Nine years ago, I began CPS Shakespeare! with my friend and colleague, Marilyn Halperin at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It was through this program that Anne and I found the film. When we started hearing about students who were homeless, and then when we discovered that (at that time five years ago) there were 15,000 kids registered as homeless with the Chicago Public Schools, we were shocked. And no one seemed to be talking about it. We knew we had to do this film.
Five years later, the film is launching nationwide this month, in conjunction with November being National Homeless Youth Awareness Month. And, on Monday, my CPS Shakespeare! program was one of twelve youth programs honored by the President. In a White House ceremony on Monday 11/10, First Lady Michelle Obama recognized Chicago Shakespeare Theater with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award in honor of CPS Shakespeare! We stood together with Jenny, our CPS student from Prosser Career Academy (this school is featured in the film), as she was the featured student speaker after Michelle Obama.
Jenny shared her powerful story of how this program helped her find her voice. How it helped her learn to take risks and not be afraid to come forth with her opinions and “be herself”. Jenny barely spoke when she began with the program 2 years ago. And to see her up there, so free, so confident, talking to a room full of fancy people at the freakin’ WHITE HOUSE will be one of my favorite moments ever. (Plus, she got to sit next to the First Lady ).
This journey is so intertwined with the film. With both of these huge projects happening at the same time, it’s made me deeply reflect on how much we need the arts. Expression. Responding to your environment. Storytelling. Having something to say and the confidence to take a risk and say it. Bringing your full self to something. Connecting your POV to an audience. The power of words, images, music and movement.
Education through the arts is powerful - working together as a vibrant, risky, fierce exploration of self for all youth. Art that teaches deep collaboration, respect, playfulness and expansive thinking. Being awarded this honor was the culmination of an incredible journey…a journey filled with so many dedicated CPS teachers, the rockstar Chicago Shakespeare staff and artists who have supported this crazy vision and the many, many students who took a risk and said YES and did something they never thought they could.
And it’s so deeply connected to the journey of the film - filled with the incredible support of the documentary community. It takes a village - a huge village. And partnering with Kartemquin Films along the way has challenged and supported us in so many ways. And at each corner, when we thought we may not be able to go forward and finish the film, someone came forward and held out their hand and helped us make that next step. Thanks to all of you who’ve been part of this journey for this incredible gift.