How Long Will I Cry: Voices of Youth Violence

How Long Will I Cry

I. Project Overviewtop

In the aftermath of the much-publicized murder of 16-year-old Derrion Albert near Fenger High School in 2009, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called for a “national conversation” on youth violence. This particular project—a unique collaboration between the Steppenwolf Theatre and DePaul University —helped explore that conversation in two different forms: a theater piece and a book. For two years, graduate and undergraduate creative-writing students at DePaul interviewed people from all over the city—including at-risk adolescents, parents, community leaders, educators, and police officers—who know the tragic consequences of youth violence first-hand. These personal narratives were the basis for the production of “How Long Will I Cry: Voices of Youth Violence” at Steppenwolf Theater, and will be published in full book form in 2013.

Key Goals:

  • Give voice to two groups that traditional media tends to overlook when covering youth violence – notably women and young people
  • Document narratives of those most impacted by community and youth violence including mothers of murdered children, community activists, and community youth
  • Develop and produce How Long Will I Cry at Steppenwolf Theater in February of 2013
  • Work with the City of Chicago to continue performances in libraries and other public forums throughout the city
  • Collaborate to edit and publish a book of these oral-history narratives to be distributed free among community groups as part of their own anti-violence efforts

II. Background, Methodology & Primary Findingstop

Background

This book began with a brutal murder, a viral video and a cup of coffee. The murder took place on Sept. 24, 2009, in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side. On that Thursday afternoon, a fight broke out between two groups of students from the nearby public high school, Christian Fenger Academy High School. There had been a shooting outside the school earlier in the day, and now tensions exploded into a wild melee near a local community center. Acting “out of impulse,” as one of the participants later put it, about 50 young people swarmed toward each other, a few of them wielding huge pieces of lumber as weapons.

Somebody slammed one of those boards into the skull of a 16-year-old named Derrion Albert; somebody else punched the honor student in the face; somebody else swung another board down on him like an ax; somebody else stomped on his head and left him to die; somebody else shot a video, laughing while he filmed. And when that video went viral on the Internet, it caused a national uproar. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described the killing as “terrifying, heartbreaking and tragic,” while Attorney General Eric Holder, who traveled to Chicago with Duncan shortly after the incident to call for a “sustained national conversation” on youth violence, claimed the murder had left an “indelible mark” on the American psyche.

I normally don’t pay much attention to the platitudes of politicians, but by that time I was beginning to realize that Derrion Albert’s death had left an indelible mark on my psyche, too. Chicago is the most racially segregated city in the country, and it’s easy for those of us who live here to think of other neighborhoods as distant planets. Before that video, I had pretty much viewed youth violence as someone else’s problem. But now I could no longer turn away. I wondered how such carnage could happen in my own city, and then I began to wonder how I could stand around and let it happen. But what was one white, middle-aged creative-writing professor supposed to do about it? What was anybody supposed to do, for that matter? The problem just seemed too big and scary and complex. Then one day I happened to have coffee with Hallie Gordon, an old friend. As the artistic and educational director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, Hallie produces plays aimed at teenage audiences. She spends a lot of time with young people, and she’s passionate about their problems. Like me, she was frustrated and angry about Derrion Albert’s death; unlike me, she had a plan. Her dream, she explained, was to produce a documentary theater piece about youth violence in Chicago, a production that would weave together the real stories of real people, told in their own words. The trouble, she said, was that she didn’t have anyone to go out and do the interviews. For me, it was one of those aha! moments. “What would you think,” I asked her, “about the possibility of my students doing those interviews?”

Our plans were modest at first, but things quickly snowballed. Before long, Hallie had not only received the enthusiastic backing of Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey, but she had also enlisted the support of other arts and cultural organizations in Chicago. The result was Now Is The Time, a citywide initiative aimed at inspiring young people to make positive change in their communities and stop youth violence and intolerance. Partner organizations eventually included the Chicago Public Library, Facing History and Ourselves, and more than 15 of Chicago’s finest theater companies. The administration at DePaul, meanwhile, proved equally enthusiastic, allowing me to set up special courses for both graduates and undergraduates and providing the project with financial and logistical support through the Irwin W. Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning, the Egan Urban Center, the Beck Research Initiative, the Vincentian Endowment Fund and other programs.

Soon my students started coming back with stories—amazing, heartbreaking, brutal, beautiful stories, far more stories than we could fit into a single play. Long before How Long Will I Cry?: Voices of Youth Violence premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre on Feb. 26, 2013, we knew we needed to collect as many of those stories as possible in a book.

Methodology

The interviews for this volume were conducted over the course of two years. While more than 900 Chicagoans were being murdered in 2011 and 2012, creative-writing students from DePaul fanned out all over the city to speak with people whose lives were directly affected by the bloodshed.

