Englewood lends voice to history project

Students' performance 'Englewood Speaks' the culmination of months of work since actor Matt Damon paid a visit

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Matt Damon

Matt Damon reads from Howard Zinn's "The Problem is Civil Obedience" during The People Speak, Live! benefit performance at Metro in Chicago. (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune / May 25, 2012)

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.

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