Reflections: Young Chicago Authors with David Johnson
Young Chicago Authors
with David Johnson
Reflections is a BitterSweet podcast series formed out of the idea that in seasons of uncertainty we can ground ourselves by recalling past moments of faithfulness—holding on to the hope extended by the good work of those who use their lives to serve their neighbors.
In this series, we ask our contributors to look back over the catalog of BitterSweet stories they were a part of and discuss the how and why of the story that impacted them most.
Hosted and produced by Robert Winship.
Episode Four: Photographer David W. Johnson discusses “Radical Young Poets Leading Us Toward One Another"
In this fourth episode of Reflections, host Robert Winship speaks with David W. Johnson, a photographer from Chicago, IL, who looks back on his contribution to the story of Young Chicago Authors, an organization transforming the lives of young people by cultivating their voices through writing, publication, and performance education.
DJ: "What I love about this story and what makes it relevant now is they were already leading a movement. They were already telling the stories that needed to be told. They were already shedding light on injustice. They were already speaking truth to power, so now people are listening."
RW: Welcome to BitterSweet Reflections, a six part audio series where BitterSweet contributors reflect on memorable stories. I'm Robert Winship. In this episode of Reflections we talk to David Johnson, a photographer and filmmaker who looks back on a story about Young Chicago Authors.
David Johnson is an internationally published photographer based in Chicago. He is the founder of True Chicago, a nonprofit that educates, energizes and expands the arts for black and brown youth, and of course he is a contributor to BitterSweet monthly. David, welcome.
DJ: Robert, thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
RW: I'm glad to have you, and thanks for talking with me.
I am starting each interview with a pretty basic question. How do you describe your work with BitterSweet to others?
DJ: Yeah. It's an interesting thing, because the way I first described it is talking about Kate, who obviously started BitterSweet, who is a friend of mine from high school actually, so we go way back. Basically to me I describe it as here is a moment where I take out of every year to use my talents and my giftings to be able to amplify the voice and story of an organization that's doing great work.
RW: As a professional photographer, you also run a nonprofit which is not necessarily related to BitterSweet. Why is your work with BitterSweet specifically important to you?
DJ: Yeah. Honestly because you go through... especially when you work in the commercial space, you go through year after year basically, because I'm an independent contractor… so at the heart of it I'm a hired gun. I do work on projects that belong to other people, so I think for me sometimes it’s hard to get a sense of fulfillment that my work is actually making an impact within the community that I live in.
The work that I do with BitterSweet when we are partnering with some of these organizations that are boots on the ground, actually helping to transform some of the lives that they work with, for me it's a sense of just mission in my gifting. It's like, I forget who said it, but one of my favorite quotes is "At the intersection of your gifting and the needs of others you find the seeds of your calling." So for me it's a time, whenever I'm doing a project with BitterSweet, that I get to work within calling, if that makes sense.
RW: It kind of reminds me of what a few other contributors have said, because of that professional status of working as a hired gun, as you say, or an independent contractor, you're working on other people's projects, that BitterSweet sort of affords you a place to be able to be more creative and take control, ironically helping to tell other people's stories, or maybe paradoxically, not ironically.
DJ: Yeah. It's interesting because even some of the most sought after creatives, specifically in my field, photographers, you go onto their Instagram and they may have thousands and thousands of followers and you look at their work and they're working with cool clients. I think the challenge is at the end of the day there's a certain current with all of that work, specifically in commercial photography. You're working with large brands, and large brands have a mission and a gravity unto themselves.
So if you're wanting to figure out how you can use whatever creative gift that you have, in my case photography, to be an impact on your community it's hard to really say that you can do that, that you even have the flexibility to do that, if most of your work is just going towards Google or most of your work is just accomplishing whatever Microsoft wanted to accomplish. You know what I'm saying? I mean there are some times where there's overlap, but I would say the project with BitterSweet, what's so powerful about them is it's a moment where it's only about purpose-causing mission.
RW: For this series, Reflections, each guest selects a story that they contributed to, and you picked “Radical Young Poets Leading Us Toward One Another,” about the organization Young Chicago Authors. Young Chicago Authors cultivates artistic development, social and emotional learning, and academic success in Chicago's youth. First of all, can you briefly describe what this story was and why you were interested in telling a story about Young Chicago Authors?
DJ: This one was an easy one for me because I remember when Kate called me about it and she was like, "Hey, we're trying to figure out what story we want to do on Chicago." We talked through a couple ideas and we kind of landed on YCA, Young Chicago Authors.
Our first stop was to go to one of the kickoff events that they have every year called Crossing the Street. It's a kickoff to what is actually the largest poetry festival in the whole world. It's this youth poetry festival called Louder Than A Bomb, that happens in Chicago.
