Wakanda Where You Are

Safe & Peaceful grantee FOUS Youth Development helps kids be superheroes for their community

A couple of Wonder Women, a Black Panther or two, and a fairy ladybug decided to stand up against violence in their community.

Their wings and weapons may have been fabric and costumes, but nonetheless, the children participating in the 4 Us Youth Development (FOUS) “Everyone is a Hero” program actively sought to better their community through fellowship and artwork.

“Kids and other grown-ups die every day,” says Shamayra, a 13-year-old involved in planning “Everyone is a Hero” day. “So me and my team decided to do a black lives matter-type event and let people know that everyone needs to be treated equally. And we have the right to do what other kids do.”

When FOUS founder Annette Kelly received her Safe & Peaceful Chicago grant, she immediately began crafting “Everyone is A Hero” for rollout at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. The program, held at West Pullman’s Edward White Elementary Career Academy (with whom FOUS has an ongoing partnership), focused on teaching youth that they have the power to combat violence in their neighborhood.

Central to the program were 26 essays written by students in grades 4-8 that explained how they would help their community if they were a superhero. In reading these stories, Annette “realized that there is so much trauma in our young people’s lives, and sometimes when I see them acting out, I know it’s not even about what happened with another student; I know it’s because of something that has happened in their lives” she says.

“Everyone is a Hero [day] sort of gave them the opportunity to think about and put on paper what they wanted for their community,” she added. “Young people should believe that their events, their schools, their community matters.”

Annette wanted the students to feel empowered in identifying actions they could take to make their communities better, so she had them participate in as much of the program’s creation as possible. In addition to writing essays, the students created two stations that spread across the school’s gym. One section, titled “We Will Know Their Purpose,” included heart cutouts that symbolized people who had been lost to gun violence in the community; the other section was an art wall that displayed the students’ anti-violence mission.

After the FOUS youth completed the display, Annette opened the gym to the rest of the school, giving the students a chance to share their work with others to promote inclusivity and, according 11-year-old Deja, make them feel happy to have participated.

“I’m happy that I’m here because people always say I should grow up to write a book. So if I know I can write a whole essay, or a whole page, then I know I can write a book,” Deja says. “There’s something about this school that makes me feel like I belong here, like now I have a school that makes me feel worthy.”

These moments inspire Annette, who founded FOUS after 20 years in corporate America (banking). For her, programs like hers are simply revolutionary — a structured extracurricular program that allows youth to develop their voices and gives them agency to make the changes they desire. Looking forward, Annette hopes to continue working with and within schools before expanding the scope of her work to the city at-large.

“We always say that young people are the future, but that’s so hypocritical. When I think about the state of Illinois and the funding issues, and local, underfunded, under-resourced schools…we’re not investing in them,” she says.