Metal chairs are arranged tightly in four rows of six. The shades are pulled down, but not far enough to hide the grids covering the outside of the windows of Ogden Courts, a public housing development on the near west side. A stack of manila folders, a pad of yellow legal paper, and a phone sit on the table facing the chairs. A meeting is about to begin.
The four members of the board are arranging pink and white sheets of paper alphabetically. Some of the membership are still filing in. Some are already fidgeting in their chairs. At 1:15 Gervase Bolden, the 18-year-old youth director at Ogden Courts, can wait for stragglers no longer. He opens the weekly meeting of the VIP Youth Committee.
"We need to go over the proper utensils to eat with and how to sit down at a table," Bolden says to his audience of 5- to 15-year-olds. "I think we skipped over that last time and went to self-defense."
Questions like whether to use the fork or the spoon and whether to kick or chop an attacker are not as incongruous as they sound; they're both important issues for the members of the VIP Youth committee. The committee has been in existence since May, and its logic is simple: If you spend all your free time with the Youth Committee, you have none left over for drugs and gangs.
And the committee makes sure: The rules say members who opt for drugs or gangs are out. If members come to meetings with their baseball hats turned to one side or earrings in their ears--gangs use such symbols to establish turf--they are asked to change their dress or leave.
Instead, the kids in the Youth Committee spend their time on one or more of the three activity groups they've organized. The Graffiti Busters are in charge of painting over graffitied walls. The VIP Patrol pick up garbage in the hallways and escort visitors to apartments--unless those people are drunk or drugged out. They also help elderly residents with shopping, carry their groceries and hold elevators for them, and keep an eye out for residents they know are sick. The Flower Team maintains a garden in front of the development. Pretty soon, says Bolden, the kids would rather clean up the halls or pick weeds out of the garden than be idle around the building.
Some of the kids choose between the three activities; some are involved in all of them. Members volunteer about one hour a day, usually between 4 and 7 PM, and they make up their own schedules. During the school year kids can volunteer only after they've done their homework and only if they've gone to school that day.
Once the kids have put in their hour, they are escorted back to their apartments by their group. Every Tuesday as many of the 65 members who can make it show up for the VIP Youth Committee meeting.
This particular Tuesday Bolden is talking about public speaking. "Some people get real nervous when they are speaking to a crowd," he says. More smiles and giggles and squirming from the committee membership. "You can look over them or around them. You don't have to look at them. Just so they think you're looking at them," Bolden advises.
"Now stand up and give your name and your address," he says to 11-year-old Marge Brooks. "Calm down. Relax. Are you a Graffiti Buster? Are you going to be in the Youth Choir when it starts up?"
Brooks is having trouble getting the answers out.
"You should be used to me. I'm here almost every day," says Bolden, trying to put her at ease. "Talk up so I can hear you."
Later Bolden explains, "We're getting the kids ready for the future."
A group of gang-bangers from the project tried to sabotage the committee's first meeting, in May. "They came in like they were going to join," says Bolden. But instead they sat in the back "throwing up gang signs and gang slurs" and yelling reasons why the VIP Youth Committee would never fly. "They were doing anything they could to make the kids feel uncomfortable," says Bolden.
Led by one boy who said he wanted to be freed from the nightly shooting matches that go on outside his windows, members of the committee rose and as a group told the gang-bangers to leave. Bolden then told them they could stay if they kept quiet.
One eight-year-old who had been in a gang since he was five decided to stay. He told Bolden he was tired of selling drugs. The other gang members left and haven't been back since.
Dwayne Jenkins, 12, is president of the committee, elected at one of the first meetings. "I used to fight a lot," he says. "But now everybody wants to be my friend."
Jenkins is animated as he talks about a role-playing exercise at a recent meeting. He was a security guard trying to subdue a drunken man, played by another committee member. Jenkins still remembers which pressure points to push to take a knife away from someone.
