On any given day, you can find the Bronzeville Dream Center filled with young Black people: those who have homes and those who don’t, those who love to talk and those who can’t find their voices, those who are finding their way through high school and those who have just fallen right into early adulthood. They are a mix of young men and women from all different walks of life and who are living through their individual sets of issues, but here, they are all at home.
Found in the heart of a city that’s blasted in the news for crime and gang activity on a daily basis, and where safe spaces like after-school programs and community centers sometimes only want “the good kids,” this particular center has something special. The winning formula, it seems, for reaching the kids that so many have written off as unreachable lies on a block in the middle of Bronzeville.
Beyonca Johnson and Holly Medley hear the statistics that are about Black youth, too: the lower graduation rate of 69 percent compared to 86 percent of whites, the higher unemployment rate that’s more than double that of whites in the same age ranges, and the fact that Blacks constitute over a third of all gang documented members. Still, those numbers mean nothing to the duo who created the Bronzeville Dream Center.
“We can go into any neighborhood — I don’t care where or what type of kids they are — and we can stop our cars, start talking to them, and they’ll tell us their fears immediately,” Johnson says about the kids she’s picked up from the streets. “We’ve got so many of them.”
Those kids — the ones society deems difficult — are the reason Johnson started building the Bronzeville Dream Center in the first place.
Before opening the center, Johnson and Medley ran a program for the Chicago Park District geared toward young men ages 12 to 21. Their job, Johnson says, was to keep them occupied from 5 to 10 p.m. when they would likely get into trouble.
They built a curriculum that surrounded life skills, cooking, basketball, weight training and yoga, noticing early on that the job they’d signed on to was a tough one.
“When we first started, we got a lot of the kids that nobody wanted to deal with — the troublemakers, those affiliated with gangs, the ones that were kind of rude and disrespectful,” Johnson says.
The program worked with 75 to 100 young men, and she noticed immediately that many of the young men lacked a caring support system.
“You could tell [the staff] didn’t really want them there,” Johnson says. “The staff would treat them really rudely and it did something to my soul. That’s why they acted that way.”
Johnson and Medley were committed to their cause, though, and after building relationships with each program participant, they noticed immediate changes in their behavior.
“After they started our program, they would change just like that,” Johnson says. “I saw the immediate change in them by what we were doing just for those two days out of the week.”
Then, as the participants started to get comfortable, the Park District cut the program.
“I said, ‘What happens now?’ You can’t just stop a program and just leave them sitting there,” Johnson says. “They’re going to go back to the streets.”
Johnson and Medley knew where the young men in their program would turn when they no longer had a place of refuge because they always took the time out to ask.
“When we would teach life skills, I’d like to give them a voice: Why do you guys do this, why do you hang out, why do you join gangs? They don’t have anywhere to go and every time they go somewhere, people would kick them out,” Johnson says.
Nowhere Else to Go
Johnson knew that the boys simply would have nowhere else to go. So, she started her own secret project.
“Holly didn’t know; it was a surprise to her,” Johnson says. “I’m a dreamer, and I just had a vision. I saw the basketball court and I basically saw the office in my mind, so I just started building, and building, and building. Then, I brought Holly in and she started crying.”
Holly wasn’t the only one in love with the space. Decked out with bright colors, the Bronzeville Dream Center is filled with images of sports favorites like Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade that span the inner walls to the windows. Its intentional design attracts youth from all around the area, who may be passing by and decide to stop in.
Like 18-year-old George Curtis says, “People will just come in sometimes.”
Curtis, a student at Wendell Phillips Academy High School, is a dancer who practices and throws shows at the center. He sees his progression in his dance ability from working with Medley and with his friends.
“You have adults here that can help you, but even your peers here will help you,” he says.
Medley helps participants like Curtis work on whatever activities they’re passionate about, but her accolades come from the sports arena. By trade, Medley is a professional sports performance and basketball development coach. She played for DePaul University while in college and now trains professional and overseas players. She offers that same training to the youth in the center as a part of the Hollywood Dreamers program.
“The guys know how amazing she is when it comes to basketball training, so they want to act right because if they do, she’ll train them,” Johnson says. “They can get the same $250 per hour training for free. It’s amazing what these kids would do just to get trained in basketball.”
