All the Worldwide Web’s A Stage: Zooming Into Speak Up!

by Northlight Theatre

This spring concluded our first ever Speak Up! summit. Northlight Teaching Artist Sheldon Brown shares his experience with Northlight and his involvement with the summit.

Zoom quickly turned from a TV show of my childhood to my classroom space for one of the wildest years of my life. That’s how I was launched into Northlight’s Speak Up!, a program designed to empower students to use their voices to express the changes they want to see in their chosen communities as well as the things they’d like to celebrate through collaboration and artmaking. This inaugural event, despite the many challenges of the pandemic and virtual learning we were able to work with 8 different schools and almost 500 students. I taught at two schools working with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders as well as an after school program for high schoolers. Through our time together, I quickly learned that getting folks to perform and create on Zoom would be challenging. As a result, we expanded the scope of themes students explored from social change and responsibility to self care, affirmation, reflection, and empowerment. Students created memes that showcased their growth, virtual collages that gave thanks to individuals in their life they cared about, short stories that explored misconceptions that they faced, and more.

To build on this work and create opportunities for the students to connect, the Northlight Education team created a Speak Up! summit. The summit was a three-week virtual event in which students had access to an array of pre-recorded workshops that explored themes of gratitude, self care, and reflection, and asked them to think critically about their school environments and voice what they wanted their school community to be. I had the privilege of creating the themes for our recorded workshops and, along with a cohort of other teaching artists, spent several months pulling together the many elements that made this summit happen. This included writing scripts, recording videos, and laying the groundwork to create Northlights first digital zine: unmute (the zine). This zine not only gave us an opportunity to showcase the work students did for our Speak Up! summit, but it allowed us to take the artmaking students did during the school year and share that with the larger Chicago community. This zine will be featured on the Northlight website, sent to our subscribers, and held at a few local libraries and bookstores in the city such as Sulzer Regional Library and Quimby’s Bookstore.  And on top of being published artists, students also received compensation for sharing their work with us!

We got art submissions for unmute (the zine) from every school partner we did Speak Up! with this year. And although we were not able to host an in-person event for the summit, we plan to do so next school year, taking the lessons we learned from this inaugural event. We hope to engage more students, empower them to use their voices, and give them an opportunity to make their voices heard all over this city!


































About Teaching Artist Sheldon Brown:
Sheldon Brown
is a graduate of Emerson College ’14. He performed in Time Is On Our Side and This Bitter Earth at About Face Theatre and soon after became an Artistic Associate. His other credits include A Wonder In My Soul at Victory Gardens Theatre. Oedipus Rex and Man In The Ring by Pulitzer Prize playwright Michael Cristofer at Court Theatre and more. He also has numerous credits in Boston including The Grand Inquisitor, directed by Peter Brook through ArtsEmerson. His film credits include Cicada ( SFFILM Rainin Grant, OutFest, BFI Flare Festival, Frameline Film Festival), The Canyonlands, and My Name is Alex. He is a recipient of the President’s Award for Creative Courage from Emerson College for his work educating and inspiring others to create social change. He is a teaching artist with Northlight and Steppenwolf Theatre, as well as the League of Chicago Theatres in conjunction with the August Wilson Monologue Competition.