A radical collective of southeast-side girls is challenging the status quo and working to build a better world

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Rebel Bell Natalia Ortega, 13, with her mother and mentor, Leticia Ortega - MICHELLE KANAAR
  • Michelle Kanaar
  • Rebel Bell Natalia Ortega, 13, with her mother and mentor, Leticia Ortega

On a recent Saturday morning in Veterans Park on the far southeast side, Olga Bautista crouched on the bocce court drawing lines in the sand with a stick. Eighteen girls, ranging in age from three to 18, sat on a bench, watching. "This is Torrance Avenue," she said, pointing at the line down the middle, "and this is 95th, and over here's 100th. That's South Deering, and there's Jeffery Manor. I grew up over there." She gestured to the area south of 100th Street.

"The people in these neighborhoods used to work in the steel mills," she continued. "There were more steel mills here than anywhere else in the United States. Then the steel mills closed and people lost their jobs. They had to move in with their families. How many of you have had to live with other people besides your family?"

About half the girls raised their hands.

"Here in Veterans Park, some people moved away and other people moved in. They were black and Mexican. The people didn't like it. They said they weren't going to be safe anymore. What did you do today in the park that was fun?"

Every girl down the row gave an answer: "Running around!" "Playing cops and robbers!" "Talking with my friends."

"Do you have different kinds of fun because you're brown or black or white?"

Most of the girls were brown, black, or Latina, or in many cases, a mix of several ethnicities. None of them had noticed any differences in the way that they played.

"When I was a kid," Bautista told them, "if you were black, you were chased out of this park. Was that fair?"

"NO!"

"That's why Martin Luther King took up the campaign for civil rights," Bautista said. "You have a constitutional right to be in public places and have fun. It was a hard fight for the right for you to play here. This is why we stand up for our rights."

This short lesson is the essence of the Rebel Bells, a collective designed to teach young girls in the Calumet area about social justice and community activism in a warm and supportive environment. The group began nearly two years ago after Bautista—a 38-year-old environmental justice activist and self-described revolutionary— learned about the Radical Monarchs, a group designed to empower young girls of color in Oakland, California. At the time, the Radical Monarchs weren't ready to expand nationally, so Bautista and two other community leaders, Kristin Frank and Jade Mazon, decided to create their own group, tailored to the needs of southeast-side Chicago and northwest Indiana.

"There's a lot going on in this community that's unsaid," Mazon, 47, explains. "For instance, the environment. We're a dumping ground for chemical companies. The citizens don't know, or they're complicit."

Although the steel mills may have gone, the southeast side is still home to a wide variety of industry, and with it, industrial pollution. The residential Veterans Park neighborhood alone is adjacent to one of two controversial sites formerly used to store oily black piles of petroleum coke, an animal feed factory sued by the Illinois attorney general’s office for emitting toxic odors, and a facility used to store bulk quantities of manganese, a neurotoxin. As a board member of the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force and a member of the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Pet Coke, Bautista has helped spearhead much of the local organizing aimed at ridding the neighborhood of pollution. She hopes someday the Rebel Bells will be incorporated into the Southeast Side Environmental Task Force.

The name Rebel Bells came to the mentors one morning after Mazon had been listening to Billy Idol and they'd all had several cups of coffee. It was a good name, they decided, for strong, radical women, especially after they dropped the final "e" to signify that there's more value in being heard than being charming. Within the group, the younger girls are the Bells; when they turn 12, they become Rebels.

After seven months of planning and curriculum writing (Mazon is a former junior high school teacher), they held their first meeting in September 2015. There are about 25 members now, and while technically it's supposed to be limited to female-identified people between the ages of seven and 18, younger sisters and brothers sometimes tag along.

The Rebel Bells meet the first Saturday of every month, either at the home of one of the leaders—or mentors, as they prefer to be called—or in a church basement. Volunteer Rebels and Bells prepare breakfast and lunch and clean up. Every meeting is built around a lesson. Right now, the girls are in the middle of a three-month sequence about the Black Lives Matter movement. Last month, they visited the DuSable Museum, where they learned about racism. Of the artifacts on display, the item that stuck with them most was what one of the Bells, ten-year-old Alexandra Williams, describes as a "deformed fork" used to keep slaves from resting their heads and going to sleep. At this month's meeting, two of the Rebels, Kat West, 18, and Natalia Ortega, 13, taught a lesson on bias and institutional racism, which they devised on the bus ride home from the Climate March in Washington, D.C.

In between activities, there was a long lunch break in the park so the Bells could run off some of their excess energy—there was some discussion between the Bells and the mentors about how many juice boxes were too many—and the Rebels, exhausted by the demands of high school, tried not to fall asleep.

West knows that it's a delicate task to explain the concepts of bias and institutional racism to young brown girls, especially across such a wide age range. Some of them can already point to ways their lives have been affected by bias, even something as small as being told that black girls don't have long hair. Others are only beginning to understand. In the morning, West and Ortega set up two dolls, one pink and blond, the other darker skinned, and asked each girl to take a piece of paper with a word written on it and place it next to the doll who, in her opinion, best fit the description. The blond doll was deemed "clean," "victim," and "two parents at home," but also "angry" ("at black people," the Bell who made the decision explained) and "bully." The dark-skinned doll was "homeless" because her hair had been hacked off, but also "happy" because "she doesn't care how she looks," and "rich" because "black girls aren't usually rich." The last answer was a sign to West that at least some of the girls were aware of what the doll game was trying to do, and that they were trying to subvert it.

"It's like Natalia's mom said," West says. "We don't want you to know what it's like going through the world this way, but you have to know how to combat it."

Later in the afternoon, after lunch, West led the girls in a discussion on what it means to "matter," and played a game of charades to demonstrate different ways of letting other people know they matter.

And then a final object lesson: during the last discussion of the day, the group evaluation of the day's meeting—because, as the mentors like to say, "anything worth doing is worth evaluating"—Bautista prompted Anniyah, Asia, and Abriana Bismallah, 14, 11, and ten, respectively, to explain to everyone why they didn't eat the ham and cheese roll-ups that had been prepared for lunch.

"We can't eat pork," Anniyah mumbled. This was clearly not the first time she'd had to explain this, and it was also clear she didn’t enjoy being conspicuous for her dietary habits. But the mentors were obviously embarrassed that they had overlooked the three Muslims in the group, especially on the day when the girls were supposed to be learning how to show people that they matter, and they wanted to make it right.

"What we do here is talk about the hard things," Bautista explained to the group. "This is a space to ask questions and feel vulnerable and talk about how we feel when we feel like we don't matter."

The meeting ended as it began: with a drum circle. The girls banged on a variety of bongos and homemade drums made out of coffee cans and wood and packing tape, more or less in rhythm.

"We're ready!" they yelled. "We're coming! We're the Rebel Bells Collective!"

If you'd like to find out more about Rebel Bells and help support the group, go here.



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