Making Young Voices Her-d

It was snowing hard, the kind of snow that makes your reconsider any kind of after-work plans in favor of hunkering down at home and preparing for a snow day. But still, I traveled up north, watching the snow quickly blanket everything as I made my way to the home of Jess and Meredith. They’re the wife and wife duo behind {she crew}, the nonprofit creating safe spaces and expressive platforms for adolescent girls and gender-expansive youth in Chicago. 

I was welcomed with tea and excited kisses from their Pomeranian and over the next hour the three of us had a great conversation discussing their backgrounds, Chicago and what makes {she crew} and its participants so kickass. 

 

XCC: How did {she crew} come to be?

Meredith: I'm from Texas, and when I was doing my undergraduate in Austin I got this big $10,000 grant to create a year-long project. I was trying to figure out how to get people involved in self-devised performance especially, when they had never written before.I wanted to trick people into writing and performing their own work. Eventually, my project got turned into a freshman year requirement course and I got to TA, which was cool because I got to see how a course like that would be taught in an educational space.

When I moved to Chicago in 2012, I didn’t have a job so i started going into to high schools with a friend who was a performance teacher as well as different non profits to teach my method. I focused on journal to performance,  understanding the power of the journal and, through editing and collaboration, turning it into a performance piece. And the concept itself is not revolutionary,  people do it all the time like the Neo-Futurists, but it was kind of a way to get more young people to do it. In a lot of the work that I was seeing there was a lot of hate on women and a lot of girl-on-girl hate as well.

Jess:  You mean in the programs you were teaching?

Meredith: Yes, in the programs, so I really wanted to address where this was coming from  before they’re even in high school If you look at it, there aren't a lot of programs that are specifically geared towards adolescence.

Jess: And by adolescent she means like early adolescence like middle school.  

Meredith: Middle school is a shitty time.

XCC: Omg yea.

Meredith: Right? I feel like if anyone had a good time in middle school, they’re probably an asshole now

Jess: Or they were an asshole at the time and made it shitty for someone else.

Meredith was doing her program through a lot of other youth organizations and there were a few things she wanted to do differently. We’d just started dating like a few months prior and I was like, ‘Hey you want to make a huge commitment?’ So that winter we started fundraising and the following summer had our first summer program. And in our  second summer we were able to gain our partnership with the Jane Addams hull-house Museum. And then, once we started having a lot of young people come back and continue to do the programming year after year, we realized that we were able to use writing performances to create space, but wanted to elevate the platform they spoke on even further and started SHE CAST.

Meredith: That’s a really good way to put it.

XCC: You mentioned your background is in performing, what about you, Jess?

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Listen to SHE CAST:

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Jess: Performing as well, we met during a theatre festival. But I'm in graduate school for social work right now.

XCC: I saw that you were going to Hull House. Is there a specific reason or desire to work with Hull House?

Jess: So many. On a basic level, they had a kitchen and we had a cooking component [of our curriculum],  and they had a space that could be used for the rest of the program as well aa performance space. The Hull House is also on the UIC campus so it's kind of West Loop area which allows it to be pretty equidistant for Northsiders, Southsiders and Westsiders alike to attend. We wanted a program that had participants from all parts of the city.

But in a more emotional way, it's just a very huge part of Chicago's history. A lot of things that we employ in {she crew} are inspired by the ethos of the Jane Addams settlement house in terms of wanting to have a very holistic program to try to better women's’ well-being. There were a lot of settlement houses at the time that were pretty much just a place to live, but the Hull House program was actually really dynamic in terms of having educational opportunities and childcare and the arts. Actually, Chicago improv was basically created at the Hull House, Viola Spolin did a lot of her work there.

XCC: That's awesome I'm learning so much about Jane Addams and Hull House

Jess: Jane Addams was also a lesbian.

XCC: I had no idea!

Jess: And the she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize.

XCC: In high school, I took a class called Urban Studies which was essentially the study of Chicago. We learned a lot about Hull House, but it was very much the sanitized, safe public school version of history.

Meredith: They do really good tours if you ever make your way over there. They do Gender and Sexuality tours that are awesome, and they make them comprehensive for whatever group they’re talking to.

Jess: They don’t always explicitly say she was gay, though there are moments that allude to it. For example, you can go into Jane Addams’ old room and see a giant portrait of this woman and they say, ‘This person was a significant woman in Jane Addams’ life. Jane took the painting with her wherever she went, even if she left town.’ and they leave you to fill in the blanks.

XCC: I saw your program is amazingly multi-faceted–there's cooking, professional skills, public speaking, etc.–what was the idea behind a program that touches so many disciplines?

Meredith: We both had backgrounds in performance, writing, and food service, so those things seemed to fit together naturally for us. All together, it makes for a really well-rounded, holistic program. With the cooking component, I don't think you can have kids out of their homes for any extended period of time and not expect for them to get hungry. They’re humans, right?

Jess: And in the program, there’s various degrees of need, not necessarily everyone has money to buy food in the area and sometimes you don’t even know what food is available in the area for lunch.

Meredith: Right. Middle school and adolescence is such a hard time, especially for girls.

Jess: The relationship to food is forming and really on thin ice, so we wanted the food element in our program to cover a lot of a lot of bases. Number one: make sure that everyone is fed before we start working so that there is a even playing field. Number two: instill a positive relationship with food.

Meredith: Right, and it's a skill that they'll be able to have forever. The {she crew} moms love that now when they get home after a crazy day at work, their daughters sometimes will already be helping them make dinner. It’s another way where they can have those good relationships with food and  make those nice connections with family and friends.

We to use staple ingredients that can be found in markets all over the city because we are pulling kids from all sides of the city. There might be a girl from Uptown in the same as a girl from Inglewood so they’re able to realize they have a lot in common. Or maybe they don't have a lot in common, but what they both really like is roasted broccoli and that's a really good place to start. Especially when we live in such a segregated city, at least we can sit down and have a meal together.

