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Photo: Donda's House

As a native and resident of the South Side of Chicago, discussion of the police and violence is unfortunately nothing new to me. I am one of those that is proudly anti-Chiraq. I do not embrace the term in the very least. The moniker that has boomed in popularity to describe the violent landscape of Chicago’s South Side and West Side in the media and has been glorified through music videos and more. Discussion of my city in the media has been limited to negative framing, however, there has been a positive resurgence of healthy, necessary dialogue among us in our communities and neighborhoods. Even last weekend during the Fourth of July, there were no shootings in Englewood, which is historically painted as one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city.

Among several initiatives and organizations that are doing great work, Donda’s House has been responsible for inspiring me to continue to contribute my talents and gifts to my hometown. Donda’s House is named after the late Dr. Donda West, Kanye West’s mother. It is an arts education non-profit co-founded by rappers Kanye West and Che “Rhymefest” Smith. The executive director is Donnie Smith, wife of Rhymefest, 2014 Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellow and former Chicago Public Schools teacher. I completed the Fall 2013 Got Bars program, Spring 2015 Improv program taught by Second City trainers, and served as executive assistant and social media manager. I am currently involved as an alumni and volunteer with the marketing team and with other initiatives.

Michael Marantz, director and founder of Already Alive productions, reached out to Donda’s House to coordinate a screening of their latest short film “The Cycle." Marantz had previously directed the Facebook Stories mini-documentary of Donda’s House. The Cycle was created to inspire dialogue around the layers to issues of violence and how fear contributes to it.

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Photo: The Cycle Film

Donda’s House partnered with Blue1647, a Chicago tech and entrepreneurship nonprofit, and Creative Cypher, a Chicago-based network of content creators, to screen the film at Blue1647 and extend the conversation online with the hashtag #ChiBreakTheCycle. The event also served as a celebration of the “legacy of Dr. Donda West (mother of Kanye West), whose birthday was July 12th, and the upcoming 2 year Anniversary of Donda’s House (August 1, 2015)”. Representation from the local Chicago chapter of Black Lives Matter was there. Leah LaQueens, a Donda’s House alum and artist, sold “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” shirts on-site in addition to more of her original art.

Before the panel began, Matt Muse, a Donda’s House alum and artist, performed a song called “Mike Brown” from his latest EP “Matthew Musick,” which discusses the murder of Mike Brown and the sentiments surrounding police brutality. Rhymefest moderated a panel of speakers including myself, Chicago police officer Vanessa Westley, program director of Bridging the Divide, and Justin Rambert and Michael Marantz, producer and director, respectively, of the film The Cycle. Sway Calloway of Sway in the Morning and MTV, and Kelly Jackson of Over Deliver Entertainment were present as well, due to their roles as executive producers of the film. Once the panel concluded, ideas and proposed solutions were collected to be submitted to local officials and institutions including Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Police Department.
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Che “Rhymefest” Smith hosted the event and can be seen here introducing Donda’s House student Matt Muse, who performed a piece entitled “Mike Brown." Photo: Juan Anthony Images.
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Sway Calloway speaking before the screening of “The Cycle” began. Photo: Juan Anthony Images.
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Left to Right: Donnie Smith, Executive Director; Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Co-Founder speaking about Donda’s House and the legacy of Dr. Donda West. Photo: Juan Anthony Images.
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Panelists responding to questions posed by Rhymefest and the audience. (Left to right: Vanessa Westley, Chicago police officer; Justin Rambert, Producer; Kelsey Riley, author of this piece; Michael Marantz; Director.) Photo: Juan Anthony Images.
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Panelists, including Sway Calloway, the Donda’s House executive staff and Creative Cypher founder pose for a photo on the red carpet. (Left to right: Justin Rambert, Producer; Vanessa Westley, Chicago police officer; Sway Calloway, Sway In the Morning/MTV; Kelsey Riley, author of this piece; Michael Marantz, Director; Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Donda’s House; Donnie Smith, Donda’s House; Troy Pryor, Creative Cypher.) Photo: Juan Anthony Images.

While I was initially nervous to be on the panel and discuss issues that are so important and personal to me (it was my first panel discussing the Black Lives Matter movement specifically), it went well. Hearing from Officer Westley about her involvement in the “Bridging the Divide” program and their work, which is centered in restorative justice and creating safe spaces for youth, was heartwarming. I, too, have seen restorative justice at work in my involvement in local programs in Chicago and have read about how it can transform schools’ suspension rates and attendance. Listening to Michael Marantz and Justin Rambert share their perspective from behind the camera, as well as the creative process and what framed their ideas for the film itself was inspiring. While many of the questions were centered around the notion of “black-on-black” violence, myself and the other panelists were quick to dismantle that myth and note that there are several layers and institutions that contribute to fostering fear and violence in underserved communities around the country.

Interestingly enough, someone asked me, “Do police lives’ matter?” Honestly, it threw me off. But after discussion both during the panel and with other guests at the event, I realized that many reduce protesters’ work in the movement as anti-police. This narrow view of our goals in the movement to be a personal attack towards police belittles the efforts and is polarizing at best. The shootings of NYPD police officers stirred a media frenzy and showed the immense respect and value for the lives of law enforcement over black and brown bodies.

The Black Lives Matter movement is focused on dismantling systematic oppression and state-sanctioned violence against black and brown people. Our fear and respect of the police is enforced and ingrained in society. Our expectation as American citizens is that their behaviors are honest and in line with local and national policies. Over time we have learned that is not the case and has not been the case for a long time. It has been made clear that we are socialized to humble ourselves to police and admire them for their work. It is clear that police officers are agents in a system that does not value black and brown lives.

There was also a comment about the respectability of protesting and how it is concerning that youth seem to be casually protesting but still exhibiting behavior that is not in line with supposed righteous values. I made it clear that our generation of protesters is constantly challenging the respectability of protesting. I know protesters like myself who listen to trap music and are actively engaged in community organizations. There is nothing wrong with youth who are pushing themselves to use their voices. This also made me realize that there are many people who have uninformed ideas of senseless youth protesting. Protesting involves a lot of work. There is no way you can attend a protest or rally and not come away armed with more information about what you’re fighting against, a network of other young people who believe in what you believe and an invaluable experience all around. We cannot promote these myths of mindless youth engaging in protesting and organizing. If we are making false judgments about the youth that will be the future leaders of this country, we are shutting them out before we even give them a chance. In order for this country to change, for this world to change, we have to make black and brown youth feel valued and safe with all of their questions, ideas and the ways that they choose to express themselves.

Ultimately, what I gathered from the panel is that even with our varied perspectives, we all imagine a future where everyone’s humanity is valued. A future where we can walk around our communities without fear and are able to safely and constructively address our traumas. I am extremely grateful for Michael Marantz and the Already Alive team’s work with The Cycle. I look forward to continuing the conversation here in Chicago and online. In a city that has recently witnessed the outrage over the acquittal of Dante Servin in the murder of Rekia Boyd, a reparations case won for the victims of former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge and detectives, and a CIA-style “black site” in Homan Square, we certainly have a long way to go. However, participating in conversations with others in my community and various stakeholders and hearing from those who have had traumatic experiences with violence lets me know that this future we imagine can become real if our work is centered in love and healing.

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