The pull of getting professional training then leads to incremental learning in other ways.
“That’s why we made it this way,” Johnson says. “That gets them in and once they get into the door, we’ve got them. It’s more than just basketball.”
Medley just does it for the love of the game and for the love of the kids, many of whom have affectionately started to call her and Johnson “mom.”
“I like to see them advance; I see them progressing,” Medley says.
A Place of Refuge
In 2015, the Bronzeville Dream Center officially opened its doors, becoming a place of refuge for at-risk youth using the same curriculum that had been a success in their Park District program. Allen Morris, an 18-year-old student who will be heading to Sierra Linda High School in Arizona this fall, says he’s been at the Bronzeville Dream Center since its inception.
“I’ve been here since it first started. I even helped build from the ground up. Those tables, for instance,” he says, pointing to a set of hand-painted coffee tables. “That’s important to me because me and Holly spent all day painting them and putting the words on them. I’m not even an artist.”
The tables that are in one of the center’s recreational spaces show a winding road to goals and dreams and the roadblocks that often get in the way such as distractions, doubts, and fears.
“That’s the thing, he wasn’t an artist, nor did he care to paint,” Medley adds. “But I told him that I needed to get these tables done and we did it. We got wood, sanded it down, and drew on it.”
With all of the activity that goes on at the center, Johnson and Medley work hard at getting their participants to change how they view their lives and their potential. The key, Johnson says, is getting them to dream.
“Everyone gets an individualized development plan,” she says. “That’s when I sit down and ask them a list of questions like what are your fears, what are your doubts, what are your dreams, what are your goals, who do you love? And I get a solid understanding of who they are.”
Understanding who each participant is and what he or she needs for motivation is what sets this approach apart from standard community centers.
“It’s all about setting goals because if you have none, and you get up every day, then you’re just existing, and how do you succeed? Then, you’re just on a path to nowhere,” she says.
Listening to their needs, Johnson and Medley have expanded their curriculum to include areas of experimental learning that directly affect their youth. An example is the set of entrepreneurship courses taught by Johnson.
Johnson, who currently has her own credit restoration and real estate businesses, has been an entrepreneur since she was 16 and uses her business failures and success as lessons she can teach her participants.
“They’d say, ‘Well, we’re broke; we need some money.’ So, we implemented an entrepreneurship program and taught them how to incorporate a business, how to get products wholesale, and how to put product on a website. We teach them how to make money.”
Participants also learn the professional development skills that they need as a foundation for business and career. This summer, the Bronzeville Dream Center had 25 paid interns who received a season-long training in how to work in the business world.
“I told them, ‘You’re going to be working on yourself this summer: learning how to type, how to speak with people, and how to write a real resume,’ ” Johnson says.
Unlike short programs that give a crash course in basic skills, the interns at the center had time to practice.
“You can’t learn how to interview in a day, so we role-played and they worked on themselves so much that parents were calling, saying how much their children changed,” Johnson says. “That touched my soul, and I knew that we were doing the right thing.”
Out of that group, 10 have left for college.
So far, all of the Bronzeville Dream Center’s success has been created without any governmental or local business support. With no association to any larger entities, all funding has primarily been straight from its founders’ pockets.
Now, the Bronzeville Dream Center is in financial distress as its founders seek a way to get out of debt. The center was six months behind in its rent when Johnson shared an emotional message on Facebook, thinking that the center would have to close and her “kids” would again be displaced.
That message went viral and because of recent supporters, the center is halfway toward its fundraising goal of $50,000, which would give it the funding it needs to pay off debts and implement more structure to prevent future financial hardships.
Going forward, Johnson and Medley plan to take the Bronzeville Dream Center to a new level. In the near future, they will build up the center’s advisory board; employ the assistance of a fiscal manager, attorneys, and a fundraising and grant writer; grab new volunteers, and create a youth advisory board to hire even more young men and women to work and earn a paycheck as they help their younger peers.
“It’s a good energy,” Johnson says about the place that her, Medley, and all of their participants can call home. “It’s a good love.”