XCC: I saw on your website {she crew} caters to an age range of 11-14. Why did you pick that age specifically?

Jess: We wanted to have a space that could cater to middle schoolers specifically in terms of what they're going through. Middle schoolers are typically grouped with either younger kids or older kids so that they’re not able to just focus on the transitions they’re going through. Once you get a 15 year old or 16 year old, they're talking about very different things than a 12-year-old. We want to be sure that it's a space that can be age appropriate to the issues that they're working out.

Meredith: It’s also an age where they’re feeling their autonomy for the first time, so we want to make sure that there is a space where they can try on different things together whether that be identity, gender, sexuality or something as simple as trying out new fruits and vegetables. I feel like as kids get older it gets easier for them to say, ‘Oh my God, you've never had artichoke?! What's wrong with you!’ so we wanted to create a place where they can experiment without taboos.

Jess: At {she crew} we have a lot of social justice conversations, which works really well for this age range, because sometimes in the adult world you can feel shame for not knowing something. When you’re twelve, it’s easier to bridge those those separations and have conversations and still be treated in an adult way. Our program also trans- and gender expansive inclusive so it’s not just focused on cis girls or people who use “she” pronouns.

Meredith: I mean, I’m a white Southerner from Texas. In high school, if you said on your history test that the Civil War was fought because of slavery, they would fail you. We didn't learn anything about gay people or queer people. For me, I thought I must be awful because it was something that was never talked about. The only gay people I saw were on Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, and those men were very trendy very rich men, and I had nothing in common with them, so what did that say about me?

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XCC: Are there particular themes that you see as people go through the program?

Meredith: The conversations that they're having here are the same types of things we talk about with our friends who are in their twenties in their 30s.

Jess: It’s just a 13-year old version of it. Typically there’s a little bit more limited access to information and the occasional confusion. They’re actually pretty clear on issues, they just might not be fully up on all of the details.

XCC: I can relate. 

Meredith: In terms of identity, because of course their work is all about identity, they talk a lot about gender, they talk a lot about sexuality, they talk about politics, especially domestically.

XCC: I love your {she crew} t-shirts, where did the idea for those come from and who designs them?

Jess: I’m wearing the first one right now!

Meredith: When we were fundraising for our first summer,  we did an Indiegogo, remember those? It was like pre-Kickstarter. The shirts started as a way to give a gift back to donors. In our old apartment, we had  this huge chalkboard on the wall, and one day I drew this slogan “Cats Against Catcalls” on this cat silhouette. From there, my friend showed me how to silkscreen and then we realized, ‘Oh yeah! We could just sell screen a bunch of shirts!’

Jess: Yea a friend told us ‘You need to find a way for a for a lot of people to want to give you twenty bucks.’  And so this became the way people would give us that money.

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Meredith: Each one is still hand silk-screened. We make them right here on our kitchen table. Every year we come out with a new one. I heard that the next trendy animal is a bison so maybe that will be our next one.

XCC: How many shirts do you make for each round?

Meredith: We’re not organized like that. There’s never an exact amount, we’ll make them whenever we run out or whenever we physically have stuff. When we make shirts it’s more about how many we can do before we’re exhausted and hate everything or finish a season on Netflix.

XCC: So this is your fifth year, correct? Do you have any particularly memorable stories you'd like to share?

Meredith: The summer intensive is six weeks long, it’s basically full time except for the weekends. At the end of the summer intensive, they perform all of their work, it’s like if performance art and a variety show came together, but also performed by 13 year olds. It's great you should come to the next one, you’ll cry your eyes out.

It's really amazing because our girls almost always come to us very, very shy. I see a lot of myself personally in many of my students, being at that age where you think, ‘I know I'm smart, but I'm also weird and I'm thinking about all these things and I don't know if it's okay for me to be thinking them.’

Jess: There was one student I didn't hear speak for two weeks, she had a really intense shyness. I even thought about letting her opt out of performing, but at the end of the summer she did it! She did her own solo piece and it was amazing.  

Meredith: It's really beautiful to see their parents and their family members and their friends come and watch the performance. At the end of it everyone is just in tears from joy. The girls take such pride in themselves and their work and in each other. They're extremely bonded by the end of the summer, they even have their own like sleepovers –it's just so cute and sweet. To know our students are living breathing intersectional feminist and can recognize when things are not ok, when there is white feminism in the world and how to address the problems is so inspiring.

 

All photos courtesy of {shecrew}. For more, follow along on instagram at @shecrew and pick up a T shirt and other merch here. 


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Meredith Montgomery is the Co-Founder and Program Director of {she crew}.She serves as {she crew}'s lead instructor, with a background in the culinary and performing arts. She created the method and curriculum carried out in {she crew}, using a combination of writing, performing, and communal cooking to support, empower and provide safe spaces for adolescent girls and gender non-conformers. For the past six years, Meredith has developed her own method of devised work, centered around youth and individuality. Most recently, she created She Cast, a for-youth-by-youth podcast centered around topics that affect young people today. She was named Windy City Times’ “30 Under 30” in 2016. She also designs and creates hand silkscreened feminist apparel. Meredith is also from Texas, so you shouldn’t mess with her.

Jessica London-Shields is the  Co-Founder and Managing Director of {she crew}. As the managing and development director, Jess works to ensure all {she crew} programs are properly supported.  Jess also functions as co-instructor for SHE CAST and on sight support for {she crew}’s Summer Intensive.  Jess is currently studying at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, working towards a Masters in Social Work.  She was named Windy City Times’ “30 Under 30” in 2015. Jess is dedicated to the mission of {she crew}, and its bold participants.

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