We met at a school on the South Side and a couple of thousand young people poured into this auditorium. Just the power of the energy that they were bringing because of the fact that they weren't there for school, they weren't there for, I don't know, a concert of some sort, but they were there to develop themselves as writers, as storytellers and as poets.
That just gave a sense of empowerment in that room that was incredible to me. I really felt like—and this was a couple of years ago now—I really felt like there was an energy in that room. I remember telling Kate when we left that day that there's something that's in this room that has the potential to help change a city. There's something that was in that room that has the potential to help change the narrative around young people in Chicago, and it was because they were empowering them to tell their own stories.
So for me, I wanted to figure out how we could be a part of documenting that and be a part of telling the story about the lives of the young people involved.
RW: I'm going to go ahead and jump to that question since you brought up the word empower. Can you just tell me what that word means to you, empowerment?
DJ: Yeah. I think what it means is, you know, there's this... I think it was Sir Ken Robinson that talked about it in a Ted Talk. He talked about this idea of education killing creativity. What jumped out to me in that talk is there's this one part where he talks about the approach of a lot of our educational philosophies is very much like mining—like mining for certain resources within the lives of young people that we know will already be valuable within a society.
So if a child has a lot of that, then they are empowered by a system that propels them forward, because we've already established things like math, science, what have you, are already valuable to the society, so there you go.
But he was suggesting that if a child doesn't have that, then that puts them in a really difficult position. If they're an artist, if they are a writer, whatever it is, if they don't have some of those things that the system is mining for then they are not empowered, then they are not put in a position where they can excel.
There was just this whole idea around what if we approached young people in a more agricultural sense, where they're being planted and cultivated over time, and mentorship would take place and investment would take place within them and their surrounding community and we would see what could grow, and that fruit would, almost like in the story of Genesis, where it's fruit bearing seeds after its kind, where what you plant is going to grow and the fruit that comes of that has the potential to plant the same thing over and over again.
So for me, the empowerment piece and what empowerment means is really being able to write your own destiny a little bit, having the resources to be able—and the education and the knowledge and the wisdom and having access to what you need—to be able to grow organically rather than having to fit within the system that is mining for resources.
RW: As a photographer and filmmaker, how do you empower or embody empowerment through storytelling?
DJ: Honestly, it starts before I pick up a camera, I think. I think I have to embody it in who I am as a person, and then that informs the work. Who I am as a person, I should have the integrity, I should have the knowledge and the history to be able to embody the story that I want to tell, or to be able to receive the story that I want to tell. So for me, like I said, a lot of it has to do with not having a camera in my hand first, understanding the space and the culture that I'm walking into and allowing myself to be a student of it before I'm teaching it to anybody else.
RW: As a photographer, in a lot of cases you're just sort of waiting to capture that moment of truth. What does your preparation look like, especially with this kind of story, or even this particular story, as a photographer?
DJ: It's tough, because I am definitely... I'm an extrovert. I'm the person who wants to come into the room and really just engage it fully and talk to everybody and meet everybody and figure out what we both like and the movies and the shows that we're watching and I love this artist, whatever.
But a lot of times in this process the preparation looks like being quiet and sitting and listening and having more questions than I have comments or answers, and really allowing space to hear something brand new. It's this mixture, because so much, especially as a storyteller... I mean everybody calls himself a storyteller these days.
As a photographer, as a creative, as someone who is synthesizing the information to be able to visually communicate it in an effective way, I think for me it's this balance between where have I seen this before when I walk into a space? And a subject where I'm going to tell a story, what are the existing categories that I already have? What are the existing experiences that I already have that would be applicable and make me familiar with what I'm walking into, but at the same time not allowing those to be barriers to learn something and to hear something new?
Because I'm walking into spaces where there's people I've never met, there's stories I've never heard, there's challenges that I've never experienced, there are strengths and talents and giftings that I have never encountered before, so I need to allow that to be fresh at the same time, so it's that balance of both.
RW: I want to note that you also directed the short film attached to this. There were a total of six BitterSweet contributors on this story, which is more than the average story. What does that kind of collaboration offer to this story?
DJ: For me, I am really never interested in telling a story by myself or tackling something by myself. Whenever a story has weight to it, I think you need collaboration to help bear that weight. It really is like the... You've heard the story or the example of the blind men that had never encountered an elephant before and one is in front of the elephant and feels the trunk, and the other is on the side and feels it, and the other one has the tail. They all have different... but it's all the same animal. They're actually experiencing the same thing in different ways through different approaches.
So, for me that's part of it. It's like yes, I will give an overall direction that we're going to take creatively, but what really is valuable to me is being able to tell a more accurate story involving other folks.
