When Ayoka Samuels talks about the young people she works with as director of the Gary Comer Youth Center, she’s quick to call them curious, funny, good kids.
And one other thing: Resilient.
Resilient is also a word that describes Samuels. She was raised in a family with a strong social consciousness, which helped her cope with negative stereotypes of African Americans when she was growing up in the South Side neighborhood of Beverly. She uses her early experiences with race—good and bad—to help guide her work with youth at the Comer Center in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood.
At the center, Samuels’ goal is to provide students with academic support and extracurricular activities. In addition to after-school programming, including gardening on the center’s rooftop and learning hip-hop dance, the center also works with its neighbor, Gary Comer College Prep, to help students apply for college.
Samuels has worked at the center for a decade and has worked with kids for almost 25 years. She has a lot of experience with young people, and not just in her professional life. In December 2013, her car was stolen and taken on a joyride by a group of unarmed teenagers. When the car unexpectedly backed up as police were trying to pull it over, an officer fired at the car and two of the teens were injured. The case resulted in a settlement with the city. The Chicago Reporter obtained a video of the shooting and reported about it in June.
Samuels wishes she could have a conversation with the teens who stole her car. “I can see myself talking to all of them, saying, ‘So you decided that you were going to take my car? Really? For what?’”
The Reporter recently met with Samuels at the youth center to talk about her upbringing and how it led to her work today.
How would you describe the kids that you work with, and what are their needs?
We mostly work with African American young people, but increasingly young people from the Latino community. A lot of people don’t think that race and ethnicity and discrimination impacts kids, but it does. It plays into their self-esteem. And their quality of life is often based upon their race, ethnicity and economic status. Young people need support there, as well as around quality of life, because even with educational support you can’t (improve) if you don’t feel safe. …Your basic needs need to be met. All they see is kids who are in the same situations as they are so they think that this must be what life is like.
Can you give me an example of that?
We take them out of the neighborhood (to expose them to new things). They’ll just say stuff like, “You know, they don’t really have this out here.” Nope, sure don’t. Or a simple field trip to the Schaumburg Park District. It’s an indoor waterpark. “Do we have anything like this in our neighborhood?” And then they start to think about, “Well, why is that?” And it opens up an opportunity to have a conversation as to why.
Tell me about an experience growing up that had an impact on you and influenced what you do today.
My family was one of the first black families to move into the Beverly area in the ’70s. At that time, most of the people who lived in Beverly were white, and many of them were not ready to have black neighbors. What I was saying earlier about young people being resilient, I see that in my own self when I was seven or eight years old and people were calling me a nigger. I don’t necessarily want to shield young people from difficult times, but if there are things that they don’t have to go through, let’s not have them go through that.
[One time] it was my job to take out the garbage. So I got up in the morning and had to walk past the garage. Spray-painted on the garage was “white power” and “niggers suck.” My dad was on the Harold Washington (mayoral) campaign so he had this big poster with Harold Washington on it and put it in the window. Everyone who walked back and forth for the train was going to see it. My dad said, ‘That’s not going to intimidate us into putting Harold Washington’s sign away.’ We were like, “What about the garage?” My dad was a lawyer, a civil rights attorney. He said, “We’re not going to take it down.” For weeks, the neighborhood association would come to my parents’ house and ask us when we planned on painting the garage. Finally, they asked if we weren’t going to paint it, “Would you let us paint it for you?” And my dad (his point made) said, “Oh yeah, sure.”
Your car was stolen by teenagers and then shot at by a Chicago police officer. Can you tell me about that experience?
One of the things that ran through my head was, “It better not be one of the kids I know.” Then when they told me about the shooting, I didn’t really know where to put that. It was crazy. …For the (kids) I’m like, this is bad because now you’re wrapped up in a situation where you’re in jail. No matter how long they were in jail, you were there, someone got shot. On the police side, I know they were doing their job, but at the same time, was that the best idea they could come up with? Police misconduct has been happening forever in this country. My bottom line is none of it had to happen.
Did you ever talk about it at work?
The kids know. Then when (The Reporter) released it, people saw it on the news. And I thought, “Well, let’s talk about it.” The young people were like, “Are you okay?” So I don’t hide the fact that I’m human from them. It’s interesting because there were some young people who actually helped me process it. It gave us something to talk about and process about crime and violence in the city of Chicago.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.