At 16 years old, Kennedy Shanks wears her confidence like a favorite sweater. She navigates the maroon hallways of Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood with an air of humor and poise, proud to have a reputation of acceptance, mentorship, and friendship within her student community. "Everyone calls me mom," Shanks says with a laugh.
The sophomore is known not only for her accepting nature and comfortable leadership style, but for her work in engaging her community through arts and activism to change the portrayal of the south side, particularly among minority youth who feel silenced by adults and society, she says. She founded Minorities, Speak Up! in October 2018, and it became an incorporated business in December 2019. She is on her way to making it a nonprofit, with the help of her parents.
Shanks was inspired to start Minorities, Speak Up! after she was bullied at school. She knew she wasn't the only one and wanted to share her experiences, find other people also going through hardship, and create a group to discuss injustices like police brutality, violence toward Black and Brown communities, and unequal treatment of other minority groups like LGBTQ people and immigrants.
"I believe that providing a platform that youth could speak about these situations or how we feel would be beneficial to getting our thoughts out there," she says.
The first wave of this has been through her podcast, Real Talk With Minorities, Speak Up!, in which Shanks—also a poet who performs under the name Mis.Understood—talks with her friends, peers, and family about issues like mental health, stress, body image, safe spaces for minorities or LGBTQ folks, and sexuality.
The second program was a form of outreach: a Christmas clothing drive. The Warm Clothes For The Less Fortunate Clothing Drive received more than 1,000 donations of coats, clothes, shoes, and toiletries, which Shanks and her family delivered on Christmas Day to more than 100 people experiencing homelessness. A portion of the items were donated to Pacific Garden Mission, a shelter serving homeless families. She says it was exactly how she envisioned spending her holiday—helping others in need.
The clothing drive and Real Talk are just two ways in which Shanks's organization is making an impact. She says she has more podcast episodes on the way in the new year, and is in the process of creating a youth poetry team and a community music group. She held auditions for her poetry team, Guilty By Truth, in December and hopes to recruit 15 to 20 middle and high schoolers. Shanks wants to create a community music group called Poets in the Park, structured like an open-mike night for adults and teens from the community to come together to share different styles of music, storytelling, and skills to learn from one another.
Shanks's leadership has become a major part of her identity, and she attributes that to the Schuler Scholar Program. The in-school college prep program provides students and their families with a dedicated support team and resources for free throughout high school and into college. For Shanks, it helped her start Minorities, Speak Up! after being exposed to poetry and comedy shows around the city. It also taught her how to be an effective leader, balance her schoolwork, and support her art.
In April 2019, Shanks had a mental health experience that led to her missing 45 days of school. During that time, Schuler Program counselors kept her up to speed on her homework, checked in with her every day, and made her feel comfortable to carry on.
"If it wasn't for Lindblom and the Schuler Program, I don't know where we would be. And what I mean by that is the support system was unbelievable," says Mary Shanks, Kennedy's mother. She and Kennedy's father, Timothy Shanks, express deep gratitude for the program and the ways in which it's allowed their daughter to grow and heal—while also helping them learn how to navigate a child's mental health.
Timothy Shanks saw a noticeable change in his daughter after one summer camp for Schuler Scholars in particular. "Kennedy was always bright and could have a conversation and be articulate, but when she came back, I had to break out the dictionary," he says with an infectious laugh. "Schuler really showed her to be a leader and from what I've seen, it really helped her grow."
For the 16-year-old, the program is more than a prestigious name and a classroom at the end of the hall. It's become her second family. Since 2001, the Lake Forest-based Schuler Scholar Program has invested nearly $100 million in the 1,450 scholars—mostly first-generation students, students of color, and low-income students—and sent them to highly selective colleges and universities. Kari Mueller, the program director at Lindblom, says much of this starts with instilling confidence in students, and then giving them evidence that they can succeed, through extracurricular trips and experiences so they can achieve their future goals.
"I think Kennedy always had the mindset of a leader and of someone successful, someone who believes she can do whatever she puts her mind to," Mueller says.
Minorities, Speak Up! has shown the founder that youth voices matter and her work is far-reaching. Kennedy Shanks says her friends have taken her lead and started to be more vocal about issues bothering them, whether it's been through her group or on their own terms. She's noticed that adults—who she felt weren't doing enough to listen to youth stories—are now more attentive and influenced by her work, which continues to be elevated using social media, word of mouth, media coverage, and through the Schuler Program.
"Before I felt like the adults are like, 'Okay, we understand, when you grow up, it'll be different,'" she says. "But now, to hear the struggles that we're going through and [that] what they're doing in the world is affecting us really reassures youth that our voices are being heard and that people are actually listening to what we have to say."
She was pleasantly surprised to find out that her podcast is not only being listened to in the U.S. but also in South Africa. And it's precisely what she wants her work to do: spread to global communities and influence minority groups of all kinds and ages.
But first, Shanks wants to include more youth here at home to bolster the organization's strength and power. While she's seen her group inspire friends and peers to join her efforts, she wants more to feel confident to speak up and be part of the cause, especially youth in south-side communities who might feel disenfranchised by political or educational systems and stigmatized by the greater country.
"We don't all have a bad message," she says. "We're all not doing bad things. Actually, [there are] people on the south side that actually want to do big things and have so many dreams, and if we get the right resources, then we can accomplish those things." v