless and alone. They often feel as if their achievements and decisions will have no impact on their own future or their larger community, and they abandon their goals and plans. Chicago Youth Speaks bridges the gap between youth and community by encouraging them to share their concerns and explore social issues through art, music, performance, and storytelling. The program also connects them with local community leaders, artists, and members through community events, forums, and performances. Youth in the program witness the impact their voice and ideas can make and that experience builds their self-esteem and empowers them to be active, engaged citizens.

The program is a collaboration between Chicago Youth Centers (CYC) and I Am We, and it allows both organizations to increase their impact and go deeper in promoting peace among youth on the South Side. I Am We’s mission is to create cohesion in Chicago's most underinvested neighborhoods by building bridges between youth and community through the medium of the arts, storytelling,programming, and strategic partnerships. CYC's mission is to empower youth to discover and experience their unique potential. By leveraging I Am We’s unique expertise in team building and media arts programming and CYC’s space, program model, and innovative curricula, the two agencies will successfully offer a holistic program that empowers peace in the South Side by providing intentional activities that build children's character and promote non-cognitive skills like teamwork, self-control, communication, and responsibility. These positive traits create a recipe for peace within the participants' own lives and empower them to overcome the stressors of poverty and violence, and to advocate for peace within their communities.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • LGBTQ or non-binary individuals
  • Religious minorities (non-Christian)
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Criminal Justice
  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Chicago Youth Speaks gives students the confidence to positively articulate their individual and collective voice in a dramatic, poetic performance. At the beginning of each quarter, students are introduced to spoken word, literature, and poetry. They read works by artists like Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Maya Angelou and reflect on poets’ work and social concerns. CYC and I Am We trained staff facilitate discussion. Students explore their own concerns and collaborate with their teams to create their final performances. The final performances will take the form of public service announcements that use spoken word and poetry to promote peace to the larger community. We expect participants to build confidence and self-esteem.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

The results were transformative: • Enrollment at CYC- Crown Youth Center doubled. • Children and teens increased their critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication skills by more than 50%. • Children’s interest in STEAM fields increased and the CYC Maker Lab was recognized in a segment on NBC. • Enrollment in parent workshops and volunteer events tripled. 12-Month: • Youth will increase their critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity skills and demonstrate knowledge of nonviolence techniques. • Youth and parents will be empowered to promote peace in their communities and will participate in local peace-oriented activities, such as creating a Neighborhood Block Club, meeting with key community stakeholders, and hosting a peace circle in partnership with the Chicago Police Department’s Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) program.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • over $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

CYC and I Am We are dedicated to continuing this partnership. We will continue to look for opportunities to bring this collaboration ahead by looking for grants, collaborating on fundraisers, and soliciting donations from our respective donor communities.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are many agencies aiming to promote peace and prevent violence. Our goal with this project is to unify many of the efforts of those agencies so that we can work together to solve the problem. Youth and Youth Leaders will do a community asset map and invite community leaders to talk about what we collectively can do to promote peace in the community. Our program is also unique because it impacts both the individual and the community. Youth participate in social/emotional learning embedded in our holistic curriculum. Their voice and positive development promotes community-wide change.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

A 2007 study by the America’s Promise Alliance demonstrates that children in underserved neighborhoods fall far behind their higher-income peers not only in academics but also in applied skills. They lack opportunities to develop leadership experience, confidence, and communication skills. Nearly ten years since that discovery, we see the field is evolving to prioritize understanding the way applied skills help children grow and thrive. CYC is proud that our holistic curriculum fuses academic skills with applied skills so that children can reach their full potential.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)


Program Design Clarity

Youth Speaks serves youth ages 9-11 in Chicago’s South Shore community. Youth read and reflect on poetry and stories, discuss social issues, and collaborate to create their own spoken word performances that focus on community issues of violence and poverty. Youth meet twice weekly for 2 hours. Youth workers facilitate the program and local artists are featured. All instructors hold a minimum of a Bachelor of Arts Degree; many hold Masters of Art degrees. As youth develop self-esteem, build relationships, and express themselves through art, they learn to cultivate peace within themselves.

Community Leadership

One of CYC’s core values is community, and we strive to represent the communities we serve in all aspects of our organization. CYC’s largest Centers have local advisory boards who are members of the Centers’ communities. The local advisory boards plan community events, provide feedback, and fundraise a significant amount of money to support the center’s programming. We also have a relationship with Alderman Gregory Mitchell and community leaders.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

Our main strategies are to use youth voices to advocate for peace within the community. We seek to host community forums where we bring community together to discuss needs, dreams, and suggested solutions with our students. Our goal is to bridge the gap between students and community and create safe spaces where both populations can work together. We seek to create a model that can be replicated throughout Chicago to begin to build bridges.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Research shows that children thrive when they have access to innovative and creative spaces to learn; engaged families and mentors; and experiences designed to expand children’s abilities to think critically, create, communicate, and collaborate. In Chicago Youth Speaks, children have a safe space to explore both their own voice and community issues. They build relationships with artists and mentors who support them and help them feel connected.

Leadership Story

Latisha Thomas: I founded I Am We because I wanted to bridge the gap between youth and community. When I spoke with community leaders I found that youth were consistently discussed, but they were not invited to sit at the table and make decisions about their future. I Am We was born. Christy (CYC): My commitment to social change evolved during my time working with the Chicago prison population. I met young men with dreams and plans, but with little education and no work skills. I realized then that my focus should be prevention—not intervention-- if I wanted to create the biggest impact.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Chicago Youth Speaks in a newer initiative of Chicago. It supports our latest initiative: Imagine Chicago: Chicago Youth Speaks.

Organization's Twitter Handle

@ChicagoCYC @iamwecommunity

Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Evaluation results

5 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 40%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 40%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 20%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 20%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 0%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 20%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 40%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 20%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 20%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 40%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 0%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 40%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 0%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 20%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 0%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 60%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 20%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 50%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 50%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 100%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 100%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 100%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 50%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Brittany Lothe

Christy Beighe-Byrne As a former resident of Chicago (and a midwestern always!) thanks for this important work in the Second City! Really appreciate your organization's commitment to collective impact to end violence and promote peace in the city.

Photo of Christy Beighe-Byrne

Hello Brittany - Thank you for the feedback.  We are really excited to get the kids working with I Am We again on their next Youth Speaks PSA.  Even from the first PSA, the youth are exhibiting a higher self esteem and are coming across as more confident asking for what they want around the center and in their community.  #ItTakesAVillage  #ProudtobeCYC

Photo of Brittany Lothe

Good stuff and congrats! :)

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