Independent Study: An Artistic Reflection

Written by Jade Riley

For my Independent Study Project, I chose to do an elaborated artistic reflection on a story I started writing three years ago, A Dilemma Born of Blood and Fire. My reason for doing so was primarily to give myself a reason to make sure I stayed up on some kind of an artistic pursuit, as being a theatre arts and creative writing double major, I have never been without a project to work on. I definitely wasn’t going to change that as I went through the program. As my time in the program has progressed, I am delighted to see what my pursuit of this reflection, and that is a novel concept that is defined more powerfully.

I say this because I have come to realize that these past few weeks have been spent asking myself a series of questions. The first of which was “How do I feel about these experiences?” Looking over my response to this question in an artistic journal that I have started, I was surprised by the answer I ended up writing for myself.

It reads:

“I feel they’ve been ice-breaking, excellent prep work to begin taking my novel to the next level, but I also still feel I have a long way to go in terms of gaining depth with it. I also feel that it has been a little bit of branching out, exploring how I want to formulate my writing projects moving forward. I do know that I want to work with real settings. I think this is because the types of fantasies that have gripped me the most as a reader or viewer. There is something powerful in choosing cities that exist and re-imagining them in a supernatural context. For me, that is my preferred way of examining the hope and hardships of our reality.

As for why Chicago is the city of this story, I don’t really know why I chose Chicago specifically anymore. I think I might’ve wanted a midwest city, and Minneapolis was taken for another story I had started. So I chose Chicago. It seemed logical to my way of just picking things.

It became a better idea as I began looking for a place to do off-campus study. I know the reason I chose Chicago over a New York term is that I needed to stay in the Midwest. I feel that I am not yet ready to leave it because I feel compelled to go no further than 8-9 hours from home in case of another family tragedy.

Now that I have been in Chicago for so many months, I feel it’s a more vital (and viable) setting because of the opportunities here. I mean, that’s why I came here, for better opportunities for myself.

I also think that because of that, it makes for a powerful setting to have my character, Sebastian, in. I mean, I think he has so much potential. He’s intelligent, but more importantly compassionate and straightforward in getting things done.

Again, how my experiences here apply to him is that he is aware of the divide between people in Chicago, and I think he is looking for a way to break that. I think this is because he had a professor like Ms. Dorothy, and also because his father is like Jason in that he explores art and dedicate his career to getting people to interact with that art.”

Going over this, especially my reflection as for why I set the story in Chicago, has made me realize just how great and diverse of an experience I have had. I have thought more deeply about the issues our nation still faces with racism today, as well as gotten a hands on experience of what it’s like to navigate Chicago due to the various readings and events I went to for classes. What this did is give me an academic framework of information and experience that I am applying with Sebastian’s background, which ended up being another huge component of my project.

Previously, I had set up some traits of his to be different, but after some feedback, I began to instead change my focus onto how I can instead use my experiences to flesh out who Sebastian is. I did this primarily through continuously asking and repeating questions about Sebastian, and explaining the answers to myself over and over to myself until they crystallized  into this character that I am so passionate to be writing about. Of course, for this to count for the project,  I am taking this brainstorming one step further by then writing down these answers in the form of notes, journal writing, and prose scenes, thus accomplishing my goal of completing an elaborate, artistic reflection for A Dilemma Born of Blood and Fire.

Chicago Perspectives

Throughout our time in Chicago, each student in the program has had their own unique experience from what they have seen, to who they talked to, and what they have done. Below are a few images provided by Kyana Bell, a student from Colorado College.

Mural in Back of the Yards.JPG
Picture captured by Kyana Bell

As an independent study, Kyana created a profile on Back of the Yards, which is one of two neighborhoods in Chicago’s official community areas called New City. New City is one of Chicago’s 77 official community areas. It is located on the southwest side of the city in the South Side district.

Back of the Yards is an industrial residential neighborhood, and the name was given to it due to it being near the former Union stock yards where thousands of European immigrants in early 20th century were employees. Life in this neighborhood is also explored in the 1906 novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

Picture captured by Kyana Bell

Above is a corporate view of Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is one of the five Great Lakes of North America and the only one located entirely within the United States. The other four Great Lakes are shared by the U.S. and Canada.

Picture captured by Kyana Bell

Above is an image captured from Willis Tower. The Willis Tower, built as and still commonly referred to as Sears Tower, is a 108-story, 1,450-foot skyscraper in Chicago.

Picture captured by Kyana Bell

Above we see an image of one of the statues known as The Monument to the Great Northern Migration, which is located in Bronzeville, a South Side Chicago neighborhood. This monument honors the six million-odd African-Americans who traveled from the South to Chicago from 1910 to 1970. The sculpture depicts a man oriented and pointing northward, suitcase in hand, his entire outfit made of the worn soles of his shoes. It’s situated at the historic entrance to Bronzeville, a neighborhood that boomed thanks to the Great Migration.

Picture captured by Kyana Bell

Above we see one of the beautiful trees in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. With so many different buildings, art pieces, and businesses, people do not always take the time to recognize and appreciate the beauty of nature within the city.

