A house of art offers inner-city youth a creative out

**This article first appeared at chicago-bureau.org on June 3rd, 2013**

In a two-story brick residence in Humboldt Park, three teen artists sit around a table discussing their plans for an original neighborhood mixtape. There’s a tripod and a can of spray paint on the table, as well as a pile of paperwork, including grant proposals. The walls are covered in painted portraits.

Miguel Rodriguez, founder of the Graffiti Zone, sitting outside the program's home

Miguel Rodriguez, director of the Graffiti Zone, sitting outside the program’s home/Photo by Samantha Caiola

When these three turn 18, they’ll have the opportunity to live in this house as part of Graffiti Zone’s Artist-in-Residence program, which pays young artists a weekly stipend to hone their passions and, they hope, beautify a neighborhood too often making headlines for its violence.

The teens – currently ages 16 to 17 – were commissioned to the house by Miguel Rodriguez, who at 20 is the director of Graffiti Zone, a Chicago nonprofit that helps at-risk teens express their talents. His teaching, though structured, allows boys and girls as young as 8 years old to experiment freely with such alternative mediums as graffiti, sound mixing and slam poetry.

Rodriguez understands troubled youths’ need for self expression. At just 13, he turned to graffiti in order to out his frustration with the chaos of city life and a lack of family support. Mostly using spray paint – something that strictly regulated in this city because of the gang life associated with it and the millions spent by City Hall to remove it time and again – he scrawled on walls throughout Humboldt Park.

It was a short career, and one that ended with a bust by the cops for criminal defacement of public property – for which he was locked up in Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center for a week.

“Graffiti really communicates that we have a lot of youth out here who are really passionate about what they’re doing, to the point that they’re willing to get arrested for it,” he said. “It also speaks to them saying to the world I’m here. I exist. I live in this community. That’s the most basic thought that goes through a graffiti writer.”

After his brief stint in locked up, Rodriguez joined Graffiiti Zone and other programs like Kuumba Lynx, a non-profit that empowers youth through hip hop – where mentors started to call him an “artist.” The title took. No longer was his work dismissed as criminal; it was encouraged and embraced. Just like that, he was more than just a kid who wrote on walls. He learned techniques of graffiti writing, such as making block letters, bubble letters and wildstyle, as well as creating personal portraits.

After that, he started bringing spray paint and canvas to block parties around Humboldt Park and teach youth about primary colors and get them involved with Graffiti Zone in an effort to keep them out of street life. Now, he uses the same methods in the after-school classes he teaches at Cameron Elementary School and West Town Academy.

Last summer, Graffiti Zone created eight murals in and around Humboldt Park on walls that were donated by local businesses. The murals, which are vibrant, and express themes like peace, love and friendship, have received only positive feedback from the community, Rodriguez said. No RIP stains scribbled to honor slain gang members in a city so warped by shootings and murders it has drawn international attention.

The door to West Side Chicago church donated to Graffiti Zone/Photo by Samantha Caiola

The door to West Side Chicago church donated to Graffiti Zone/Photo by Samantha Caiola

“There’s no reason for you to go out there and write on walls when we have space for you to do it,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not going to be worth it for you to get arrested- on your side or the community side.”

Rodriguez, like many grass-roots leaders working in alternative art forms, struggles with the inaccessibility of government funding. He currently runs Graffiti Zone on private grants rather than city money, which is tough to get because of the small pool and the large number of artists reaching for their share.

“It’s been hard to balance offering programming and dedicating time to write grants,” he said. “I’m sure the money is there. It’s all about how to get it and really having the connections and sitting at these meetings when the decision makers are at the table and making sure we’re at the table.”

Last year, the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs awarded cultural arts grants to 522 profit and non-profit organizations as well as individual artists, said Allyson Esposito, director of the grants program. Of those grants, only 25 were in the form of project-specific funding for organizations with robust programs for the elderly, children, people with disabilities, or low-income people, Esposito said. These organizations received between $8,000 and $15,000, with a few getting $25,000.

Esposito said she believes that art education for youth is important, and needs to be more prominent than it is right now.

“Youth is the audience that absolutely should be reached,” she said. “In our city there are areas that have more arts education than others…involving youth in after school and out of school intervention keeps them engaged and pairs them in meaningful relationships with adults. Allowing them creative expression can lead to less violence.”

