Pope John XXIII School added a new feature to its observance of Black History Month. Teacher Meaghan Heaton created a contest open to all middle school students (6th, 7th, and 8th grades), which was optional. She said she saw the contest as a way to further the school’s “ongoing effort toward racial equity and as a response to students’ clear desire for expression of their Black identity and/or their increased understanding of this identity within their community, especially in the midst of our national reckoning.”

She prompted students to write about local people (including themselves) whom they consider inspiring. Happy to be together after the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, faculty, staff, and parents joined in as judges, “We miss each other a lot,” Ms. Heaton says.

She does not underestimate the students who responded to the challenge. “These kids took big risks putting themselves out there for the whole community without being required to do so. I didn’t get a lot of work, but what I got gave me chills.”

Bookends and Beginnings, Booked, Field Notes, and Pope John’s Parent Association donated prizes to the winners.

This first installment features the first-place entries. Two of these are followed by a comment by the writer in response to a question from Ms. Heaton at the awards ceremony on April 9.

African American Arts Alliance of Chicago 

By Belle Thommen

First Place, Sixth-Grade Essay

African American Arts Alliance of Chicago is a Black organization that lifts up African American performers. Their story starts off in 1997 when a group of Chicago’s leading African American artists and arts organizations came together to form a new organization: The African American Arts Alliance of Chicago. This organization took on so many different, diverse areas of the arts, including theater, dance, music, literature, film, and visual arts. 

 To hear that they have an organization to lift up black performers is so inspiring to me as an artist. And not only do they support local people, but they also celebrate the Black performers of history that may not have gotten the recognition they deserved. That being said of course Black people were not recognized a long time ago. Black performers need to be recognized for their creativity, achievements, and work ethic.

The organization does these award ceremonies about every year called The Black Excellence Awards. The committee will evaluate different performances and works from artists that have participated in the arts. If you win you’ll get a reward that shows what you accomplished. This is why we should support this organization, and so many more Black organizations in Illinois. We need to take a stand because Black people are often the only ones who recognize the achievements of their own culture and people. While sometimes we don’t. 

Instead we teach most children of our time white accomplishments, and just about white people. Then they grow up with very little knowledge of the African American culture. The African American Arts Alliance of Chicago is really a powerful community, supporting all of the Black people who want to be performers. There aren’t many reviews, but online everyone has given them 5 stars, and they seem to like them. This year they did an extra-special Martin Luther King Junior Day celebration. I took a look at the video, and it was quite literally amazing. There was speaking, dancing, singing, and so much more to celebrate this amazing man.

By just reading over their heartfelt website, and researching the organization, it really made a difference in how I look at the arts. There is so much beauty to how the group performs  and how they incorporate their culture. 

Belle Thommen (Photo from Pope John XXIII School)

Comment from the writer: What I’d say to young people who would like to express themselves in writing… Go for it, writing is a way to get all of your thoughts out onto a piece of paper. And the best part is you don’t have to share it with anyone. It’s your writing, so be creative. Think to yourself: how are you today? Are you sad, happy, annoyed, tired? What’s going on around you? Anything you want to tell your piece of paper, write it down, collect all of your thoughts. After this experience, I would totally recommend taking a chance, and sharing your thoughts, speeches, etc. Everyone has their own unique way of expressing themselves so why not try?”

Sylvester Johnson

By John Alznauer

First Place, Eighth-Grade Essays

A long time ago, when I was much younger, I had a friend whose father, Sylvester Johnson, worked at Northwestern University. Professor Johnson was a Professor of African-American Studies, who worked with my dad, a Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern, on a couple of occasions. About four years ago Professor Johnson decided to leave Northwestern for a job that gave him more freedom to follow a new passion of his, artificial intelligence. Through his unique experience with African-American Studies he was able to think about many fascinating unanswered moral questions. For example, who or what is a person? This question arises naturally when thinking about slavery, but comes up in a new context in the field of artificial intelligence.

Long before Professor Johnson left for Virginia Tech, where he is now employed, he led a discussion with my friends about artificial intelligence and showed us some of the cutting edge chatbots and AI of the time. In one of the chatbots you could enter text into a small box and have it respond with either a triviality or some barely relevant nonsense. For example, I could ask it what its favorite food was, and it would reply, “Lasagna.” A simple question, but at the time it captivated my friends and me. It’s incredible to think how much has changed in the four years since he showed us this. Today, when I tried out that same bot, she could understand many of the statements that I made, even if some were fairly complex due to the hundreds of thousands of conversations she had stored and could now reference. For example, I had a conversation with her about her intelligence, and I was able to go pretty far into the conversation before she started to lose track of what we were even talking about in the first place. 

As the artificial intelligence industry was changing, so were Professor Johnson’s interests. He began to evolve from researching artificial intelligence as a hobby to pursuing a job involving artificial intelligence and the humanities. He was hired away from Northwestern to Virginia Tech to lead the Humanities Department and to found the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities, where he and many others explore fascinating questions like: “Will an intelligent machine have the same moral compass that humans do? If we create intelligent machines, do they deserve the same rights that humans do?” We also have more immediate questions that are affecting us today like: How can we build an AI that learns from humans but doesn’t adopt the many forms of bias we all have? And finally, are we alright with our kids being influenced by these seemingly conscious robots? This is already happening with the “just announced soon-to-be-released Barbie that interacts with children by having conversations with them,” Professor Johnson mentions in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.

For Professor Johnson it is not a question of if robots will become conscious, but what we do when it happens. He is optimistic, but he is also well aware of all of the dangers that come with bringing a robot to life. “Being human,” he said in a Chicago Tribune interview, “is really manifested through the cognitive — through thinking and reasoning and showing empathy — so what happens when machines can do that?”

Professor Johnson is an impressive African-American studies and technology professor who is on the front lines of contemplating these futuristic questions and researching the trajectory of artificial intelligence. I personally am captivated by his ideas, and I love hearing about each new project that he is working on.

John Alznauer (Photo from Pope John XXIII School)

Comment from the writer: I really enjoyed writing the essay because a while ago the family friend I wrote about moved away, so because I was littler at the time, I didn’t get to know as much as I would have liked about him and his work. As I myself am fascinated by artificial intelligence, reading about his work was fascinating.”

Culture, Community, Cafe:

A free verse on the local  café  Yofresh and its inspirational role as a black-owned business and community center in the Evanston community

By Juan Carlos Chiwah

Sixth-Grade Poetry, First Place and Most Inspiring

Walking through those open doors

Grand yet subtle,

Open to all and everyone

A bright place

Peaceful but ever moving

A new feeling of joy and togetherness

An idea 

A retirement recast to action

Doctors turned cafe owners

A couple transforming the community

Teaching, teaching culture and new ideas 

Inspiring others to come together and learn

Opening our minds to strangers, and creating a space

A space for each and every one of us

A place for people to share

Inspiring through music, entertainment, and change

An oasis brimming activism and changing the future

A place where people can truly recognize others not by their skin 

But by their lives, their truths, their dreams 

A place where there is only equality and space for all stories

All races, all walks of life, all can truly be

Diversity, education, show who you are, show who you want to be

More than a cafe, a place for friends and family

A place for strangers, dreamers, activists, educators…

A place for you and me.

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