Made in Uptown: Alternatives Inc.

Founded by residents concerned about teen drug use and who wanted to provide “alternatives” to dropping out of school, Alternatives, Inc. has been providing critical programming -for Chicago’s young people since 1971. Uptown United spoke with Judy Gall, Alternatives’ Executive Director about the organization’s long history in Uptown, its growth, and continued work to impact youth across the city.

Today, Alternatives is a robust youth development organization serving over 4,000 youth annually by working in nearly 30 public schools and at its center at 4730 N Sheridan that offers counseling services and after school programming six days a week for youth between 12 and 24.

Decades of growth. Alternatives approach aims to develop programs that build social skills and empowers youth to create a vision for themselves. In the 1970’s, the youth created a coffee shop and worked in their on-site print shop. In the 1980s, Alternatives supported Uptown’s influx of Southeast Asian refugee youth with transitional services. In the 1990’s, working with Senn High School students and administration, Alternatives created the restorative practices used within the CPS schools system. By 2000, the organization had outgrown its space near Loyola and moved into its Uptown building, a 1914 vaudeville theater that was previously a Columbia College. And in 2001, Alternatives gave seed funds to CircEsteem, now a separate nonprofit founded that helps kids build self-esteem through the circus arts.

The bricolage mural on the Sheridan Road façade was installed in 2006, as part of the agency’s restorative justice work. Alternatives worked with youth from juvenile courts to give them options to give back to the community. The words embedded in it – hope, mentor, share, and others – are values that the young people who worked on the project wanted passersby to reflect on and are meant to create hope in the community. These words are, essentially, all things that young people want.

Meeting youth where they are. The agency’s many programs challenge young people to use their voices to speak up on issues that matter to them. Alternatives relies on an evidence-informed approach that aims to inspire youth to affect positive change not only for themselves but also their communities.

Alternatives programs work to address youths’ most pressing needs such as trauma and violence, using a strengths-based approach to help place them in jobs and apprenticeships, and exploring self-confidence through the arts. It also offers a 24-hour crisis intervention service to prevent young people from entering child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Social Justice programs. Alternatives recognizes that young people are very aware of issues if just given the space to think critically about how they can be part of the change to build safer, more positive communities. To help them do just that, Alternatives runs Girl World for young women and MAVReC for young men. These programs employ a participatory evaluation process to identify and explore issues that matter to teens and employ interviews, research, and presenting back to community.

For example, MAVReC recently led discussions about the impact of substance abuse, while Girl World participants researched street harassment. Finding that harassment often happens on public transit, Girl World participants met with the board of the CTA to share their research, who then work with the girls to implement design changes to theCTA’s website, and to initiate better signage and procedures to help curb street harassment.

Behavioral health. To support teens in the process of development, Alternatives offers individual, family, and group counseling services in schools and Alternatives’ sites to address some of the many challenges youth face, such as conflict resolution, discipline, and life-skills development. The service reaches hundreds of youth and includes substance abuse counseling and family crisis intervention.

What’s next? This summer Alternatives is hosting a summer-long camp for middle-schoolers and has already placed nearly 200 youth in jobs across the city that include offices, day cares, and community sites teaching youth to become peace ambassadors. Otherwise, Alternatives is always working to build more resources for young people in public schools, while also working to expand its robust behavioral health services and youth development programs in the schools and in the community.

Those interested in volunteering or becoming involved can fill out a form online, donate, or follow the agency’s social media.