Real Men Charities inaugurated their summer youth program, employing 20 high school and college students to lead think tanks and create meaningful content for their communities. Past summers have been filled with robust opportunities to gain hands-on experience in the workforce with aims to keep them away from the various dangers of Chicago urban life. Many programs have downsized and have gone remote.
The program started when Real Men Charities received funding from another local Black organization for the employment of Chicago youth. With the most important guiding principle stating, “Your brain is at least as valuable as your body,” teens gather once a week to read books and discuss relevant topics, creating poetry, essays, and articles for submission to the organization’s publication The South Side Drive. The program emphasizes the importance of Black youth being valued for their ideas just as much as their talents and physical strength.
“I wanted them to know what it’s like to have their intellect valued,” says program director Obari Cartman. “There are people on the street. I can pay to carry things, but some people are paid for their ideas. Like the idea of residences– people are paid to go on retreats and write, but our youth are not used to being valued for their perspective and insights.”
While the students spend most of their time engrossed in new ideas, the second guiding principle that demands “Work should benefit your community,” has led to a plethora of opportunities for these young people to provide hope amid the pandemic. Students have organized food drives, and, most recently, hosted a community baby shower.
Teens have much autonomy in the types of work they do and the hours they choose, being paid to work from home when self-educating through documentaries, lectures, and books. When students meet in person, they receive hazard pay, double the standard rate, for their efforts. “Now, I’m excited to go home and watch stuff on YouTube and write about it for the magazine,” says Faith Webb, an 18-year old girl who came to the program hoping to grow her skills in culinary arts. “This program helped me go home and teach myself, read, and research. It taught me self-discipline. I learned more than I ever learned in school, and now I don’t want my labor to go into anything else but my people. I was working at McDonald’s, slaving, making $13 an hour. Now I’m excited to work and get paid more for something I love to do,” says Webb.
“The most impactful thing I’ve done is the community baby shower,” reports Kayla Hodge, a senior at Kenwood, with hopes to use her writing skills to shift the culture. “The events of this pandemic made it very obvious that Black people were left to deal with whatever was to come from this. With food and job insecurity, I thought it was important to bring the community together safely and help mothers, parents, and children.”
Rabang Phillips, a 22-year-old musician who attends the University of Illinois, says the most impactful thing he’s done is writing the articles. “I feel like it’s important to put the youth’s voice out there,” says Phillips.
In July’s issue, Jason Mason, a 19-year-old philosophy major at Central Michigan, wrote a creative writing piece that critiqued racial classism in America. His current writing focus is the centrality of youth in the movement for Black empowerment and ending police brutality. “I think my role is the reimagining– having the audacity to say that this whole thing is not what I want. Not just reform, but to throw out what we have and create something new,” says Mason.
“Being compensated for their ideas was important to me. I wouldn’t have done this otherwise,” says Cartman. “I noticed that some kids would not read or write unless I paid them, but I tell them that at some point they’re going to have to realize what the internal struggle is– that if this was Taco Bell, and I gave you a schedule and paid you less, you would’ve just come. At some point, they have to reckon with the fact that they don’t want to read so badly that they are willing to lose money. I wanted them to have the flexibility to create their hours, and they should know that reading and writing is worth money in this system.”
In addition to this program, Real Men Charities also hosts weekly men’s yoga, healing circles, food drives, and a host of other community service-oriented initiatives.