After a successful first year of Youth-Led Tech, both Get IN Chicago and Smart Chicago made a move to expand the program to non-traditional students for 2016.  The teams added screening tools to increase recruitment of youth most at-risk of violence as opposed to other academic, health, or economic risks.  While this group of youth can be difficult to reach and serve, they possess incredible potential.  Moreover, innovative programs that combine skills and support – such as Youth-Led Tech – have illustrated great promise in impacting them.

Prior involvement in the justice system is a key risk factor for future violence involvement.  For that reason, Smart Chicago reached out to the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) about potential collaboration.  Their discussions led to a partnership with the Nancy B. Jefferson School, an alternative high school located directly in the JTDC, and the opportunity to offer Youth-Led Tech to its students.

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The mission of Jefferson Alternative is: To inspire young adolescents as they grow intellectually and developmentally in a positive, safe and multidisciplinary environment.

The Smart Chicago team worked deftly to ensure that the JTDC youth had the same experience as students in Austin, North Lawndale, and Roseland.  For example, because Jefferson students do not have internet access, making website creation initially seemed far-fetched.  But Smart Chicago found ways for students to create websites entirely offline, on an intranet system.

In July, fellow students, parents, aunts, and uncles all crowded into one of the school’s rooms for a presentation of graduate websites.  After introductions by Smart Chicago Interim Executive Director Kyla Williams and the class teachers, each student took the stage to lead the audience through the creation, vision, and content of their website. Websites covered a variety of topics, from entrepreneurship, advice, hobbies, and community investment.

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A few website examples:

  • Chicago <3: the true story of what’s happening in Chicago from someone who lives here; a way to combat the negative “Chiraq” stereotype
  • Change: advice about how to make positive change in your life and an inspiration for younger kids to make strong choices
  • Fearless Dating: a dating website where a prerequisite for registering is participating in community service
  • Shoe Game: billed as the one-stop shop for anyone looking for shoes, especially people with big feet who may be unable to find their size in stores; for every 10 pairs sold, 2 will be donated to DCFS

jefferson school youth led tech 2016During presentations, the only interruptions were cheers of support from the crowd or fellow classmates. Two students closed out the program with an original rap song reflecting on the lessons they had learned and how they’ve changed over the past few months. After the program, visitors mingled with the class over pizza and cupcakes and talked about future plans.  Upon release from the JTDC, graduates will have the opportunity to redeem the laptops they earned for program completion from Smart Chicago.  More than 40 students graduated from the Jefferson School program by the end of the summer.

Get IN Chicago Executive Director Toni Irving recently summed up the power of Youth-Led Tech for these students in an interview with Black Enterprise. “The idea is to help these young people develop the skill of self-advocacy, which is the researcher’s term for hope,” she said. “We want to strengthen these young people and give them other options.”