BRIDGEPORT — In middle school, Beverly native Joshua Houston discovered poetry, and with it he found an outlet for his stress and a platform for self expression.
Houston’s love of poetry helped him get through hard times. Now, as he gets ready to graduate from UIC College Prep, the 18 year old’s passion for poems has led him to start an after-school poetry program, win a citywide talent competition and earn a full-ride scholarship to college.
“I knew as a kid I had a lot of moments where I wanted to speak up or I had something I wanted to say but I wasn’t able to say it,” Houston said of his turn to poetry. “It was a great platform to share what I saw in society.”
Houston grew up in Beverly but went to school at Mark Sheridan Academy Bridgeport, where he joined the Valentine Boys & Girls Club, 3400 S. Emerald St., starting in second grade. Going to the club let him meet kids of different backgrounds and experiences, which expanded his worldview. Still, Houston didn’t exactly have an outlet for expressing that worldview.
That changed when illness struck his family. The summer before his 8th grade year, Houston’s dad contracted meningitis. The illness kept his father in the hospital for much of Houston’s eighth grade year, and for much of that time his father couldn’t move or speak, he said. (His dad has since recovered.)
Around the same time, Houston received a classroom assignment in which he chose quotes from a book to turn into a poem. He got positive feedback on his work, and noticed that he liked the idea of writing poetry. Soon enough, he was enthralled.
“That was the hardest time for me,” Houston said of his father’s illness. “Being able to write helped me cope with all these emotions I felt at the time. It was a really good outlet for me.”
Houston continued to write, and he brought his love of poetry to the Boys & Girls Club.
As a leader of the Peacemakers Club, a joint program of the Boys & Girls Club and After School Matters, Houston organized an open mic for kids to talk about issues of violence and its causes. Houston performed a spoken-word piece about growing up black in Chicago, and the stereotypes foisted on him and his friends.
“The kids just want to make a change in the city or their small community,” he said of the open mic. “To see that light in the darkness, so to say, was very nice.”
Houston has also started a poetry program at the Valentine Boys & Girls Club, a new effort that is already showing promise, said club director Dawn Jimenez.
“He really got the kids to open up and express themselves,” she said. “We encourage the kids to try different things, because they just might like it.”
Houston reprised that spoken-word piece for the 2019 Year of the Youth ceremony, a Boys & Girls Club program that awards just one local student the top prize based on leadership, service and academics.
At the awards ceremony on March 7, Houston got on a stage in front of city leaders and peers alike and talked about his commute from Beverly to Bridgeport and back, where he saw the poverty and racism that keeps burdens Chicago residents. He spoke about the outlet that poetry, and the Boys & Girls Club, allowed for him.
“There was a lot of people there who have a lot of power in the city or had the means to create change,” he said of the Year of the Youth ceremony. “To be able to say what I saw and show them my perspective on Chicago was great.”
Houston won the award, and is now moving on to compete for the statewide Year of the Youth title. With his win, Houston was awarded a computer, White Sox tickets and two round-trip flights to anywhere in the U.S. from United Airlines.
Houston hasn’t decided where he’ll fly, since he’s busy wrapping up his senior year and getting ready for college. Houston will attend St. Olaf College in Minnesota after winning the Posse scholarship, a highly selective program that seeks to boost minority students wanting to go to college. Houston plans to study psychology before going to law school, he said.
As he gets ready for the next chapter in his life, Houston credits much of his success to his love of poetry — and the Boys & Girls club for fostering that love.
“Without the club, I wouldn’t be in a lot of the good positions I’m in today, because I grew up here,” he said. “Just being able to have those experience have really shaped my view on the world and what I want to do when I grow up.”
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