DOWNTOWN — Somewhere between a schoolwide recycling proposal and an ethnographic map of gentrification, Kelly Mingo held open a laptop with a video of himself rapping.
On the screen he waxed poetic about police brutality in his home community of Roseland, and next to it sat a tri-fold poster detailing a project under the heading "audio activism."
The poster was one of 50 that filled the upstairs auditorium of the Chicago Cultural Center Tuesday for the Mikva Action Civics Showcase, a summit of more than 300 students from high schools all over the city.
They had spent the school year drawing up projects in class, ranging from violence to infrastructure to traffic safety to LGBT rights, through Mikva's Democracy in Action curriculum. The Action Civics Expo, now in its 13th year, is an annual opportunity for the students to show off their work to roaming politicians and business leaders.
"The beautiful thing about this showcase is the way that the same curriculum comes out differently with each class, depending on what students wanted to change and what kind of an impact they wanted to have," said Jocelyn Broitman, director of Democracy in Action. "So we're seeing so many different projects here, but the one thing they have in common is that they involve students taking action about an issue they really care about."
The projects have seen varying degrees of impact on their communities, Broitman said, and many of them aren't finishing just because the school year is over.
"A lot of them have been talking to their aldermen, some have changed school policies ... one of them actually just got a stop sign put up," she said. "We're hoping community leaders come out and see what these students can do, so we can start to change the narrative about what a lot of people think about young people in Chicago."
Changing public perception about Chicago's neighborhoods was a priority for Mingo, one of 190 students at Julian High School who together produced 18 music videos about gang violence and police brutality.
"We really just want to get this message out that everyone should be treated equally and fairly, and if that happens then we can start to have a more peaceful situation," Mingo said. "And honestly putting together a video like this was fun — it's a good way to get your voice out there, to use your freedom of speech."
This was the second year the school made music videos for the expo, through a Democracy in Action program led by English teacher Daphne Whitington.
"It's deeply empowering for them to have their voices heard, and they learn a lot of skills along the way without realizing it," Whitington said. "They're making the beats, they're doing the editing, and they're marketing the videos after they're done."
At a school that's lost many students to gun violence, Whitington said, its most recent tragedy has made the presentation even more powerful. Three students were picking up their tuxes for Julian's prom last week when a driver pulled up and shot them, killing two.
"We just had the vigil for them yesterday, so this project has really been cathartic" for the students, Whitington said. "This is a way for people to see how devastating it's been for us, but also to see that the youth on the South Side are doing some pretty awesome things."
While Whitington and her students tried to raise awareness, students across the room from Foreman College and Career Academy in Belmont-Cragin were heavy into the process of raising money. They used Tuesday's showcase as the official kickoff of their "Raise the Turf" campaign for a $3.7 million renovation to the school's field.
By the end of the expo, Foreman student Juan Peña had new hope for the proposal's future.
"We got to talk to so many people, and they all gave us their information," Peña said, beaming as he held up a stack of business cards. "We're hoping to see some donations come in now through the site."
For Brian Whalen, a member of Mikva's board of directors with a long career in business and politics, the Foreman project is an example of Democracy in Action's ability to turn students into leaders.
"It's always easy for young people to go out and protest, but when you've got to tackle something like stopping violence or putting up a traffic light, there's a lot of scoping and planning that has to be done," Whalen said.
"So at its very best this program brings young people into the notion that you can make a real difference, but you've got to lay out a plan, not just carry a sign."
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