Citizen Schools video still

That’s nice

Check your ego at the door

In the community with the Institute of Politics.

Jeanie Chung

First-year Ratul Esrar stands before a class of middle school students at Schmid Elementary on Chicago’s South Side, struggling to keep their attention as he explains the point of an attention getter in a public service announcement.

“What’s something you think is surprising?” he asks.

“You’ve got to say something interesting,” says Malik, an eighth grader.

“What do you find interesting about gang violence?”

“They’re all teenagers,” a voice from the back row pipes up.

“OK,” says fourth-year Katherine Sacco. “Then you need a slogan. Do you all know what a slogan is?”

“It’s, like, a catchy phrase,” says another voice above a rising tide of chatter.

“What’s McDonald’s slogan?” Sacco asks.

“I’m lovin’ it!” shouts half the class.

Esrar, Sacco, and first-year Jonathan Acevedo volunteer through UChicago’s Institute of Politics with the education nonprofit Citizen Schools, which provides extended learning opportunities in low-income schools. Over ten weeks, they help 22 students produce video PSAs on issues of their choosing.

None of the UChicago students plan to become teachers, but they wanted to work with young people. Any visions of a Stand and Deliver–style story of inspiration and triumph quickly vanished, however; politics and messaging can be dry, particularly for middle school students in a required class at the end of the day.

When Acevedo and Esrar arrived at Schmid in February, an eighth grader, in the middle of a conversation, stood in front of one of them and swept his hand down and back up, as if drawing a giant V in the air.

The V was a check mark, symbolizing putting someone in their place: in check. “It’s hilarious,” Acevedo says, “but the first time you see it—I was just so confused.”

Yet the students are listening, in their own way. Kayla, an eighth grader, admits she’s not particularly interested in crafting a message or researching an issue. “It’s more about giving a presentation, how to stand, how to speak, how to be respectful,” she says.

The Schmid students are divided into four issue groups: gang violence, bullying, raising the minimum wage, and animal abuse. By week eight the students are enthusiastically planning scripts and slogans. The gang violence group chooses “Stop the violence and save lives.” On a similar note, the bullying group goes with “Bullying needs to stop now for a better life.” The minimum wage group wants to use “It’s my money and I need it now.” The animal abuse group has the punchiest: “Refuse to abuse.”

The gang violence group rehearses a scene in which one student confronts another with an imaginary gun. Meanwhile Esrar attempts to bribe the minimum wage group with promises of Harold’s chicken if they can just focus, and then entertains them with his Obama impression: “Tell. Me. Your facts.”

“The minimum wage is too low!” shouts Richard, an eighth grader.

“How much is the minimum wage?” Esrar asks, still trying to channel the president.


“And how much do you make in a year on $7.25 an hour?”

“Fifteen thousand dollars!”

“Write that down. That’s what I’ve got to see,” Esrar says, returning to his normal voice.

Minutes later, Elijah, an eighth grader, approaches Esrar. Before he can speak, Esrar mimes drawing the giant V, putting Elijah in check.


“Refuse to abuse”: Students end their video PSA about animal abuse with a catchy slogan, just like their UChicago mentors suggested. (Video still courtesy Citizen Schools)