It has been four months since Matt Damon came to school, and though the buzz is gone the bell still rings. Thirty sophomores file into Room 324 at TEAM Englewood Community Academy in the heart of one of the city's most beleaguered neighborhoods. Many of these children know people who have been robbed or wounded by gunfire. A few have had a family member who was murdered.
"Their lives are tough, but they are amazingly resilient," says their teacher, Missy Hughes. "What is frustrating for all of us is that we know what people think when they hear 'Englewood,' and that is gang violence and poverty. There is a judgment placed on them and their community."
At 11:20 a.m. the kids settle into desks for sixth period, which will last until the next bell rings at 11:59. In that 39 minutes they will hear prize-winning poet Malcolm London, only a few years older than they are, read the words of slain Chicago activist Fred Hampton, from a speech he gave shortly before he was killed in a police/FBI raid in 1969, months after his 21st birthday.
Among those words are these: "We got to face some facts. The masses are poor. The masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I'm talking about the white masses, I'm talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too."
The children listen, rapt, and then are told by Hughes to write responses to what they've just heard, guided in the exercise by London and by Kevin Coval, a slightly older poet/teacher of great note and the head of Young Chicago Authors, a literacy organization working in the schools.
This is all part of a bold experiment that began in September and was highlighted by a visit to the school by Damon, who came to observe, perhaps inspire and raise some money. He was only here for one day, but the project has continued in quiet fashion, culminating Thursday night at an event billed as "Englewood Speaks."
Damon is deeply committed to this effort, orchestrated by an organization called Voices of a People's History (peopleshistory.us), based on the work of author/activist/teacher Howard Zinn, in particular his influential book, 1980's "A People's History of the United States." This and many of his other books detail the country's history through the words of people one does not ordinarily encounter in conventional academic texts.
The Brooklyn-based nonprofit Voices has been around since 2007, offering educational and performance programs. It has staged more than 80 performances in nearly 20 states.
In the fall it began to provide the first of what is hoped will be thousands of teachers across the country with tool kits comprising reading materials and curricula, a video, and ideas for in-class activities and group projects.
"We are not telling teachers how to use the materials," says Voices of a People's History Executive Director Brenda Coughlin. "They can fit the materials into the curriculum in any way they choose to. The idea is to entertain, enlighten and educate, to allow students to see that history isn't just in books, that it is there, alive, in front of them."
The very first school, the first class, to receive a tool kit was Hughes' at TEAM Englewood.
Damon, Zinn and Englewood
Hughes has devoted 16 days during this school year to the project. The rest of the time, the kids have read novels, poems and memoirs; analyzed texts through annotations, connections and guided questions; practiced skills … all part of a unit on the immigrant experience.
The highlight for 10 of Hughes' students came Jan. 31, when Damon came to school.
Fueling the thrill was the presence of Lupe Fiasco, the rapper, record producer, entrepreneur, activist and native of the city's West Side. He and Damon were joined by friends, people helping fund the overall Voices effort, the school principal and a security guard. Noticeable by their absence were TV crews.
Now, many celebrities lend their names to various causes, and some have good intentions. U2'sBono speaks out on debt relief for African nations and AIDS awareness. Pamela Anderson is a vocal PETA supporter and anti-fur voice. Jim Belushi tell us of the dangers of gout. They mostly do this in front of cameras and the eager pens of the press.
But this was different. Though Damon would be making a public appearance later on that January day, part of "The People Speak Live!" at Metro — featuring Coval, Fiasco, London, other local actors, poets, activists and myself — the rest of his visit was under the media radar.
For about an hour he and Fiasco talked about Zinn. The kids had already seen "The People Speak," the 2008 documentary co-produced by Damon and featuring such performers as Bruce Springsteen, Marisa Tomei, Morgan Freeman, Bob Dylan and Danny Glover.
"Watching the film made the kids think, 'Hey, if these famous person care about the material, I am going to look a little deeper, figure out why they got involved,'" says Hughes.
London and Coval spoke; Young Chicago Authors is collaborating with the Voices efforts in Chicago.
All of the 10 students from Hughes' class chosen to participate in this gathering spoke at length, mostly detailing things about themselves, their families and their neighborhood.
Later that day, before the performance at Metro, Damon said: "That meeting at the school this morning was phenomenal. I did not know what to expect. I had never been to that neighborhood before. But hearing the kids talk, I could feel their excitement. They were empowered."
