avery is not interested in repeating himself
avery r. young* is a maestro of mediums. He’s an award-winning artist, musician, poet, author, educator, and performer, just to name a few. He has mentored and influenced a new generation of prominent Chicago artists. As a teaching artist, avery has over two decades of experience leading programs in-and out- of schools, community-based organizations, and other learning environments during his 12+ year with Urban Gateways. avery has significantly contributed to the mission of Urban Gateways helping youth overcome social and economic barriers to access Chicago’s artistic and cultural vitality.
So when he was named one of the Field Foundations Leaders for a New Chicago 2022, Urban Gateways wasn’t surprised in the least! (In fact, we were the ones that nominated him for his incredible work with Chicago’s youth and the teaching artist field – of which, we are lucky to have him on our roster of Teaching Artists). The Leaders for a New Chicago cohort consist of ten artists that “exemplify the power of creativity, focus and sheer determination in serving the communities and spaces they occupy across Chicago.” avery’s 26 years as an artist speaks volumes to this.
“It feels good to be included in this particular cohort because all of them are phenomenal people doing amazing work. I still think I’m in the phase of processing it all, only because you get an award, but the work don’t stop.”
But where did the work start?
avery and Urban Gateways go way back, starting with the Culture of Calm initiative in 2010. This initiative was created in response to the violence happening in Chicago’s schools. Chicago Public Schools pledged $25 million to support 47 high schools and communities most at risk of violence. At the time, Urban Gateways was the only arts education organization included as a provider.
“My first Culture of Calm [engagement] was at Simeon Career Academy High School. I …facilitated the students having an open mic. It first started with poets, then it grew into rappers and singers.”
The students had expressed interest in Spoken Word but were challenged by the discipline and form of the structure. avery forged ahead with a curriculum infused with the nuances of hip hop and the seeds of the Harlem Renaissance.
“I had to carve out what it means to teach Spoken Word in schools, and how that applies to Math and History. Because I was a part of a [pioneering] teaching artist force that had to think all of that up.”**
As a result of avery’s teaching, the fire that avery ignited in those students at Simeon prevailed even after the residency finished. The students formed the group, Writers Never Die, and went on to compete in Louder Than a Bomb, the largest youth poetry festival in the world.***
Above: Writers Never Die performing at the Urban Gateways Art for All Gala in 2014 at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Alayna Kudalis.
Thus began avery’s teaching artist journey with Urban Gateways that would span over a decade.
Teaching Artists work within classrooms, community organizations, or other hands-on environments to lead young people (as well as families and community members) in arts learning activities. Urban Gateways Teaching Artists provide opportunities to experience arts learning through multiple access points, such as arts integration, direct instruction, trauma-informed, and youth-centered approaches.
“Urban Gateways has been really supportive of me, not only as an artist, but as a human being. The opportunity to teach art teaches me the ability of extending my humanity to other people. [The youth I work with are] in a school system that doesn’t allow the agency of their own voice… The opportunity to teach art through Urban Gateways has really put my humanity to practice. I’ve had to actualize it.”
As a multidisciplinary artist, avery has conducted residencies in a variety of disciplines. From film and performance as a Performance/Poetry fellow at the University of Washington-Tacoma, to utilizing sound design and concrete poetry in his Arts Incubator residency at the University of Chicago. Theater, music, literary arts, fine arts, poetry, spoken word; avery has left no stone unturned. With these skills, he has been able to translate them into various workshops as a teaching artist.
“It’s important to teach imagination through Spoken Word. The world that [my students] can have, as opposed to the world that they experience. It’s important that we do that. And if we don’t teach imagination, the poems become journal entries [But] in a poem, there has to be some dance with language. Through Urban Gateways, I’ve been able to teach Spoken Word [and poetry] as a means of imagination, and not information.”
“[But] in a poem, there has to be some dance with language.”
Above: avery conducting a Theater Residency at St Viator Elementary School, spring 2019. Photo by Sehar Sufi.
As avery’s teaching artist career with Urban Gateways grew, so did his personal career.
His list of accomplishments and accolades is long. He is a 3Arts Awardee; won the Gwendolyn Brooks Community Award (2019); published author and poet (including his first book neckbone: visual verses); artist (including his 2015 album booker t. soltreyne: a race rekkid); writing mentor of winning Louder Than A Bomb team Rebirth-Reborn Teen Poetry Ensemble; and Activation Director for the Floating Museum.
The Floating Museum, started in 2016, is an arts collective that “creates new models exploring relationships between art, community, architecture, and public institutions.” There, avery serves as a co-director. He has led several programs, including Soul El (2018), on which he collaborated with Urban Gateways’ youth media center Street Level.
Soul El (a derivative of the iconic Soul Train) was a series of pop-up performances on Chicago’s Green Line. avery collaborated with youth at Street Level who filmed the performances, as well as interviewed the artists.
“Any and everything that was happening in black culture was reflected, and if not informed, from this show [Soul Train]. We thought it would be interesting to have it during a week in which there was a musical festival, and… to have artists from this particular city that people weren’t gonna see at the musical festival. So on the way to the concert, you got a pop-up concert [on the El]….”
Artists like Maggie Brown, Megan McNeal, Corey Wilkes, and Sam Thousand graced the El’s Green Line with their presence and musical talent. They entered at the 63rd St stop and rode the Green Line, performing and entertaining riders along the way.
Above: Maggie Brown performs on the Green Line as part of the Soul El project in 2018.
“A lot of work went into that…And it was really beautiful. And who knew, we got a viral video from it. *laughs* Megan McNeal is doing wonderful things. And Sam went on to win 3Art Awards too. They’re award-winning artists. It’s family!”
Video: avery talks “Soul El” with mildsauce.org
“I thought it would be an interesting partnership. The way in which we understand youth and media are both powerful tools. I think that’s one of the important things about Street Level. It’s a space where young folks learn to be, [and they] are exposed to all sides of content making. And all the roles in that content-making space.”
As a 2022 Leader for a New Chicago, avery received a no-strings-attached grant in recognition of past accomplishments, and the affiliated/nominating non-profit organization (that’s Urban Gateways!) will receive a $25,000 general operating grant.
But that cash grant is only the beginning! As usual, avery has several irons in the fire and ideas for what’s next in his career:
“What don’t I got going on? *laughs* What I’m manifesting is the opportunity to score theater, television, and film… I’m working on a play, working on an opera, and I’m working on a score for a ballet. I think I got a film in me *laughs*. So, there’s a lot going on.”
After 24 years as a Teaching Artist, avery is now able to be more intentional with his endeavors in this field. So what does he see for the future of Teaching Artists?
“I’m hoping that Teaching Artists in institutions work more like adoptive partnerships… And they integrate their art into the culture of the school, not just a curriculum for a teacher.”
Over his career, avery has collaborated with Urban Gateways to shape meaningful experiences for students of all ages. He’s designed and led professional development for artists and educators and workshops for young people, their families, and other supportive adults in their lives.
“The major difference in the personal artist that I am today is that I’m really not interested in doing what I’ve already done. I’m interested in things I haven’t done.”
*After reading Teaching to Trangress, avery made the decision to feature his name in all lowercase to honor author bell hooks.
**avery cites Young Chicago Authors as the space that originally developed Spoken Word as a curriculum.
***Young Chicago Authors’ annual youth poetry festival has been reimagined and renamed. It is now Rooted & Radical Youth Poetry Festival.