For this one specifically I think it was, we brought on Brandon Mattingly, who was an incredible addition, Brandon Ritter, who was our producer, who did an incredible job. Then we brought in Tuan Huynh, who is... really he's the plug in certain parts of the city, where he's someone that his ability to create and sustain relationships in a story like this is invaluable as well. It was really something that came together because we had a collaborative effort.
RW: With that many creators and collaborators, I imagine that the story changed maybe quite a bit from the idea to its final version. Can you tell me about the ways in which this story, or even your perspective on the story, shifted from, as I said, idea to complete and final piece?
DJ: For Young Chicago Authors the magic is in making space to hear the young people speak. The magic isn't really in our storytelling capabilities and our creative capabilities, although those can help accent the story. I know for us it really was us having a larger story that we wanted to tell and a more nuanced story, but as we got deeper and deeper into learning who these young people were, hearing their stories, we realized that the meat of this needed to be hearing the poetry, needed to be hearing the spoken word, and that we needed to get our idea of the story out of the way.
That's what I'm learning more and more. As a director it is... I mean really the job is to excavate. The job is to uncover what's there, it's not to try and create something that I want to be there, if that makes sense.
RW: Right. For those of you listening, the video portion of this sort of centers around this... It's Louder Than the Bomb, is that correct?
DJ: Louder Than A Bomb.
RW: Louder Than A Bomb performance. So you're watching these different young performers both live on stage and as they're preparing and writing and developing and even recording these works of poetry, so it really is kind of capturing the lead up to, and I imagine some follow up from this event, at least in the video portion?
DJ: They have a lot of programming, so at first it was just us trying to figure out how we could capture as much of that as possible. But then we started to see we could actually focus in on a few folks and really start to tell the story more specifically around its key characters.
RW: You did mention that part of the challenge was coming in with your own idea of what the story would look like, even as much as you understood that that had to shift and you had to adapt. I'm wondering what else was challenging about trying to tell this story or about telling this story?
DJ: Really, it's just not having enough time to tell the bigger story that we'd love to tell. Young Chicago Authors is great, but at the heart of it it's young people in Chicago that are being empowered to tell their story, and those stories and their knowledge to be able to navigate their own story and the power that comes from that and what it does to them as a person and who it turns them into, that's the story. That's the magic. That's the special ingredient.
When you're talking about young people, especially in a space like Chicago, especially on the South and West Sides, you have young people who their story is already told for them. The script is already written. The forecast is already set, however you want to say it, and the vast majority of them feel like they have to play out a script that's already been written for them.
So, to just be in the room, to be a fly on the wall, when you see a young person be ignited and be activated to disconnect from that narrative that somebody else constructed for them, which is very much within the system that I was talking to you about before that is mining certain things out of them and discarding them if they don't have what would be valuable to that system... To see a young person have the light go on inside of them because they realize who they actually are, that they are not a statistic, they are not someone who has to follow in the footsteps of violence or has to follow in the footsteps of the segregation that has been zoned on them within the history of the city, all of these things, to see someone break out of that is powerful.
There's something that I wind up learning from that as a person and as a man that's really been shaping the work that I do today.
RW: You sound very passionate. You clearly are very passionate about this particular project and this story specifically, and as much as it relates to a larger story of letting people break the script, to write their own script. Where is this story finding that resonance with you personally?
DJ: For me, at its heart it's not about any of these organizations. It's about the young people within them and it's about what's happening with them, where are they going to go, where are they going to end up?
Because as much as I love…This is the challenge with the work that I do with BitterSweet and frankly that I do in general, is you could take a beautiful portrait of a young person taking part in the programming at one of these great organizations, but at the end of the day where did that young person go?
Where are they laying their head? What is their home life like? How are they growing as a person? Are they growing? Who are they becoming? These are the questions that, I don't just ask myself, you know… after I interact with these stories I feel responsible for those questions. Not that I'm responsible for each and every young person that I photograph or film or any of those things, but I feel responsible to take part in pointing them in the right direction, you know.
If I'm a creative in their space and I can be somewhat of a signpost of like “Hey, here's the right direction to go,” then I need to fulfill that, and I need to do that well and be an impact type of a presence. That's what it means for me personally, is at the end of the day I'm not interested in just influence, how many followers can we get, how many people can we get to the event? At the end of the day it's about impact. Were young people pointed in the right direction? Did they take a step closer to their best self?
RW: Do you follow up with the subjects of these stories? Do you work with these organizations after the stories are told, with Crushers Club or with Young Chicago Authors?
DJ: Yeah. Some of them I've been able to sustain a relationship. It really depends, because at the end of the day, Robert, the organizations are great, but everything rises and falls on relationship. It's been cool to find out that there's certain organizations that I've been able to work with, whether it's through BitterSweet or True Chicago, where there's been a relationship that has sprouted out and been something that I've been able to keep up with. Specifically with Young Chicago Authors, yes. There are several folks there that I've been able to be lucky enough to call friends. There's young people that I'm still invested in and excited to see where the future takes them, and just totally I'm in on the journey with several of the folks from these organizations, so yes.