He became interested in the committee, he says, after his 20-year-old cousin tried to get him to sell cocaine. Jenkins knocked the bag out of his cousin's hand. About a month later, the cousin was shot and killed.
"The committee is making the kids come together to form groups instead of enemies," says Karen Chandler, who has two kids in the committee.
It's also making parents and kids come together. All three of the committee's groups are supervised by parents. Only the Flower Team and the VIP Youth Patrol are allowed in the lobby and outside the buildings--two places where gang violence is frequent. The VIP Youth Patrol work only the second through seventh floors unless they're escorting visitors.
"We're helping the kids to become more open about personal things and things going on with the building," said Chandler. "Even the kids who have parents on drugs--it's helping [the kids] and teaching some of the parents to leave drugs alone."
Chandler says the kids pass the information they get about drugs along to their parents. And Bolden says one parent decided to enter a drug rehabilitation program because, the parent told Bolden, "I see my child making a change, so I might as well make a change along with him."
Without question, parent participation is one of the elements that make the VIP Youth Committee work. When parents take an interest in the committee, Bolden says, they effectively send a signal to the gangs that says, "I now control my child's life." To gangs, the "tamed" kids are "uncool," he says.
Ogden Courts, like many developments, has its own resident management--the Ogden Courts Women's Organization, an all-women's group until this year--as well as its own tenant patrol. While they sometimes work with the adult groups, the kids in the VIP Youth Committee have their own responsibilities. Though the presence of the kid patrols probably discourages would-be perpetrators, Bolden says, preventing crime and breaking up fights are the adults' jobs, not the kids'.
As long as the kids stick to litter and graffiti and "remember that they should not be trying to stop crime," they will be fine, says Taya Sun, director of public safety and preventive programs for the Chicago Housing Authority. "We wouldn't let them get in a dangerous situation," says Debbie Buntyn, whose two daughters are on the committee.
Bolden would like to begin organizing Youth Committees in other developments like Rockwell Gardens, Henry Horner, and Cabrini-Green. But he says the CHA has been slow to support his efforts, that they seem to think "kids have a certain place and they shouldn't exceed that." Bolden's reply: "Kids have to voice their opinion in the same way parents do. They have gang-bangers harass them, too."
Sun says that from what she knows of the VIP Youth Committee, it is headed in the right direction. "If children don't have somewhere to go to when they say no to drugs, the whole effort will be spinning its wheels. Instead of these kids being the ones who are littering and writing graffiti, they are now the ones who are cleaning it up," she says. But the CHA "needs to look at the program further" before pouring resources into it.
At 2710 W. Ogden, the meeting continues. For reinforcement and to get more practice at public speaking, committee members are repeating the reasons why they joined the group.
"I joined the Youth Committee to stay out of gangs and drugs and learn how to stay out of fights. That's it," says one boy wearing a red-and-gray-striped T-shirt and black shorts.
"I joined the Youth Committee to stay out of drugs and trouble and to help my grades," says a girl, also standing up farther down the same row.
"Somebody tell me something that you want to see brought into the Youth Committee," says Bolden.
"Clean up the junk around the building," bellows one voice from the back row of chairs.
"Stop the fights," says another.
"What do you mean by fights?" asks Bolden.
"That's something you need to work on," replies Renee Hacket, 31, Bolden's co-organizer and a member of the Ogden Courts Women's Organization. "When you all go to school, the gangs will probably try to mess with you. We've got to keep an eye out watching everywhere we go. It's not just older people getting shot, it's younger kids, too." Hacket goes on to talk about staying away from drug dealers and handling peer pressure.
Then Bolden asks Jenkins to adjourn the meeting, and Bolden gets up to open the door. He steps back into the room, where the other members are waiting, standing. Suddenly a chorus rings out:
"I'm fired up. I'm fired up. I'm tired of it. I ain't gonna take it anymore. We've been freed. Today. Now. Freedom."
The words ring out again. Then Bolden declares the meeting officially over.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.