Chicago Is the Land of the Listener

Introducing my nonprofit, Young Chicago Authors

Illustration: Austin MacDonald

WeWe live in a time of radical unlistening. We think while others speak, searching for a response, twitching for our phones, ready to clap back. We are awash in abstraction, generalizations, a broad brush stroke of others, a preconceived notion of their stories. We live in the lie of monolithic narratives, while in truth we are as different and distant from one another as the stars.

Tragically, ironically, Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country. Chicago has also, arguably, produced the world’s greatest listeners: Ida B. Wells reporting the horrors of the South to the deafness of the North; Upton Sinclair uncovering the inhumane conditions of the slaughterhouse at the dawn of industrialization; Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks tuning into the idiosyncrasies of a neighborhood and a people working; Studs Terkel turning the tape recorder into a megaphone of the masses.

We come from a long line of listeners—people who cared deeply about the goings-on and the specific experiences of the other, who made it their job to refrain from generalizations, in part because that would be lazy journalism (or verse-journalism, as Ms. Brooks called it) and in part because generalizations are a kind of erasure, erasure is a kind of violence, and violence is one of the tenets of white supremacy.

We erase others to live in the myth of the dominant. Israel is a land without people, for a people without land. In 1492, homeboy sailed the ocean blue…

To fight this, we have to create radically democratic spaces where we, as a people and culture, can listen. At Louder Than a Bomb, a youth poetry festival put on by my nonprofit Young Chicago Authors, we try to organize spaces for that kind of listening and understanding. Our goal is to bring together disparate and separated people to share stories and to listen to the stories of others.

Pedagogically, we try to flip the script like the brilliant Muhammad Ali. Recall the short, insightful masterpiece he recited during a press conference when someone asked for a poem, and he paused for a moment, thoughtful, and eventually uttered: “Me, We.”

In schools and community centers around the city, in every ZIP code in Chicago, we create spaces where people can tell their stories—spaces that bring together people who have historically been kept apart by red-lines and gang-lines and gerrymandered wards.

We do it because we believe everyone has something unique to contribute: the experience of time and culture in a place as unique as all the fingerprints on it. We are all historians and reverends and exuberant orators, and each piece, each perspective, grows the understanding of the massiveness, the magnificence and horror of the whole.

This is me. But I alone am an island. So we organize the mes to create small spaces inside the monstrosity of public education, places where young people can gather and be safe to whisper the most intimate, urgent, and real stories of their lives.

And then, at the end of every winter, we bring together the various groups from around Chicago to meet thousands of other mes in a space of we. There, people share, but they also listen. They listen to the we.

It is a theory of change, this listening, this ear hustle of organizing every neighborhood to tell of itself and gather each year to share what has gone down, is going down and how, ultimately, we are in it, together.

Poet, educator, curator and community builder Kevin Coval is the author of 13 books, including A People’s History of Chicago and is the Artistic Director at YCA

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