More commonly, the grants go to more established, more structured programs like The Merit School of Music’s Communidad strings program. The Merit School, a large conservatory in Pilsen offers subsidized musical training to students of diverse economic and racial backgrounds.

The strings program follows the Suzuki method of music and has a very strict student and parent attendance policy, which instructor Lesley McCool said causes some students to drop out preemptively if they are not completely engaged.

“The difficulty with string playing is that it takes a very long time just to get the basics set up,” she said. “It takes a few years to really develop ones own voice, because they need to be technically proficient to do so. But it will lead to personal expression in the future.”

When it comes to music, Graffiti Zone affords a lot more creative license to its participants. The organization hosted an open mic on Wednesday at a community church, where neighbourhood youth were able to perform music and poetry and display visual works.

One of Graffiti Zone’s musical artists, Destiny De la Vaya, is a 16-year-old Clemente High School student on Chicago’s heavily Hispanic near West Side who appreciates creative license. A lover of music and signing, she did not participate in the school choir. Instead, she works with her friends to record covers and put them on YouTube.

“It’s really hard to get your name out there,” De la Vaya said. “I want to be seen everywhere. The school has a talent show at the end of every year, but that’s about it.”

Ulysses Diaz, a Chicago-area visual artist and counselor at Waubonsee Community College, which is in Aurora, said individual expression is key for organized art programs that target at-risk youth.

“It’s important with young artists to allow them to explore without any rules,” Diaz said. ”If there would’ve been some type of structure that an organization wanted to follow, it would take away from the authenticity of the artist and the ownership that the young people feel they’re contributing. Which to me is the main piece. To think you can give something that someone can look at and connect to.”

He said that he was an introvert who enjoyed working alone, but was able to find community with Youth Struggling for Survival, a now-retired youth empowerment organization. Louis J. Rodriguez, founder of the organization and author of the novel “Rushing Waters, Rising Dreams: How the Arts are Transforming a Community,” said he founded YSS from the ground up, starting with a basement in Humboldt Park, in order to give underserved youth an outlet for hip hop and slam poetry.

“Presently, too much art (and arts funding) is being concentrated in museums, orchestras, tourists spots and removed from poor urban communities,” he said.

But despite the roadblocks, Miguel Rodriguez and Graffiti Zone continue to carry the banner (and the canvas) for urban graffiti artists, music producers hip hop dancers and slam poets. He hopes to participate in the Humboldt Park Arts Festival and create many more murals this coming summer.

“Using the arts as a way of self discovery and building identity and leadership, as well as being able to put some money in their pockets, can be the substitute for wanting to join gangs,” said Rodriguez. “It’s a whole identity and sustainability issue. It’s an alternative to having to get your hands dirty with drug money.”

A mural created by members of the Graffiti Zone, working with Rodriguez/Photo by Samantha Caiola


Stroger Clinic Opens for LGBT Youth

**This article originally appeared on windycitymediagroup.com on May 7, 2013

John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County is now home to an LGBT clinic.The Same-Gender Loving (SGL) Clinic at Stroger opened Feb. 1 and has been providing weekly care for uninsured and underinsured LGBT youth since.

SGL is one of three county-funded clinics serving teens ages 13-24, but it’s the first and only to cater specifically to the needs of the LGBT community.

At the clinic, which operates between 1-5 p.m. on Tuesdays, youth can drop in for general health services like those offered at the other two adolescent clinics. They can also meet with a physician or psychiatrist to receive counseling on sexuality, gender identity, hormone therapy, safer sex or a slew of other topics.

Dr. Margo Bell, a senior attending physician in the Division of Adolescent Medicine, who encountered many uninsured LGBT teens while doing outreach work on the South and West Sides, first conceived of the clinic.

With the help of colleague Dr. Lisa Henry-Reid, Bell got the pediatrics department chair to quickly approve the new clinic to supplement the general clinic and the HIV clinics that run on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The new clinic is funded entirely by Cook County and is staffed by three rotating physicians as well as two psychologists and a health educator.

“We’re skilled in taking care of this population of adolescent young adults,” said Henry-Reid. “We provide very developmentally appropriate care, and we can do that in a setting where you’re not going to be judged. We’re all about making sure that you’re healthy and trying to promote that in whatever way we can—by the tests that we do, by the education we provide.”

An average of three youth visit the SGL clinic each Tuesday, said Bell. Most, who are over 18 or are with a consenting adult, are seeking mental health services and hormone treatment.