Most of the interviews lasted one or two hours, after which students took their audio recorders home and transcribed the entire session word-for-word, a hugely time-consuming task. Whenever possible, the student then went back for a second interview, attempting not just to firm up facts but to pin down whatever it was that made the participant tick, even if it was hard for that person to articulate. Often, these second interviews produced remarkable results. Young people who had denied gang involvement in the first interview, for example, opened up about their lives on the streets—and about their anxieties. Parents of victims began to talk more frankly about their murdered children. Community activists and public officials set aside their well-rehearsed talking points and spoke from their hearts.

Once the interviews were complete, students began shaping the raw transcripts into narratives for this book—a process that the legendary oral historian Studs Terkel once likened to “the way a sculptor looks at a block of stone: inside there’s a shape which he’ll find, and he’ll reveal it by chipping away with a mallet and a chisel.” Once the narratives were close to completion, we sent them to the respective interviewees for fact-checking and review. I confess that this part of our plan did not sit well with me in the beginning. Years of training and experience as a journalist had taught me that allowing a source to see a story in advance was questionable on an ethical level and often unwise on a practical one. But the students convinced me that we had a special obligation to the people who had opened their lives and hearts to us. If we were planning to present these narratives as their stories, told in their words, didn’t they deserve to have creative control over the material?

It took weeks—and in some cases, months—to track down all the people whose stories appear in the play and in the book. Many supplied vivid new details that helped make the material come alive on the page. And it’s a tribute to their courage and honesty that relatively few of them ended up asking to remove, alter or otherwise sanitize things they had said, no matter how sensitive or controversial. The material contains crude language and graphic descriptions of violence—the result of our decision not to censor the narratives. There was only one exception to this rule: protecting the safety of our subjects. Toward that end, we changed the names of several people who risked retaliation under “no snitch” codes or might otherwise be endangered by identifying themselves. In a couple of cases, other minor details have also been fudged to protect the security of certain participants. As with all of the narratives in How Long Will I Cry?, however, their stories remain faithful to the speakers’ words and have been verified to the best of our abilities.

III. Leadership Team and Community Partnerstop

DePaul University
  • Miles Harvey, Assistant Professor of English

Author of Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America (Random House, 2008), which received a 2008 Editors’ Choice award from Booklist and a best-books citation from The Chicago Tribune. His previous book, The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime (Random House), a national and international bestseller, was selected by USA Today as one of the ten best books of 2000. The recipient of a 2007-2008 Knight-Wallace fellowship at the University of Michigan and a 2004-2005 Illinois Arts Council Award for fiction, Harvey has taught at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the University of New Orleans. He currently teaches English and Creative Writing at DePaul University.

  • Molly Pim, Graduate Research Assistant

Molly Pim is a graduate student with DePaul University’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department. She is studying to receive her M.A. and received her B.A. in both English and Sociology from Central College in Pella, IA. As a graduate research assistant with Professor Miles Harvey and the How Long Will I Cry: Voices of Youth Violence project, Molly worked as a copy editor and collaborated with community partners to compile a community resource guide. She continues to work with youth in her graduate research by utilizing an intersectional approach, remaining cognizant of the multiple and converging identities of race, gender, and class and the impacts of these identities on the social positions, lives, and the identity formation of the characters within children’s literature and their readers.

Steppenwolf Theater
  • Hallie Gordon, Artistic and Educational Director – Steppenwolf for Young Adults

Hallie Gordon graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the New School for Social Research in New York City where she studied theater and theater in education. She served as Managing Director for the Atrium Theater in New York City and as Artistic Director for the Pillar Studio in Chicago. As Program Specialist with the Chicago Park District, she served as Managing Director of Theater on the Lake, as well as implementing a wide array of cultural programming throughout the city. As a theater artist, with Curious Theatre Branch she has co-directed and directed several critically acclaimed productions. Her recent directing credits for Steppenwolf for Young Adults include the world premiere of World Set Free by Bryn Magnus, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye adapted by Lydia R. Diamond and produced for Steppenwolf in 2005 and in 2006 the production transferred Off-Broadway to The New Victory. She is currently serving as Artistic Director for The Chicago Park District’s Theater on the Lake and is on the board of ASSITEJ/USA – The United States Center for the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People.

  • Kelli Simpkins, Artistic Consultant

Ms. Simpkins appeared in the national tour of The Laramie Project: Epilogue. Current and upcoming projects include How Long Will I Cry: Voices of Youth Violence (artistic consultant) at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and productions of Casa Cushman, Spill and Apology. She directed and co-wrote Good Death, an original verbatim play at Western Michigan University. Her film and television credits include A League of Their Own, Chasing Amy, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and The Laramie Project (Emmy nomination for Ensemble Writing.) She is an artistic associate at About Face Theatre and a company member of Tectonic Theater Project in New York City.

