Listen: Youth organizers discuss Black joy, West Side history and the future

Kaleb Autman, 18, is a creative director, producer, writer, and organizer based out of Garfield Park. Destiny Harris, 19, is an organizer and poet from the Austin neighborhood.

This piece was produced in collaboration with the South Side Weekly for Injustice Watch’s Essential Work series about young Black community organizers in Chicago.

In the latest audio installment of Essential Work, two West Side youth organizers and friends—Destiny Harris and Kaleb Autman—discuss organizing on the West Side, why they bring historical context to the work being done today, and what they hope for themselves and their community in 15 years. You can listen to the audio below and read a transcript of their conversation.

For more views from the organizers, read ‘To be a West Side organizer’ by Harris, and Autman’s piece, ‘My ancestors were freedom fighters, and they’re teaching me how to fight. And stay tuned for more Essential Work.

Kaleb Autman: Hi guys, I’m Kaleb Autman.

Destiny Harris: And I’m Destiny Harris. Both of us are longtime West Siders, we’ve been doing work on our side of the city for a minute. What does it look like to be a West Side organizer in this moment?

Autman: To be a West Side organizer in this moment is to be responsive to the demands and the needs of community all the time. When you look at the West Side, you have folk who are constantly struggling to survive. That is a sort of revolution. It is sort of a miracle. So to be a West Side organizer is to understand those needs and those demands, and to act upon them in a way that is not centering just the theory, but the practice of our work.

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‘To be a West Side organizer’

"We understand," community organizer Destiny Harris writes, "that we will never have access to the resources we need in abundance if we wait on the government."

Harris: For me to be a West Side organizer right now in this moment is continuing to mobilize our people and fight for our humanity. It is a moment where we’re getting a lot more visibility than say we would have so it’s interesting that everybody is paying attention to West Side organizers now, although it’s kind of sad that it’s just now happening. A lot of visibility when it comes to organizing in the city is concentrated on the South Side. And so it feels good that folks are reaching out and asking us, Oh, do y’all need anything for support? It’s just crazy that it took this long considering the West Side has been organizing forever.

Autman: In this movement, particularly in Chicago, West Siders have always shown up. It is said that the South Side can bring the bodies, but the West Side can bring the spirit. We have been there when Dr. King was in North Lawndale. We have been here since Haymarket Riots and the Haymarket Massacre, and we will be here until gentrification ceases in our communities.

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‘My ancestors were freedom fighters, and they’re teaching me how to fight’

Let Us Breath organizer Kaleb Autman, 18, reflects on his awakening as a West Side activist and how he's responding to the needs of his community.

Harris: I think a lot of times when folks think about just the struggles, their mind goes to the South Side. But it’s like, we over here struggling too. And it just looks different. So what does it mean to just amplify those differences rather than writing them off?

What do you think we’ve learned from our ancestors through this work?

Autman: Our survival is the revolution. Us just living and breathing is a byproduct of a state that seeks to kill and destroy our bodies. We don’t need to go and mass up arms for us to be talking about the

revolution. We are the revolution. It is in our bodies. It is in our bones. It is in our art. It is in the way that we speak. We deserve this movement individually, communally, but one of us is not the movement. We don’t center leaders in the Movement for Black Lives for a specific reason, knowing COINTELPRO, knowing the assassination of our civil rights leaders.

Harris: I think another thing that I’ve learned from folks who have been doing this work for a long time is that Black joy is as much a movement as Black resistance. When King and the kids were marching in the 60s during the Children’s Crusades, there was joy in the streets. And I think a lot of times, some folks, they try and tell me, how are y’all jumping rope in the street and our people are out here getting killed in the streets? And it’s just like, no, Black joy is an act of resistance. It is as much of the movement as trauma, our trauma.

We face trauma in our day to day life. So resistance in a moment can look like us teeing up in the streets. The fact that we’re in the streets is resistance, the fact that we’re living, like you said, being Black and living is revolutionary. The movement doesn’t have to be depressing. You know? What does it mean to rejoice in the streets and come in solidarity? We’re all there because of that trauma but we don’t have to exhibit that trauma when we’re in the streets. We carry it with us, but what does it mean to be joyful as a form of resistance? So that’s something that I’ve really learned.

Harris: What does the world look like for you in 15 years?

Autman: I hope to have secured that Ph.D. and that law bag. Dr. Kaleb Autman with a JD behind it. I hope to have produced a body of work creatively through my writings, my films, my photography, and audio projects around this radical journey of learning consciousness and unlearning all of my bigotness, right. We all are unlearning the ways in which we’ve inherited the systems that we seek to destroy and that seeks to destroy us. Just around my community, I hope to secure some sort of structural element for the West Side to live on and on for decades to come and to continue to support organizing and community work.

Harris: Similarly to what you said, I hope to have produced a body of writings, documenting my experiences, these lived experiences that are going to become archives for the future. I hope to have built up a large network of longtime West Siders who are going to continue in this movement and making sure that we’re here for the long run. And just having big, big personal relations and a lot of community relations. Also hope to have rendered some policy. And then also I think most importantly, we talk about abolition as this concept, but I hope that in 10 to 15 years, what is abolition look like interpersonally is something that I’m fully practicing. It is in my day to day life. Yes, abolition is an idea, but to practice it on a daily basis in the smallest ways. That’s what I hope to happen in 10 to 15 years.

Harris: Thank y’all so much and thank y’all for making space for us to have this conversation and thank y’all for listening. Peace.

This piece was produced by Erisa Apantaku, the executive producer of South Side Weekly Radio, Injustice Watch editor Adeshina Emmanuel, Kaleb Autman, and Destiny Harris.