Goods for Good
What is your simple good today? Is there anything in particular that made you notice, made you smile, made you grateful? Some days it might be small, tiny even. And some days it can be the difference.
Long before Covid trapped us in unchanging daily routines and narrowed our exposure to newness, Priya Shah was teaching young people a mental framework for resiliency and strengthening focus. One-part mindfulness practice, one-part digital platform, one-part art program, The Simple Good has swelled from the South Side of Chicago to sub-Saharan Africa, offering an ever-expanding invitation to connect afresh with the global community and with hope.
One such connection was made on a beautiful afternoon in 2018 as Tyrone Jordan enjoyed a stroll down Hyde Park’s Main Street with his young daughter. There, in the window of a small shop, he saw a t-shirt. It said, “Sunsets, winter, and Harold’s fried chicken.” It made him laugh, it rang true. The writer, he learned later, was about the same age as his own daughter and a 5th grade student from the nearby Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Harold’s, of course, is a Chicago treasure; a family-owned chain with 40 locations, originally established at the corner of 47th and Kenwood in 1950 by African American entrepreneur, Harold Pierce, and his wife Hilda.
The purchase was an easy decision and its text was so striking, that Tyrone went home and researched its maker. What he found was The Simple Good and its founder, Priya, a positive force and voice for overcoming if ever there was one. Quickly, The Simple Good’s first wholesale relationship was born and the ‘Sunsets, Winter, and Harold’s Fried Chicken’ shirt lined the shelves of Tyrone’s gym, The Space, and sneaker shop, 360 Soles. And he later joined the board.
“For a fifth grader to have that outlook given the community that they're coming from, it just really hit home for me,” says Tyrone. “Understanding that though things are tough, there’s still happiness you can find. It seems so simple, but very few of us do it.” Finding, celebrating, and saying out loud the things we’re grateful for is a practice. It takes training and it takes great intention, particularly when circumstances are painfully grim or surrounding voices and competing narratives seem dead set on despair.
“We're not alone with these struggles, but we're also not alone with creating goodness,” says Priya. “That's what's been so transformative about doing this work all around the world.”
Priya Shah, founder of the Simple Good.
Shedding Old Narratives
Violence is the dominant narrative and reputation imposed on the South Side of Chicago, but it’s not nearly the whole truth and neglects long-standing legacies of great contribution – Harold’s chicken among them, a symbol of entrepreneurialism and deliciousness. For the youth growing up on these storied blocks, resisting dark feuds as fate means nurturing a different narrative. One that clarifies and celebrates the good, however simple.
When she wrote about Harold’s, 5th grade Ajia was responding to a prompt in art class. Thousands of students like Ajia have engaged this prompt over the past ten years, and it is teachers like Ollie Tousius who led them through it. Ollie is the program coordinator and lead teaching artist, but earned a master’s degree in social work and participated in a variety of creative collectives and arts festivals throughout Chicago prior to joining The Simple Good. She was teaching a yearlong program at St. Francis DeSales High School on the East Side when Covid hit. Very quickly Ollie learned that she wasn’t just teaching students, she and The Simple Good were caring for very impacted, very young frontline workers.
“We just had to keep on shifting, evolving, and adapting. A lot of my kids work in grocery stores, so we shifted to, ‘Okay, what do you need? What does your family need? What's going on? How are you? How can you utilize some of the art projects to express that and to reflect?’” she says. Imagine being 14, 15, 16, or 17-years-old, suddenly stuck inside and isolated during what would normally be a time of peak socialization.
“It's high school, and that was stripped away from them,” says Ollie. “But since we already had rapport, when we would meet online it was an opportunity for them to come together and mix. A lot of them were talking about that.” The Simple Good typically hosts showcases throughout the year to celebrate students’ work and create a space for them to reflect on the good in their lives. During the distancing and shutdown, the showcase went virtual – it had to. With all that the students were experiencing and processing in their humdrum fear-filled day-to-day, a rhythm of reflection and expression was a real lifeline.
“Art does that in a way that other mediums don't. It's the very authentic and raw opportunity to express yourself that sometimes words can't put together, especially if you're trying to figure out how it is that you feel. And because it's also up for interpretation, it allows people to relate. That's one of the powerful things about this program,” says Ollie.
Olivia Santiago, another Chicago-based social worker who focuses on mental health, sees it as a particularly useful tool when working with trauma-affected young women, which she does through the BUILDing Girls 2 Women program, a partner of The Simple Good.
They have voice, can you hear it?