At Metro, Damon was first to speak on stage in front of a packed house. He spoke Zinn's words: "I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong. That the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people out of jail. That the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power."
This event, commonly referred to as "the Matt Damon thing," was a sold-out-in-minutes benefit to raise funds to support Voices.
The name Howard Zinn may not have meant much to those in the crowd, but Zinn has long been important to Damon. When the actor was 5 years old, he and his school teacher mother moved into the house next door to Zinn's in the Boston suburb of Cambridge. When Damon was 10, he took a copy of Zinn's recently published "People's History" to school on Columbus Day to read about the dark side of Columbus' story to a shocked group of kids.
"The book's been a part of my life since then," Damon said in January.
In "Good Will Hunting,"the 1997 film that launched the actor's career (and won him an Oscar for the screenplay he co-wrote with Ben Affleck), Damon's arrogant young genius character snaps angrily at his psychiatrist (Robin Williams) for "surrounding yourself with all the wrong … books. You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn's 'People's History of the United States.' That book'll … knock you on your ass."
Damon narrated a 2004 biographical documentary, "Howard Zinn: You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train." He and his co-producers spent 10 years trying to get "The People Speak" documentary made.
Zinn died in 2010 at 87, but "he would love what we are doing in Chicago," Damon said.
'The work goes on'
After the Metro event, Damon flew back home to his wife and four kids in Manhattan.
"Matt knows very well, as does Lupe, that their celebrity is one of the things that can bring people in the door," says Coughlin. "But that's just the start. The work goes on."
After the Metro event, the Englewood kids in the crowd went back to their homes and to Hughes' classroom.
She has been teaching for nearly a decade in the Chicago public school system, the last five at TEAM Englewood. In addition, she and co-worker Dave Stieber have for four years coached the student poetry team — "It builds a community and gives students a voice" — that competes in the annual Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry competition founded by Coval in 2001.
"Excited and reflective is how I feel," Hughes said last week. "This Voices program is so powerful. Providing the curriculum and texts is so helpful for busy teachers. For my students, they have really seen the connections between the struggles they face now and the struggles of those before them. I can now think of things I might have done differently to make the project bigger. I have lots of suggestions for the schools who carry on the tradition, but it has been a great experience for our school and for me as a teacher."
And the work goes on.
"When we first began to dream about Voices of a People's History Chicago, we hoped it would inspire amazing educators and young people to engage in their own learning and add their voices," says Mariah Neuroth, the director of the Voices Chicago pilot project. "We have been so moved by the overwhelming response. More than 600 teachers here are already using the tool kits in their classrooms. The students at TEAM Englewood have taken their roles so seriously and enthusiastically."
The Englewood kids have a lot to say, and here is some of what they told Damon the day he came to school in January: "I learned that everybody has a voice"; "You don't have to be rich and famous to make a difference"; "We are all part of a community"; "You can learn things about yourself from history"; "Englewood is not all bad. There are good people and good stories here."
They also wrote him a thank-you note.
"The note said, 'Thank you for coming to our neighborhood and not being scared,'" says Hughes. "These kids are aware of how people view this neighborhood and therefore view them."
Some of those kids will be onstage Thursday night when "Englewood Speaks" happens at 6 p.m.
"It is easy to dismiss communities like Englewood, to believe the lie that the kids here are not all of our kids, that the problems here are not all of our problems," Hughes says. "I want community members to attend the show, but I hope people from all over the city come to see some of the amazing young people in this community. It will expand preconceived notions of who and what Englewood is."
The show takes place at the school, at 6201 S. Stewart Ave. It is free and open to the public.
"Yes, I have a career and a family, but this is such a real and important part of my life," Damon said. "It is bigger than me, bigger than all of us. Howard said, 'Democracy does not come from the top. It comes from the bottom.' My hope is that what we have started in Chicago will become a living thing."
Hear from impresario Bob Swan, authors Peter Nolan and Jodee Blanco, and the music of female Chicago among other topics, on "The Sunday Papers With Rick Kogan," 6:30-9 a.m. Sunday on WGN-AM 720.
"Chicago Live!" is hosted by Kogan and takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday at the UP Comedy Club, 230 W. North Ave., with, among many guests, chef Bruce Sherman. To see highlights from previous seasons and get tickets, go to chicagolive.com
6 p.m. Thursday
TEAM Englewood Community Academy, 6201 S. Stewart Ave.