Many beautiful people, places, and art that we have yet learn about in the city of Chicago.


CPS Teacher in Little Village

Throughout this semester, I have had the honor to engage with many phenomenal individuals that care deeply about the communities that they serve. One person in particular, as they would like to remain anonymous, has decided to share their insight with us about their journey within the Chicago Public School (CPS) system, serving 5th graders for about 7.5 hours each day, 5 times a week (minimum), and navigating through the system as a second year teacher in Network 7 of Chicago.

The teacher, who was also once a student of CPS, writes:

“They definitely don’t prepare you for this in your undergrad experience” another teacher said to me. A much more seasoned—in terms of tenure and year experience—teacher who was referring to severe behavior issues among students and the inevitable teacher stress.  The copier kept copying, and I had a few quick flashbacks to days sitting in my undergrad education classes, reading literature that helped me acquire the vocabulary to understand and articulate my experiences as a student from Chicago Public Schools; these experiences were my own, and some I observed in friends, families, and teachers.

“They do and they don’t” I said. “But, going to Chicago Public Schools as my whole life has helped me understand.” The copier kept copying, and the white-middle-aged-much-more-seasoned-than-I teacher kind of smirked as if that experience was irrelevant. In reality, it is what has helped me the most these two years.

“Well, good luck.” As a second year teacher, check-ins at the copy machine usually go like this. They begin with a “so, how’s year two?” continued with some despondent griping, and end with a “well, that’s how it is.”  This despondency is understandable when sometimes the weight of missed preparation periods because of under-staffing of substitutes, furlough days, budget cuts, looming strikes, possible early end to the year, standardized testing, not having a counselor to counsel students who have dealt with trauma, and teacher evaluations weighs heavy. I definitely feel the weight too.  These struggles are so real. And, as a teacher in CPS, you need to balance these struggles while having a whopping class size of 33 children staring at you expectantly, and looking to you for guidance.  The list never ends. But, we need to find a joyous moment in every day and acknowledge at least one “win” –in ourselves and our students–in order to grow.

As a second year teacher, I constantly feel like I am building the plane while it’s in the air. And “flying” in Chicago can be full of turbulence; this is a result of corrupt leadership at the city and state levels. I have this tool box that is full of different experiences to help me construct wisely. I choose from my experiences as a student who was bounced around from 5 Chicago Public Schools, as a graduate with a Bachelor’s in Elementary Education, and as a member of Golden Apple, a teacher preparation organization in Chicago. Every single day requires different tools, different strategic maneuvering, and returning trips to the schematics when reconstruction is necessary. To be honest, it is really stressful. These first few years entail so many “firsts.” While these “firsts” are happening, the show must go on which is what makes it difficult. In order to keep going, I’ve found it necessary to find a win in each day even when the struggles seem greater. I am able to do this because of the amazing people I work with and others I have met in Little Village.

The community is strong in little village. My school, and the little Village Community, definitely work hard to stick together and empower one another. I think my school, surrounding schools, and Chicago public schools will be able to grow even more when equity is actually a word understood by those who have leadership rolls. However, public education was never meant to be a world class education for all. It was meant to educate the white male to be able to pursue work. In my opinion, teaching is heart-work, hard-work, and countering work; schools are constantly trying to counter the ramifications of unequal funding, structurally and institutionally supported poverty, and the  lack of resources that come along with this initial model of public education. I think we need to continue to move away from this model and demand equitable funding in order to thrive.

Demographics in Little Village (2015-2016 Survey):

  • Pre K-8th Grade:
    • 99.5% Hispanic
    • 0.2% White
    • 0.1% Black
    • 0% Asian
    • 0.1% American Indian
    • 0% Two or More Races
    • 0% Pacific Islander
  • Low Income: 99.3%
  • Students with Disabilities: 11.8%
    • Students that receive special education services
  • English Learners (Whose primary language is not English): 49.9%
  • People whose primary language is English: 50.1%
  • Chronically Truant Students: 15.4%
    • Students who miss 5% of school days per year without a valid excuse

Youth Incarceration in the U.S.

This semester, I had the opportunity to volunteer with and learn about an organization that allows youth that are incarcerated the exposure and platform to study performing, visual, and literary arts. Free Write students are given the platform to become the “narrators of their own stories and authors of their own futures.” Throughout the semester, I have had the opportunity to learn about the various programs Free Write provides, as well as the mediums that they utilize to spread the word about what they do.

In April, I had the opportunity to attend a Violence Prevention event at the Chicago Art Department. To kick off National Youth Violence Prevention Awareness week, they hosted a “Lessons in the Cycle,” featuring youth voices and verses on best practices in violence prevention and trauma-informed care. In partnership with UIC’s Urban Youth Trauma Center, Free Write alumni workshopped, created & performed their pieces on camera, each responding powerfully to one of five Best Practices for Violence Prevention and Trauma Intervention.

The evening featured the world premier of the five short videos, a panel discussion about the best practices, an art exhibition and performances by Free Write Arts & Literacy students and Project Fire, direct action on issues of violence, food, and much more. You can learn more about the event HERE.