RW: The story “Radical Young Poets Leading Us Toward One Another” is just over a year old. It came out in May of 2019. But I think it's fair to say that the role of especially black and brown voices has changed in that time. What is the relevance of this story right now?
DJ: The relevance of the story is that when we were telling the story of young black and brown folks that are writers and that are poets, I think for a lot of people that were viewing it, listening to it, reading it, it's a novelty thing, like it's a nice thing to hear about and whoa, okay, wow, that young person really has a way with words, and you kind of leave it there.
But now I think, in this moment, people are understanding, especially folks that fall outside of the racial categories of black and brown, they're realizing that these voices aren't novelties to listen to, they're responsibilities to listen to. It's our responsibility to know who this young person is and where they've come from and what they've gone through and what they've seen, because that person isn't... For a person's story to just be a novelty out there would suggest that they are... that I have no connection and no interaction with them ever, so I'll just consume this if I like.
But I think these young black and brown voices specifically that are now at the forefront... When we think of the movement that is going on with the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, what came out of that was a new set of voices that were leading a movement, and they weren't the older voices, they weren't the grandfather or grandmother characters that we might think of as civil rights patriots. They weren't the John Lewises that just passed away. These were young people, young people that are... some of them don't even have driver's licenses. Some of them aren't even old enough to vote. But these were the people that were the voice of a movement.
What I love about this story and what makes it relevant now is they were already leading a movement. They were already telling the stories that needed to be told. They were already shedding light on injustice. They were already speaking truth to power, so now people are listening. I think we're noticing the difference in this season, is there are those that are new to this fight, there are those that are new to the conversation, there are those that are new to this sense of awakened responsibility, and there are those that have already been contributing.
DJ: The beauty of this moment is you have—just like you see in the YCA story of those young black and brown folks—you have 16 year-olds, 17 year-olds, 18 year-olds, that have a truth, that have a knowledge, and that have a wisdom that can teach in such a profound way—people that are two and three times their age because they have this story that hasn't been heard, if this makes sense. So we go back to that word empowerment. That is the empowering piece of who they are and what they bring to the table.
This has been a challenging time for me personally. This has been a time of grief and of sadness, and I can even say there's been moments where it's been exhausting because the reason why I picked the YCA story was because it was black and brown young people and it's because of what they have to say.
Like you said, this was over a year ago when we were telling this story, and now we see the relevance to stories like this in this moment. So to be honest, it's been exhausting to have been going through the last several years of my life trying to elevate the relevance of stories like YCA and like the young black and brown people that are in there. And to now wake up to a moment and a season where these stories are extremely relevant to people, it is exhausting. I can't help but think of... there's actually... there's a Psalm, I believe it is Psalm 126, and it says, "Those that sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy. He who goes out weeping bearing the seed for sowing shall come home with shouts of joy."
I think of that because for me, when I see a moment like George Floyd, when I see a moment like Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor, we've been having moments like this, especially in Chicago, for years, for decades, most recently Laquan McDonald, and it begs the question, what was different about this moment?
What I think it is is what was really happening was not just a black man being killed on the side of the pavement, but really it was a seed in the ground that came to fruition. There was something that popped out that has been planted and watered and cultivated for years and years and years, and it is unfortunately the sorrow and the sadness that has gone through generations.
So now what you see is a moment where a lot of these seeds have been watered and now they're popping out of the ground. These stories that you see with Young Chicago Authors, the stories that you see of young people that are leading the movement all over the country, it's the fruit and the seeds that are popping out of the ground of generations that went before and planted the same seeds and the same stories and the same things. Now it's popping out and you're seeing a whole new story.
For me, that's one of the things that I think. But the next thing that I think is really just one of my favorite authors, Toni Morrison, she just talks about this urgency of the artist in this moment. Basically what I see with BitterSweet and what I see that BitterSweet does, it comes to light in a moment like this, where we have COVID-19, where we have social and political and racial unrest. What Toni Morrison said is, "There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal." So for me, I really view my work in this moment as an artist and as a creative as a responsibility to contribute to the healing that we want to see happen in our society.
So overall, that's why the work is so important, and important to me, because when we do the artist work that we're supposed to do it brings healing and it brings empowerment.
RW: David, thank you so much for your time.
DJ: For sure. I appreciate you having me.
A short film comprised of YCA voices telling us what we need to know. Music produced and contributed by Linford Vaughn III and Jeffery Vaughn.
Read the Story
Read the full story about Young Chicago Authors for Bittersweet Monthly, Issue 054 Radical Young Poets Leading Us Toward One Another, here.
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