Written by Aimee Stahlberg, Strategy and Process Manager Changing Voices

“How can I get me some real power?” That’s the ending line of Storycatchers Theatre’s current Changing Voices production. After touring for several months, members of the Changing Voices Ensemble recently discussed ways they might be able to obtain the power that the characters in their stories so desperately desire. Changing Voices Ensemble members agreed that their voices and what they share can change how they are seen and how their stories are understood. “Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the mistakes I’ve made and forget about all the difficult things I’ve had to overcome,” Deshawn W. recently shared with an audience.

These young people have often felt judged and powerless when they encountered police officers on the streets after court involvement.  A few explained, “Because of my history with the police, if they approach me my instinct is to run. I don’t know what police procedure is and I don’t know how they want me to react. I may think I’m doing the right thing, but in reality my actions can get me in more trouble.” Writing stories about positive and negative interactions with police is an important part of the Changing Voices curriculum that helps participants overcome this challenge.

Rich G., CV ensemble member, Robin Robinson and Ozivell Ecford after a show at the DuSable.

As a separate initiative, Storycatchers staff and the Chicago Police Department (CPD) have scheduled story-collecting sessions with police officers to help create positive interactions between Changing Voices participants and seasoned officers. This led to telling stories from two points of view: a Changing Voices youth and a Chicago police officer.

Storycatchers’ Changing Voices Ensemble now brings this story pairing process to the Police Academy once a month during CPD training sessions at DuSable Museum. The storytelling includes an interactive performance with CPD recruits accepting roles to play alongside Changing Voices youth on stage. Each session concludes with discussions about how both the police and the young people can take responsibility for creating change on the streets.

Recruits who participate in these trainings have not yet hit the streets nor reached probationary police officer status. They are 21-30 years old – close in age to many of the young people employed by Changing Voices. Since June, each CPD recruit class has been between 50 and 110 people.

“It’s been a good experience to work with the recruits because I get to see what they are like before they go into the field,” Deshawn W. said.

“I think it’s especially impactful because of whats going on in our communities and what we see in the news,” Rich G. added.

But the police aren’t the only high-profile organization that Changing Voices Ensemble members have had the opportunity to impact in recent months. In late September, Changing Voices performed at a Judges Conference in Springfield, Illinois.

“I was flabbergasted. Wow! I wanted to show her how good I was doing!” Deshawn said.

“I felt nervous going down there,” Jace P. said. “I did too,” Rich G. explained. “We had never performed in front of an audience with that political power before. So, we really had an opportunity to grow.”

Three of the young performers who also performed lead roles–Mikquel B., DeJon W., and Deshawn W.–all faced the judges who had sentenced them in the audience. When they realized this, the boys had strong reactions.

“I was flabbergasted. Wow! I wanted to show her how good I was doing!” Deshawn said.

“And I wanted my judge to see me doing something positive,” Mikquel added.

After the performance, DeJon and Deshawn’s judges were so moved that they both ran up and gave the boys hugs, with tears in their eyes. All of the youth expressed astonishment that their work could have such an impact.

“I was surprised and motivated,” Dejon said. The young people were overwhelmed when another judge shared with them how difficult she had found her job during the first month. She told them, “for the first two weeks, I threw up after every case because I was never sure whether I was making the right decision.”  These kinds of experiences have empowered the youth to consider what else they have the capacity to do with their voices.

One opportunity our participants are extremely excited about is working with the 18-24 year-old young men enrolled in Cook County Jail’s SAVE (Sheriff’s Anti-Violence Effort) program. The Changing Voices young people are serving as peer mentors by sharing pieces of their stories and recruiting SAVE participants to apply to Changing Voices upon release from incarceration.

“I think it helps them start to think outside the box, because we are coming from the same background and are the same age,” Rich G. observed.

“It’s been fun and a learning experience because I never thought I would be invited in to talk. They’ve been welcoming and want to hear what I’ve been through,” Deshawn added. After hearing from Storycatchers’ youth about their experiences, more than a dozen young people in SAVE filled out applications for the Changing Voices program to work with Storycatchers Theatre upon release.

Program Manager Cristina White explained, “I shared with the participants how impactful their performances and conversations were with the community. After the performances, others are encouraged to share their personal experiences. That says a lot about what these young people do.”

For many Storycatchers participants, this is the first time they are seeing the power their voices can have in the community. That’s some real power.