When Michael Finney was making rap videos with his friends in the ’90s, he remembers filming his friends jumping over fences or setting garbage cans on fire just to get some footage.
“We were learning the game. Nobody was telling it to us,” says Finney, who now works at Tilden Career Community Academy, where he forges partnerships between the school and local organizations as a “community connector.” But after the bell rings, his office becomes a home base for a program that draws from his experience as a young rapper: Tilden TV and Radio.
It began with lessons on public speaking six years ago. Finney could see his students had interest in creative arts but no outlet; the school offered sports teams but few artistic extracurricular activities. “They were interested in possibly dancing or being on TV or heard on the radio,” Finney explains. “I had to fit the different aspects of what the students were interested in and make the program fit them.”
So, he hosted mock debates, assigned students to make school announcements, and gave them cameras to try out photography. On some days, his space transforms into a recording studio for young artists; on others, it becomes a small venue where students debut their songs, poetry and choreography.
Though Finney never received formal training in the field (he uses Google and YouTube tutorials as reference), he takes students to visit local radio stations and area colleges with media programs to show them how to turn their hobbies into potential careers.
For young musicians like senior Christopher Cox, it’s the mentorship and the exposure that make a difference. Finney brought Cox and his classmate, fellow aspiring rapper Shareef Peoples, to perform at an event at the KLEO Community Family Life Center last year. It was a “big accomplishment,” says Cox, because it was his first time getting positive feedback from an audience outside of his friends.
Both Cox and Peoples look to Finney as a brother and father figure. “Coming to Tilden TV and Radio made me the best person. I am so happy that I am the person I am now,” Peoples, 19, said. “If it weren’t for Tilden TV and Radio and me getting my anger out in my music, I probably would’ve been dead or in jail.”
Other students like Lexii Brown and Katrina Knight thought back to when Finney supported them when they lost members of their family.
“He didn’t try and force his way into our personal lives,” Brown, 18, said. “He was just there to help us through it – anything.”
Finney said it’s easy to relate to his students—he, too, grew up on the South Side, and he knew what it was like to be a teenager and to want to act “tough.” He was the son of a Chicago police officer, but that didn’t stop him from getting into trouble.
“Inside of my household, it was very nourishing, very healthy, very structured. Every Saturday, I had to read the atlas, dictionary, encyclopedia, just to go outside,” he said. “But on the other side of that threshold, there’s this thing called West Englewood, and it’s a lot different from your front door. There [are] some things I got involved in when I was younger, not because I had to – simply by choice.”
He often brings the conversation back to that word: “choice.” As he tells students, while life changes can be unexpected and unavoidable, it’s up to them how they move forward.
“They have a lot going on,” Finney said. “Sometimes, they come in this door and can’t focus on what we roll out every day. … They may have family issues like domestic violence that they had to deal with at 5 or 6 in the morning and still come to school and be here at 8.”
His advice, presence and open-door policy do not go unappreciated.
“If you want to talk, [he’s] here. If you don’t, [he’s] still here,” Cox said. “He’s going to have his door wide open. He’s going to see you when you come down here. That door’s open, and you’re welcome.”
This story was produced by City Bureau, a Woodlawn-based civic journalism lab. Find out more and get involved at www.citybureau.org