Community re-entry can be one of the biggest barriers young people face once they leave the juvenile justice system. From past discrepancies to a lack of resources, there are many factors determining their risk of reincarceration. Standing opposite of this battle is Stomping Grounds, a monthly open mic night organized by Free Write Arts & Literacy, Elephant Rebellion, and Kuumba Lynks.

Each month’s open mic, held at the Chicago Art Department, includes a featured artist, a workshop session and, of course, open time for performers to sing, rap, dance and express themselves on stage however they feel. The resulting community functions as a space of joy and healing beyond the juvenile justice system.

“We tell young folks to hit us up after they’re out of incarceration but then it’s like, what do we have for them? So here, there’s a monthly open mic you can go to where you can utilize the skills you’ve learned at Free Write,” says Free Write Visual Arts Program Director and Stomping Grounds founder Elgin-Bokari Thotmas Smith. “We’re just trying to think of creative ways to keep young people engaged and to build equity because that’s what it comes to. At the end of the day, young folks need housing, they need funds, and they need engagement.”

Elgin created Stomping Grounds in 2017 to maintain connections and offer support for the Free Write students he taught at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. As an Envisioning Justice hub, Free Write works within the Center to radically alter the narratives around incarcerated youth and center the arts as a valid tool in that struggle. However, as Elgin noticed more students getting released at 21, the age at which the juvenile court commonly ends their jurisdictions, he also noticed there was no tangible way for them to maintain contact to an important resource, the Free Write community.

Preparing young people for re-engaging with their community is at the heart of Elgin’s efforts. For him, it’s a central tool in fighting recidivism, or reincarceration. When young people have community, access to employment and an overall sense that people are investing in their futures, they are more likely to stay out of the system. In Stomping Ground’s short time, Elgin has seen 20 of his past Free Write students become active community members.

Chicago rapper Moshe “B.O.N. Moshe” Sykes has been one of Elgin’s students since participating in Kuumba Lynks when he was eight and now co-hosts Stomping Grounds. He’s watched from the beginning of the open mic as music and art formed the collective he raps to each month.

“I feel like music and dance is a great way to bring people together,” he said. “The connection I’ve made with some of these people off of just music is awesome. I never thought I’d have this close bond with people I do music with now.”

Moving forward, Elgin wants to continue fostering these bonds and forming a community that youth feel comfortable returning to once they get released. The mission there is simply to bring more youth in and limit reincarceration as much as he can.

“I think it’s therapeutic to watch the young people grow. And as long as people provide me with space, I’m going to try to keep space for young folks to be able to express themselves and do what they do,” says Elgin. “It’s these things that make me wanna stay on my toes too. They motivate me to create and do great work.”

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  • (Left to Right) Moshe “B.O.N. Moshe” Sykes, Clayton “Cee-Baby” Harris, and Elgin-Bokari Thotmas Smith welcome the audience to the Stomping Grounds open mic.

  • Diamond, a student of the Stomping Grounds teaching artists, raps her new song to the crowd.

  • The crowd listens and dances as a student raps her original rhymes at Stomping Grounds open mic.

  • Crowd and stage merge as an impromptu dance circle breaks out during a performance.

  • Elgin closes out Stomping Grounds with a customary circle promising to manifest the peace they fostered at the open mic everywhere they go.