Alumna Leads Inner-City Youth Writing Workshop
By Robert Schroeder
From the NLU Alumni Magazine
Tonika Johnson had earned her ticket out of Chicago’s troubled Englewood neighborhood.
She punched her ticket by earning a seat at Chicago magnet school Lane Tech, following up with an undergraduate degree in journalism and a Master of Business Administration from NLU’s College of Management and Business in 2005.
Johnson’s ticket would be left unused.
The adult who had a chance to leave remembered the young girl living in Englewood who just wanted to write.
Now a professional photographer, Johnson is ensuring Englewood youth can pursue their own creative passions close to home through Media-N-Motion, a community workshop she co-founded in 2010 that features an eight-week after-school newswriting program targeting youth ages 9-15. The program builds skills in creative writing, interviewing and reporting, and publishing while exposing youngsters to the broader city. It culminates in the printing of a two-page broadsheet, Englewood Youth Times.
As a youngster, Johnson nurtured a passion for writing, but no outlets existed in Englewood to engage that passion, forcing her to travel alone to Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood and enroll in youth creative writing programs there.
“A lot of kids aren’t comfortable at that age traveling that far outside their neighborhood, so that means they aren’t exposed to a lot and therefore don’t have access to a lot of the resources of the outside community,” Johnson said. “I just remember being a kid, kind of like the ones here, who was interested in writing.”
The program, based at the West Englewood Public Library, builds the basic skills of journalism and running a newspaper: brainstorming story ideas, writing an effective story lead, creating catchy headlines, proofreading and editing, and laying out the final product. From start to finish, the newspaper is entirely student-produced.
“A lot of times [kids] don’t like to write, not because they don’t want to, but they don’t realize that writing is essentially talking on paper,” Johnson said. “If they have the chance, they’ll talk all day, so we wanted to create a program that helped build their confidence in writing.”
The writing in Englewood Youth Times seems a bit whimsical at first — what other outlet reports on why Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are so tasty yet so harmful to health? Put another way, the article provides a glimpse into the daily lives of children in a neighborhood where corner stores proliferate and grocery options are few.
In many ways, the goal of Media-N-Motion is to enlarge the insular world of neighborhood life. Realizing that the program’s participants were hyper-local, Johnson has brought the rest of the city to Media-N-Motion, including organized field trips to media outlets like Chicago Public Radio or hosting community leaders to be interviewed by the youth writers.
“A lot of the programs here in the community deal with violence prevention for kids that may be further gone, but there’s really nothing for a lot of the good kids that don’t hang out on the corner, who are actually at home doing homework,” Johnson said. “Those are kids people don’t think exist in this community because they don’t see them hanging out on the streets.”
Next up on the ticket, Johnson envisions a future partnership with a local high school or college, creating local writing institutes to continue Media-N-Motion’s work as part of organized education.