Alani Espinosa from Oak Park and River Forest High School and Daja Reeves from Whitney Young are the two winners of Sarah’s Inn’s inaugural Youth Voice Award (YVA) competition this year. Their spoken word videos showed an incredible maturity and authenticity of voice, said Carol Gall, executive director of Sarah’s Inn, a non-profit working to improve lives of those affected by domestic violence. The organization is headquartered in Forest Park and serves people in the Chicagoland area.
“This year’s winners clearly painted a picture with words,” Gall said. “They were engaging to listen to and hear their perspective.”
But Gall said that she and the competition judges were blown away by all the pieces that were submitted. “It was amazing to hear youth speak so articulately about their thoughts on these topics,” said Gall. “It was tough to decide.”
The contest was open to high school students aged 14 to 18 and focused on themes of gender roles affecting dating violence, the effects of domestic violence on the community and the role social media plays in perpetuation of dating violence. Creativity and freedom of expression were encouraged, and 43 youth sent in submissions that included written work (such as essays, short stories and poetry), video (including dance song and spoken word) and physical art (painting, mixed media, photography).
Winners received an award and $2,000. Seventeen-year-old Espinosa from Oak Park said the experience was rewarding aside from the money and recognition.
“It’s a really great honor to win, especially because it was the first time Sarah’s Inn held the competition,” Espinosa said. “It was definitely a fun experience and I’m proud of how I pushed myself.”
Espinosa’s spoken word piece is entitled “See here, a feminist guide,” and Espinosa said she was particularly inspired by the competition prompts, which, she said, allowed freedom to express her ideas on the topic of feminism, which included challenging the way the feminism movement is seen and taught.
“As a Latina, it was very difficult for me to see myself in the traditional feminist movement, when I would learn about it in history class,” Espinosa said. That was the topic addressed in her spoken word winning entry for the competition. The idea of womanism and its importance in the original feminist movement, said Espinosa, are important to her.
“The fact that the contest wasn’t just closed to relationship violence gave me the opportunity to reflect on gender norms and social media and how that impacts relationships in general,” Espinosa said.
Timing-wise, said Espinosa, the competition entry period coincided with the Sarah Everard movement, which inspired the hashtag #TextMeWhenYouGetHome and the global discussion of harassment and fear. Espinosa said she saw support for women across social media, but she also saw people choosing not to say anything or to use the opportunity to shame women.
The theme of social media and its impact on gender stereotypes was one that Gall said was reflected in many of the 43 entries to the competition.
“It was really clear to all of us that the youth have so much to say about the impact of social media and how it perpetuates certain gender stereotypes and perpetuates negativity around self-image,” Gall said. “We saw the theme that there is almost a burden that social media has on youth in this day and age, which we found to be really interesting.”
Hearing and listening to the voices of young people is an important part of Sarah’s Inn’s work in prevention, as part of the organization’s mission is to break the cycle of domestic violence for future generations, said Gall.
“The premise and foundation of our prevention work is to really be out in the community and engaging young people around relationships, and what healthy relationships or unhealthy relationships look like, and making sure that they have the skills and the tools and the mechanisms to know that they have control over how they develop every relationship in their life, and how they can help manage those relationships from a very young age,” Gall said.
Gall said Sarah’s Inn has been actively doing prevention work for 20 years, but the competition was a chance to really shine a light on the important conversations that young people are having, but not necessarily having with adults.
“They’re seeing these things, and they’re experiencing these things, and they’re seeing friends and peers experiencing these things,” Gall said. “And they have something to say about it, and what they have to say is really important.”
Listening to and actively involving young people as part of domestic violence prevention isn’t a new concept to Sarah’s Inn. For 15 years, the organization has run a youth committee, open to high school age young adults. During COVID-19, said Gall, the twice-monthly meetings were held over Zoom, allowing youth who might not have participated in person due to scheduling or distance to become involved.
Typically, the Sarah’s Inn team bounce ideas off the youth committee members and engages them in helping with the organization’s mission. For example, during February, which is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, the youth committee members are asked to take over Sarah’s Inn social media, creating and sharing content, another way that Sarah’s Inn elevates youth voice and perspective.
“But I think we found, especially during COVID, the youth have really leaned in to Youth Committee, and have seen it as a source of additional support and resource to them,” said Gall. So much so, in fact, that although the regular meetings of the group are paused like usual for the summer, the committee members expressed the desire to stay together and will hold a monthly book club.
Sarah’s Inn Youth Committee is open to all high school students. Learn more at www.sarahsinn.org/youth-committee.
To see the winning entries from the Youth Voice Award Competition, visit www.sarahsinntv.org.