  • Eward F. Torres, Director

Mr. Torres has a BA in theater from Roosevelt University in Chicago and an MFA in film from Columbia College Chicago. He serves on the Illinois Arts Council, and has served on the National Endowment for the Arts Theater Panel (2005 – 2007) and on the MAP Fund Theatre Panel (2008). Mr. Torres has collaborated with the Goodman on Fish Men (Jeff nominated, Best Production Mid Size 2012) during the 2011/2012 Season. He directed the world premiere of Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity at Victory Gardens Theater (produced in association with Teatro Vista) which was named Best Play of 2009 by the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Time Out Chicago, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and earned Jeff awards for Best Production and Best Director. He also directed subsequent productions off Broadway at New York’s Second Stage Theatre (2010 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play and Obie Award for Best Play), and at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles to critical acclaim.

  • Megan Shauchman, Dramaturge

Megan Shuchman currently serves as Education Manager at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. As a freelance director and dramaturg, she has worked for such companies as Goodman Theatre, Northlight Theatre, TimeLine Theatre Company, American Theater Company, 16th Street Theater, Chicago Dramatists, Lifeline Theatre, XIII Pocket, 2nd Story and the side project theatre company. Megan formerly served as Northlight Theatre’s Associate Director of Arts Education and acted as Curator of the New Play Reading Series at Around the Coyote Art Gallery from 2006-2009. Before moving to Chicago in 2006, Megan was an executive member of the Prison Creative Arts Project, producing plays in prisons and juvenile detention centers around southeastern Michigan. She remains an active member of PCAP’s Associates Board and is a leader of the Chicago chapter. Megan received a BA in Theatre with a focus on directing from the University of Michigan.

 

IV. Funding & Sponsorstop

The William and Irene Beck Foundation

The William and Irene Beck Foundation is a long time sponsor of the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender and Community and provides generous financial support for community based research and special projects, graduate assistantships, the faculty fellowship program, and other underwriting. The Foundation was a generous supporter of the Women’s Working Lives project.

About

The William and Irene Beck Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation that provides grants, contributions, and in-kind services to other not-for-profit organizations with 501(C)3 status. It is a family foundation committed to helping programs that work against discrimination, particularly related to racism and sexism. Its primary foci are directed toward those with financial needs by providing program support and educational opportunities for low-income youth, children, as well as opportunities for job-related training for adults.

The foundation is intended to act as a catalyst for change, and supports innovative ideas, plans, and projects; it takes a pro-active part in the prevention of further problems. Its board and family members participate in as well as contribute to programs involving education, youth, and the disadvantaged. The foundation seeks to ally itself with activities and organizations which reach out to those who most need help.

DePaul University – Vincentian Endowment Fund

The Vincentian Endowment Fund was established in 1992 by a gift from the Vincentian Fathers and Brothers who sponsor the University. The VEF generously provided funding for the Teen Girls Re-Vision East Rogers Park project.

About

The endowment seeks to assist the university in its developing understanding of how, as an institution of higher education informed by the vision of Vincent de Paul, it is to be Catholic as it enters its second century. This assistance will be achieved through funding appropriate grant projects that directly enhance the identity of DePaul University as a Catholic, Vincentian and urban university with special attention to the Catholic and Vincentian aspects of this identity.

Irwin W. Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning and Community Service Studies

The Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning was founded in order to integrate the service concept into the university’s curricula; the Steans Center is also an ongoing partner of the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender and Community and co-sponsors many of its programs and projects. At the center of the Steans Center’s mission is a commitment to foster, through higher education, a deep respect for the dignity of all persons and to instill in students a dedication to service to others. Not only has the Steans Center supported the work of the BRI financially, but it has also been instrumental in assisting and supporting the integration of service-learning pedagogy into our work.

About

The Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning provides educational opportunities grounded in Vincentian community values to DePaul students. The Center seeks to develop mutually beneficial, reciprocal relationships with community organizations in order to develop 
a sense of social agency in students through enrollment in CbSL courses, community internships and placements, and community-based student employment.

Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity

The Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity actualizes DePaul’s Catholic, Vincentian, and Urban character by insuring respect, inclusion, and equity, for all members of our community.

Our vision is to achieve a truly diverse environment that reflects our collective values. Our work, programs, and initiatives will reflect this commitment to promoting change, equal opportunity, social justice, celebrating and fostering diversity, the recruitment and retention of diverse constituencies, and building a community that values and respects the differences and commonalities that each and every individual brings to DePaul. We will continue to strive to prepare our community to effectively navigate the opportunities and challenges of Chicago and beyond.

The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation

The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, founded in 1983 and as a family foundation in 1992, benefits individuals and communities primarily by supporting the preservation and enhancement of the built and natural environments through historic preservation, encouragement of quality architectural and landscape design, and conserving open space. The Foundation also supports the performing and visual arts, investigative reporting and government accountability and makes grants to organizations that provide opportunities for working families who remain poor.

V. Publications and Researchtop