The final heart-thumping, made-for-Hollywood-ending to the World Series that handed the fabled Chicago Cubs their first series win in 108 years boosted the spirits of a city thirsting for good news. Just a few days before the “loveable losers” became the nation’s best-loved winners, the city experienced yet another sad marker: 17 people were lost to gun violence in a single weekend.
If you love this city as I do, it would be easy to sink into despair over a statistic like that. But I don’t. That’s because every day, ordinary people are engaged in efforts that add to the soul of the Chicago.
One of them is the sound engineer and videographer Grant Buhr. Mr. Buhr, 37, is the creator of Story Squad, a project of the Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Office of the Y.M.C.A of Metro Chicago. Story Squad helps young people between the ages of 8 and 19 write, edit and record the stories of how violence changed their lives and how they struggle to heal. Mr. Buhr calls it narrative therapy. He says young people learn and grow through storytelling and that their stories help the rest of us “gain insights all too often missed by adults.”
Make no mistake, these narratives are tough to hear. “I was about 7 the first time I got caught in a crossfire,” says one boy. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there.”
The students express themselves in a variety of forms. In a hip-hop poem, a teen named Hakeem raps: “Did you shower last night? Was the water cold as usual?”
A young boy named DeAngelo tells of the night his mother opened their apartment door expecting a visit from friends, only to have robbers force their way in, aim a gun at her head and threaten her children. After the robbery, DeAngelo says, “I was scared to ever go back to sleep.”
In a story called “Girl A, Girl B,” 14-year-old Kayama tells of two very smart girls who both go to a school where “the teachers really don’t want to be there.” One girl is labeled “a good kid,” but the other has a bad temper and she is labeled “a poverty child.”
“Which one do you think I am?” Kayama asks. “I am both.”
She ends her essay with the warning, “Society wants you to think Girl B is a bad person who won’t have a good future. That’s not true.”
A future that is not like their present lives is something Mr. Buhr says he encourages students to envision. The storytelling project includes counseling as well.
Youths explore their emotions, learn to recognize their stress level and practice “self-anchoring skills” that he says will help them avoid committing the kind of violent acts they have witnessed. He points to studies that show 90 percent of the youths in Chicago’s Juvenile Detention Center had experienced some kind of violent trauma.
Mr. Buhr, who grew up in Minneapolis, had a promising career ahead of him as a sound engineer in Los Angeles but took a detour to help make videos of arts programs in Uganda. When he returned to the States, he studied social work at the University of Chicago. An internship led him to the Violence Prevention Office and what has become his ministry and life’s work.
Mr. Buhr says he hopes the stories the youths tell can serve as a springboard to creating the policy changes and programs sorely needed in Chicago’s most troubled neighborhoods. The people with whom students share these stories at public events, he says, are often profoundly affected.
It is perhaps because there is usually a thread of hope in each story. Despite their personal struggles, the teens remind us that Chicago is indeed a beautiful city, both structurally and in spirit. “If you demean Chicago, if you put your city in a negative light, it puts you in a negative light,” one student says in her narrative.
Story Squad is not going to end the violence, but its stories are like the luminaria at Christmastime that line the front walks of many homes in Chicago’s Latino neighborhoods. Each adds its small beam of light to the sum of light in parts of the city too often overshadowed by sorrow. “These are small individual efforts, but when taken together,” Mr. Buhr says, “they make a larger ripple in healing the pain of our city.”
You can listen to Story Squad’s young people tell their own stories at https://soundcloud.com/ysvp.