UPTOWN — When the "Youth-on-Youth" summer program went on an indefinite hiatus about a decade ago, former student Darius Parker remembers feeling "devastated."
"I know how much it meant to me," said Parker, who spent every grade school summer participating in the free Uptown program taught by older kids.
Now, thanks to funding through city initiative One Summer Chicago and a partnership between local youth organization Kuumba Lynx and Uplift Community High School, 800 W. Wilson Ave., the program is back — and so is Parker. The 24-year-old college student is working as one of the mentors for the resurrected program, which operates on the idea that young people learn better from other youths.
While securing the funds to hire mentors is the main reason the program is back, addressing the needs of the community played a role as well, according to Jacinda Bullie, co-founder of Kuumba Lynx.
"The climate was right in terms of what young people were asking for," she said.
Since last week, Parker and other handpicked college-aged mentor have been teaching students in fifth- to ninth-grades traditional academic subjects like math and reading as well as performing arts, sports, spoken word and "basically whatever their hearts' desire," according to Parker, who has lived in Uptown his entire life.
All of the lesson plans are developed by the college-age mentors, who are assisted by high-school-age mentors, many of whom are former Uplift students.
Parker credits his time participating in the program as one of the main reasons he takes education seriously today.
"It made me think about education and learning differently," said Parker, who now studies journalism at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
The goal is to embrace marginalized youths and encourage kids to do more critical thinking, Bullie said.
"For some people it's like, 'You're from the hood, you have to do better.' [The program] wasn't about that,'" said Bullie, recalling the program's beginnings.
Youth-on-Youth was founded in the early '90s. Back then, it was held at various schools, including Truman College during the time residents were protesting the school's entry into the neighborhood and forcing out low-income housing, Bullie said.
"It was about embracing the community. Learning about math while also critically thinking about gentrification in Uptown or reading pieces that are not traditionally taught in the classroom," she added.
In fact, Bullie said Kuumba Lynx and Uplift High School, both established hubs in the community, owe their community-focused teaching philosophy to Youth-on-Youth.
A lot of former students like Parker are now involved in the program either as a mentor or an adult coordinator.
Bullie recalled at least one teacher who credits Youth-on-Youth as the place where she learned how to teach — even though she has gone on to get both a Master's degree and a doctorate.
Another college-age mentor, Erin Hinton, 22, said she connects with kids by including videos and activities in her lesson plans, which keeps it current and relatable.
"We're kids, too, but we're also teachers. We're learning from them and they're learning from us," said Hinton, who is a junior at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wis.
"A lot of these kids are going to high school soon, and if they can raise their hands first [when they go], I'm with that."
Similar to Bullie, Hinton said the program is not "just about staying off the streets," although she supports that message.
"You have to know something, be intellectual," she said. "It's all about how you carry yourself."
And it's not just about teaching the grade schoolers. Bullie said the program also gives the high school and college-age mentors a place to go during the summer — a time when there's "very little for them to do."
"We talk about violence prevention. We often forget that violence is not some criminal. It's really just a small decision or lack of resources or opportunity that puts our youth on that journey," she said.
Parker hopes the program "deters some of that" behavior.
"I see them start to do it and they've been around it since age 6 or 7. But Youth-on-Youth shows them a new way of life," he said.
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