Also, in April, I had the privilege of attending a Social Justice Workshop at the Oak Park Library through my volunteerism with Free Write. It consisted of various workshops through organizations utilizing literacy to engage youth in positive methods,

Below is a video of various interviews on youth incarceration in the United States, as well as peoples’ thoughts on Free Write.

To learn more about Free Write Arts & Literacy, click HERE.

CPD: Bridging the Divide

In early April, the ACM Chicago Students had the opportunity to visit the Chicago Police Department (CPD) Headquarters. We met various members of the Bridging the Divide program. From what we’ve gathered, Bridging the divide is a platform created amongst police officers and the community’s youth. According to the YMCA Metro of Chicago, “program was developed to help build understanding between youth, law enforcement officials, and other community members. Throughout the project the YMCA and community partners offered opportunities for dialogue through cafés, peace circles, and the exchange of photos and stories.”

Below you’ll see a video of the 10th District Officers participating in Bridging the Divide Peace Circle at Community Christian Alternative (CCA) Academy 1231 S. Pulaski rd. Youth and CPD interacting and working together.

Below is another video of 10th District Officer Michelle Gonzalez vs 24th ward Alderman Michael Scott JR. 10th District Bridging the Divide Obstacle Course was designed to Bridge the gap between Chicago Police Officers and the youth. About 50 youth and 8 10th district officer took part in this successful event.

Bridging the Divide, in theory, seems like a great opportunity to decrease the tension amongst police officers and the community, specifically the community’s black and brown youth. A few ACM Chicago students were hesitant to fully believe that this was a great idea. A few factors play into this, such as police officers still having their guns, and also having peace circles with those guns present.

As part of the program, audio diaries were captured from youth an Chicago police officers about their experiences within the community. You can find it by clicking HERE.

After watching the compelling stories and reflections by youth and law enforcement officers who participated in the program, I realaized that all of the characters made an impact and this opportunity provided a variety of perspective. I found it be quite thought-provoking to gain insight on people’s lives in regards to Chicago policing. It has also been frustrating because people, even learning more about these stories, still do not understand why people of color are frustrated with police. Cicatriz, one of the youth who shared her experience with Chicago Police, told us about racial profiling, and the discouragement the police left behind in reference to higher education. While they were talking to each other abut college, police officers approached them, accused them of being gang-affiliated, made them stand against a wall while they were searched, and left them with belittlement, little faith, and little hope for collegiate opportunities. She stated how they tend to believe what “higher society” believes about them. If police officers tell them that they cannot amount to anything higher and greater, beyond what they have experienced, then they may start to believe that. Police officers play a crucial role in young black and brown lives. At the end of the day, they have the choice to use their authority in whichever way they choose. I understand that both want to reach respectful terms, but that cannot happen until they, both police officers and youth, realize the situations that reality has placed them in.

It was an interesting experience to learn about the YMCA Metro of Chicago, the Bridging the Divide program, then speaking to representatives of Bridging the Divide program at the CPD Headquarters.


Chicago Jeans: Dearborn Denim

Jeans. Denim. Made in… CHICAGO? Yes. This past week, our neighborhood class provided us with the opportunity to check out a Chicago Factory that focuses on Chicago-made jeans and belts.

Dearborn Denim & Apparel’s mission is to “supply customers with the most comfortable jeans imaginable at the best price possible.” The founder’s name is Rob, and two years ago he set out on a mission to fulfill the want, and need, of providing people with better apparel brand, access to a great product, a product made the “right” way, and sold at a well-worth it price.

While at Dearborn Denim, we had the opportunity to see that jean-making-process from start to finish. It started with how the material was cut based on size the sizes people wanted, then the stitching of those cut pieces, the stitching of the pockets, the stitching of the zipper, then the loops for the belt. Afterwards, the jeans are washed, ironed, then folded and are ready for shipment/packaging. The process can be found HERE.

Dearborn Denim takes pride in comfort, fit, and price. Comfort: They have claimed to use great materials. Their denim is made West Texas long staple cotton, and loomed in Georgia at the most technologically advanced denim mill in the USA. They stretch, but are said to not stretch stretch out. They are said to be some of the most comfortable jeans to be worn. Fit: Each order has the potential to be customized to fit the length each customer/client of Dearborn Denim. They carry a wide range of waist sizes and inseams so that their customers can get the best possible fit. Price: They make everything in-house from start to finish and ship directly to you. Without the middle people, you get the best price that they can offer.

One customer writes on the review page, “Went to the factory to exchange a pair of jeans I ordered online that were too large. The staff was very friendly and they helped me find a pair that fit just perfectly. Such comfy jeans, and great to see them being manufactured here in Chicago.”

Until our trip last week to Dearborn Denim, I was not aware of a Jean Factory in the city of Chicago. We learned that their employees receive a pay between $12-$15. We also learned that they have a various jean colors as well as Dearborn Denim belts, with the option of a more patriotic style.I look forward to seeing how this business flourishes!