Latisha Thomas and I met in 2013. I was a fresh college graduate in a new city. I had lived in Chicago for less than a month when I reached out to her about volunteering for her very young non-profit. We met and had a genuine connection. She was a graduate from Columbia, a fellow artist like myself who had a passion not only for creating art but giving people the resources to develop it as well. We bonded instantly over our love for bringing the community together through arts and culture. After several years we reunited to discuss the growth of her organization, I Am We, and how it is using art as a catalyst to unite Chicago communities.
In the early 2000’s Latisha Thomas moved her and her family from their comfortable and vibrant home in a bustling Northside Chicago neighborhood to a neighborhood known as Woodlawn on Chicago’s Southside. Within that same time, she found a problem that needed to be addressed within her new community and set out to solve it. What was the problem? Unity. Latisha decided that the best way to unify her neighborhood and similar disadvantaged communities was to start an organization that focused on uniting and empowering the people, especially, “young folk” who live and dwell in the area.
Before I Am We started hitting the pavement with programming for the youth in Chicago, they asked their board of artist and educators a simple question. ‘What would our city look like if young people are heard?’ From there, they worked with their target communities to address what the wants and needs in those particular areas. They found their answer, programming, specifically STEAM( science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) based. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that “youth who have access to the arts not only graduate high school but earn a Bachelor of Arts Degree as well.” This statistic shows how vital the proper type of exposure is for students living in Chicago.
“We use art to create learning and show them how they use the fundamentals, that they thought was a hindrance and show how much they engage with it,” said Latisha. Using STEAM based programming shows youth that specific skills, like math, for instance, will be used in any career you choose, especially if it relates to art. I was one of those kids who hated math. Little did I know how many times, in my artistic endeavors that I would need to use it. Fashion designer, architect, graphic designer? You need math for all of those things.
I Am We has various programs that focus on the learning, social, and emotional competencies for the youth. The after-school programs vary from co-ed community engagement programs to digital storytelling through film. At the end of the program cycles, family and friends are not only invited to an end of the year showcase but neighbors and corporations as well. “When the community comes out to support them it makes a difference. They perform better in school, their dialogue changes when they see those seats full,” said Latisha. This type of support not only builds the bridge but builds the confidence of those participating in the programs.
I Am We is continuously driving the dialogue and engagement in the community and is continuing their efforts through various projects and programs. Imagine If is an initiative that asks youth to create a film that is not a part of their current reality. The question ‘imagine if’ is proposed, promoting discussion and a dynamic result that challenges issue at hand. I Am We recently debuted Imagine If Kids Could Be Kids, a student made a film that addressed bullying. I Am We is also working to build trusting relationships between youth and the police.
“When the community comes out to support them it makes a difference. They perform better in school, their dialogue changes when they see those seats full.”
Their recent partnership with the 18th Police District allowed students to experience an officer led meditation and yoga session, creating a stronger connection for all of those involved in the great experience. Lastly, I Am We is looking to get a space they can call their own in 2018 so that they can run and manage programs out of their space, while still having programs tied for the other communities that they serve.
I Am We is an organization that is committed to finding unique ways to engage the youth while bridging the gap between the communities in Chicago. The group is using art as a catalyst to combat violence, police reform, and educational disadvantages. They have the youth but need the community to commit to their growth and development as the next generation of community leaders. To learn more about I Am We and what you can do to create new narratives for Chicago’s youth, visit I Am We for more information on how to get involved with the organization.
Support the projects of students participating in the programs by checking out their next Imagine If the project, Imagine If Someone Stood Up For Me- The Bully Perspective. Register for the free screening here.
Want to hear more of my conversation with Latisha and the I Am We organization? Listen to our fully transparent interview below.