Charlie Person, a 16-year-old transgender female from the North Side, started visiting the clinic about six months ago to learn more about transitioning, which she had only read about on the Internet. A few weeks ago, Person brought her mom, Deborah Person, into the clinic to try to educate her on transgender issues and ask approval for hormone treatment.

Deborah, who knew little about transgender issues before that visit, said the announcement was a little shock to her. It has been accompanied by some conflict over whether her child should be wearing female clothing.

But many conversations with Bell, have made her more sensitive to Charlie’s needs, and she will consider hormone therapy for the future.

“The clinic is very informative, very patient, giving you all kind of literature and information, opening questions,” said Deborah, who still uses male pronouns for Charlie. “My position is loving him unconditionally, letting him accept who he is and not letting society dictate to him who he is. And that he lives comfortable within himself as well as outside, and be productive in society as he does this transformation.”

Charlie is more at ease in the SGL clinic than at a standard clinic, she said.

“It’s important because a lot of people don’t have anywhere to go to take hormones, or a lot of people don’t feel comfortable going anywhere else,” said Charlie. “They treat you how you want to be treated and they comfort you and make you feel welcome more than any other clinic you go to.”

The only hurdle in running the clinic so far, said Bell, has been establishing a gender-neutral bathroom on the floor, which took a fair amount of paperwork and debate.

Future plans for the clinic include hiring a caseworker for visiting adolescents, which would require grant money. Plans also include further engagement with the lesbian community through a weekly lunchtime meeting.

Opening an LGBT clinic on the West Side was important, said Henry-Reid. Bigger LGBT centers like Howard Brown Health Center and the Center on Halstead (which does not provide medical services) can be geographically inconvenient for underprivileged youth in other parts of the city. Most youth travel to the clinic by public transport, she said, and some money is available to help them with travel if needed.

The clinic is also unique in its level of cultural competency and sensitivity toward LGBT issues. Henry-Reid and Bell have led trainings with nursing staff and residents on LGBT health issues, especially transgender issues.

Stroger LGBT Clinic to Serve Detained Youth

**This article originally appeared on windycitymediagroup.com on June 6, 2013

At the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, gender matters. It determines where inmates sleep, where they take meals and what they do for gym class. Most importantly, it determines what kind of healthcare they receive while in confinement.

While this used to be problematic for LGBT residents, center officials say a new collaboration between the center and the pediatric department at Stroger Hospital could lead to more pointed and culturally competent care for incarcerated youth across the gender spectrum.

The Same-Gender Loving (SGL) Clinic at the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County opened Feb. 1, providing LGBTQ detained youth with access to affirming care.

This level cultural competency may not always be present in the Juvenile Detention Center, but the staff is becoming more educated all the time, said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, medical director for the center.

Over the past year, detention center staff have undergone hours of training to learn how to place transgender individuals in the way that will be most comfortable for them, rather than the “one-size-fits-all” policy that was in place before.

When youth arrive at the detention center, they receive a medical exam in their first two hours. For the rest of their time, which can be anywhere from a few days to a few years, they receive weekly care at the clinic, staffed by Bell and two other Stroger physicians.

Dr. Margot Bell a senior attending physician in the Division of Adolescent Medicine, conceived of the clinic.

If Bell or Ngozi sees that a youth has a problem that may be better suited for care at the SGL clinic, they can arrange for an appointment back at Stroger. There’s a precedent for that, Ngozi said, as inmates have been to the other adolescent clinics in the past. Though youth from the center have not yet been taken to the clinic, both physicians see it as a possibility for the future.

“Dr. Bell—she’s almost like a human conduit,” said Ezike. “It’s very seamless. They’ll easily give us an appointment to accommodate our kids from here. That’s a pretty strong and well-established connection.”

One of the biggest issues with caring for incarcerated transgender youth is sorting out their hormone treatment, said Ezike. The youth in the center are mostly under the age of 18, so they cannot receive hormones without parental consent. Some youth come in already on a hormone treatment that they bought on the street or on the internet, but Ezike cannot continue that treatment without getting guardian consent. If inmates can get parental consent, Ezike could bring them over to the SGL clinic to start or continue on hormones. Beyond hormones, Bell and Ried said they can help youth from the center with LGBT-specific mental health issues.

“Because we still have a presence there, we started having a conversation about partnering to make the whole of the county system more LGBT-friendly in terms of providing care for youth, and that’s how we got tied in together,” said Bell.