Asking this question creates another transformative moment – to listen. Young people are rarely platformed in ways that adults will enter, appreciate, and respond. This exchange and opportunity to ‘be heard’ is proving as important as the dimensions of reflection and expression. Repeated and alarming new studies show rises in mental health crises among adolescents – including depression, eating disorders, and suicide. The showcases and events hosted by The Simple Good are positively vital opportunities to build healthy connection between generations.
“Adults take up a lot of space when we're in rooms with kids,” says Olivia. “We take up a lot of the space. Think about when you were a young person, how many opportunities did you have to talk about things that evoke emotion, that you are then owning and becoming empowered through? Here, a room of adults is not only listening, but they're engaging. They're asking follow-up questions. They are giving applause and praise.”
Jess Garner learned of The Simple Good through her mentor as she was to transition out of teaching 4th and 5th graders in Chicago’s public schools. The showcase was her introduction: “It was just so phenomenal. To see how students created something within themselves, to find The Simple Good and put it down with paper and pen…hearing the testimonies of students saying they realize there's so many small, simple goods in their life that they take for granted, I think is so powerful.”
“It really irks me when people are like, ‘We have to give them voice,’” says Ollie, “No, they already have voice. We just need to be quiet so we can hear it.”
This mindset and practice culminate into a different narrative of the city as well, and of the children and the youth growing up within its neighborhoods. No longer is the narrative of violence the only one on offer, but the youth themselves are invited to develop a more intentioned awareness and empowered voice to tell their own story – thereby shaping their own reality and not being defined by statistics and stereotypes.
“There's so many good things in these neighborhoods that sometimes get bad reputations,” says Jess. “So to show students, ‘You know what? There are positive things in your neighborhood and there are positive things in your life, regardless of what statistics say, regardless of what the news say.”
The key here is the prompt, then creating space for reflection, expression, and the opportunity for meaningful exchange and listening. The young people of Chicago’s South Side are seeing the good and putting it to speech, to art – in most cases without fancy paints or iPads. They are developing a powerful mindset that will carry them through every season and chapter of life with greater agency and ability for self-actualization – and they’re teaching the adult world how to see more clearly the good that surrounds and infuses even the difficult days.
“It really irks me when people are like, ‘We have to give them voice,’” says Ollie, “No, they already have voice. We just need to be quiet so we can hear it.’”
Start Simple, Go Global
What started with a photoblog and a searching question from a near death experience and a lonely hospital bed has grown into a movement, so to speak – one all the people of the world are invited and equipped to join.
“My goal is to really help facilitate cross-cultural dialogue at a younger age,” says Priya. “Because once we feel connected to another community it becomes a part of us, a part of our identity and therefore we factor that into any decision that we'll make moving forward. So that's really the goal behind bringing The Simple Good everywhere.”
This conviction was refined during Priya’s crucible stints in the slums of Brazil, South Africa, and India. She found in every context – no matter the conditions or range of comforts – this practice created meaningful connections of shared dignity and determined hope. Whether with the poorest of the poor or at a conference of diplomats, Priya says, “At the end of the day, we all have the same ideas of joy and we have the same ideas of sadness and that is what makes us human - therefore we can all support each other to make progress within our lives. And that's what I really was passionate about when I started The Simple Good.”
So far programming has expanded to classrooms in Uganda (Priya’s mother’s home country), Rwanda, and Croatia, and students of these countries have exchanged murals with the students in Chicago along with shared hopes for flourishing and messages of peace. The murals are painted on a vinyl-like material then gently rolled up and packaged for their transatlantic journey. The receiving students even more gently unroll the artwork, apply loads of adhesive, place it on the wall of their choosing, and celebrate.
“We have worked with formerly abducted child soldiers, survivors of genocide, survivors of war, survivors of crime,” says Priya. “And these are not labels that I like to even say a lot of the times, because I don't want that to be the identifier of a population. It's actually all the simple goods that they bring into the world that inspire me to keep going. But you have to be resilient - it takes a lot more strength to be good than it is to be negative, I think.”
As global classrooms were shuttered throughout the pandemic, Priya partnered with Pangea Educational Publishing Group to produce a book, Sheroes of Covid-19, narrating positive stories unfolding during the global crisis. “One of [Pangea's] board members is an amazing, inspiring woman named Rehmah Kasule from Uganda. And we wrote a story about the acts of the Simple Good that were actually happening during the pandemic all led by women leaders,” says Priya.
The Simple Good started using that book in its programs across the U.S. and, not surprisingly, it inspired other students to create their own comic books on the sheroes they saw in their communities.
“Our program is just so powerful because it's really based on hope and the resilience really focused by the assets that are already within us,” says Priya. “And so what we do is really have our students identify that and work through finding that within them. And that really makes them step into who they really are. And from that I've seen such an increase of confidence in their ability to find their place in the world.”