Ideas Day gives students the power to create change in their schools

Over the past five years, Rachel Graham has headed up the CIW YOU(th) program, which empowers and activates high school students across the city of Chicago. The youth program is an extension of Chicago Ideas’ goal to be actively involved in neighborhoods throughout Chicago. This year marks the inaugural Ideas Day, a new initiative which brings Chicago Ideas-style events into schools, organized by the CIW YOU(th) ambassadors themselves. And while it’s only now being put into practice, it’s an event that Graham has been working toward for years.

“The very first year of the youth program I had a group of kids come to me after Chicago Ideas Week and they said, ‘We think all our peers need to hear something like this, and we’d like to do a show at our school,’” said Graham, “So I brought in this idea of an Ideas Day, bringing the inspiration and the action and all these things into the schools.” This concept is now a reality, with schools from three diverse parts of the city taking part—Von Steuben Metropolitan High School in North Park, Team Englewood Community Academy in Englewood and Chicago Tech Academy in Pilsen.

Kelly Jones is the Executive Director of Community Engagement at Chicago Tech Academy—known as Chi Tech, for short. The school was founded in 2009 with the goal of enabling more women and people of color to receive degrees in the technology field. Three years into its existence, in 2012, Chi Tech underwent a structural shift, changing its curriculum to one that puts the focus on project-based learning, allowing students to work to solve specific problems over the course of a 10-week period. “Project-based learning offers a deeper connection, a deeper dive,” said Jones, but it also involves giving back to the student’s community. “Students are required to present their work to the community through exhibitions. They show the community not only what they’ve accomplished, and the knowledge they’ve acquired, but the problem they’ve solved and put on display.”

This emphasis on students being able to build something of their very own is something that Graham echoes with the Chicago Ideas youth program. With Ideas Day, CIW YOU(th) ambassadors are given the chance to lead their own projects and create their own opportunities. “Over the years, what I’ve seen is that as soon as one of our ambassadors takes any sort of leadership opportunity, you see an instant change in them,” said Graham. That feeling of inspiration is something that Ideas Day aims to inspire in kids across the city of Chicago. “I think this gives them the platform to have a voice and it makes them feel heard, when a lot of the youth in our city don’t feel heard,” said Graham.

“Often times kids have great ideas, but they’re not quite sure how to implement them,” said Jones, explaining how Ideas Day not only aligns with Chi Tech’s core values, but builds upon the pillars of each organization. “I can’t think of a better format for empowering students to give back to their own community,” said Jones of Ideas Day. On June 7, Chi Tech’s student body will usher in the first Ideas Day event, with Team Englewood and Von Steuben following suit. But these events aren’t one size fits all. They’re crafted by the students with the purpose of addressing concerns within their schools and their communities.

And as Graham notes, it’s an experience that could be recreated throughout the city. “Every one of the ambassadors in our program could be able to take this and do it in their own school,” said Graham, “And every Chicago Public School could have the tools to be able to put this on on their own.”

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