While many Chicagoans are unhappy when right-wing pundits or President Donald Trump cast a negative light on the city, 16-year-old Kennedy Shanks is pushing back.
The sophomore at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood founded Minorities, Speak Up! last year in an effort to use social media, the arts and activism to counter that narrative — and showcase what teenagers in Chicago are capable of.
“A lot of good people come out of the South Side of Chicago,” Kennedy said. But “all you hear about is shootings, killings, and drugs. The youth can change the narrative.”
One way she seeks to do that is through a donation drive for the homeless who need warm clothing, toiletries and other items for the winter.
Kennedy said Minorities, Speak Up! plans to bring the donations to Lower Wacker Drive and other areas where homeless congregate to distribute coats, scarves, hats, gloves and toiletries.
She said her group of 20 teens plans to reach out to as many as 1,000 homeless people.
“I hope to show that South Siders care about all parts of the city,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy, a resident of the Washington Heights neighborhood, remembers the first time she was made aware of the city’s negative image while she was on a family trip to a Nebraska water park.
She said one of her cousin’s friends asked her if Chicago is “really that bad” and if she had known someone who had been shot.
“It made me uncomfortable because that’s not the first thing I think of in the city,” Kennedy said. “I was shocked. I felt defensive because I live here. I love Chicago.”
So she formed Minorities, Speak Up! and recruited seventh and eighth-graders as well as high schoolers to join.
In addition to the clothing drive, another way the group is hoping to counter negative stereotypes is through the arts. Kennedy is writing a book of poetry she hopes to get published. And she is forming a poetry team, which recently held tryouts at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library.
“We’re in the recruiting stage. We’re getting more and more people to come in,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy writes and performs her own poetry under the name “Mis.Understood.” She co-hosts a podcast through her organization, where they discuss body positivity, racism, teen mental health and LGBTQ issues, among other topics.
Kennedy’s activism and new-found focus comes after she missed dozens of school days last year due to stress. She credits her rebound to help she received from the Schuler Scholar Program, which helps students from low-income areas and communities that have experienced disinvestment go to college by providing mentoring, counseling and other services.
“I was stressed knowing I would have to leave school, and knowing I’d be behind” in her classwork at Lindblom, one of the city’s most rigorous high schools. “After the 45 days, the program was there to pick me up. … They’ve helped me become academically and mentally OK.”
Now, Shanks is hoping to attend Howard or Hampton, two prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Since its inception, the Schuler Scholar Program has helped about 1,200 “high-achieving and underrepresented students to gain access to and succeed at highly selective colleges and beyond,” its website says.
Kennedy also got involved in a service-learning project with an organization working to remove lead from Englewood through the program.
Kari Mueller, who directs the Schuler program at Lindblom, said Kennedy has flourished in becoming a leader — a skill the program focuses on — by starting Minorities, Speak Up! and the poetry team.
“We want her to unlock her potential, which is something she’s done in her young age,” Mueller said. “Starting her nonprofit shows she just doesn’t focus on the academic part.”
Details of clothing drive
The dropoff location for the clothing and toiletries drive is at State Farm Insurance, 1813 W. 87th St. Donations are being accepted from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m-1 p.m. Saturdays. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.