While the nation turns its attention to Ferguson, Mo., Chicago kids understand all too well the effects of violence.
As a graduate student, Rachel Switall worked to give students in now-demolished Cabrini-Green a creative outlet in which to express themselves and learn how to solve problems peacefully. Switall had students write or draw their thoughts and feelings before collecting those pieces for a black-and-white booklet she called “Peaceful Times.”
“When the kids got those back with their names in it, and they saw that they had something printed, it had such an effect on them, a positive effect, how they felt about their work and what they were doing,” Switall says. “I really just wanted to continue doing that.”
However, continuing to print student work was easier said than done. Having graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Switall no longer had the same access to schools. She also only had her own money to fund the project. After a few years working as a designer for trade magazines, Switall’s son started kindergarten, once again igniting her interest in creating a publication for students.
In December 2011, Switall created StudentsXpress, a quarterly publication that is currently sent to about 10 city schools and can be found in every branch of the Chicago Public Library. As this StudentsXpress video states, “Chicago’s youth are being killed at an alarmingly high, unacceptable rate. Young people need to know their voice matters; they can make a difference. Their views are important enough to be printed in a publication like StudentsXpress and read by thousands of their peers and adults in Chicago.”
To create an issue of StudentsXpress, Switall first decides what the theme will be and sends a prompt to her contact at each school. It is then up to each school how they distribute the prompt. Some offer extra credit while others make it required work. Some open up submissions to the entire school and others ask specific grades. Either way, pre-K to eighth grade students are encouraged to submit poetry, short stories, drawings, book and music suggestions and other pieces to be published. Once completed, each school sends submissions back to Switall, who works on designing the magazine, getting it printed and scheduling distribution.
“Each issue is about a different topic,” Switall says. “Our next one is peace. We did music; we did books; we did courage, bullying. So some of them are more serious—some are just fun. But they can really write about whatever they want.”
Students who submit work also have the opportunity to participate in StudentsXpress Speaks, an evening when students take center stage and read what they wrote to an audience.
“To see them reading their own work on stage and how excited they were to get in front of everyone and read their work was just a whole different way of looking at it,” Switall says.
While the publication has come a long way, Switall still needs financial help to keep the magazine in print. In addition to collecting submissions and designing the magazine, Switall sells ads and does marketing.
“The only thing that I really need right now, just to keep it going, is the financial,” Switall says. “Ideally, I would love to have a corporation or something sponsor the magazine and then I could focus more on the design instead of going out and just trying to keep it afloat.
“I just think the kids in Chicago really need something like this and it can really be a good thing on both sides.”
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