It was a Friday morning. I was on my way to the Union Station carrying two oversized bags for just a week in Michigan. I got an Uber because my weak privileged arms couldn’t carry my luggage on the CTA. With some last minute packing while rushing to my Uber, I wasn’t in the mood to chat it up. I wanted a silent drive that would balance my previous angst of trying to get ready in the last minute. However, Lydell Smith, my Uber driver complimented my shoes right when I got in. So I couldn’t resist throwing a compliment back about his neat coily hair-do. That exchange initiated the un-silent long conversation about life of course. Towards the end of the car ride I felt unsatisfied with the limited information and decided he was someone to know. Someone Chicago Rises needed to share. Therefore, we set up a day to meet up and get to the core of how he is a Chicagoan with a story.

The day we met up, I came in with some heavy worry because I was late. I thought I had enough time to run a couple miles to the post office, get a new passport, and run to the café to meet Lydell. I was very wrong. I forgot about the long lines and the many necessities for getting a new passport. In addition, I wasn’t as in shape as I assumed. I had the assumption that I was a superwoman and could bounce right back into running after a break during the usual horrid Chicago winters. Nope, I needed to do that run walk, which wouldn’t get me to Lydell in time. Luckily, the moment I stepped into the café with my sweat rolling down like I had just dived into some waterfall, Lydell was relaxed. He welcomed me in and was ready to share his story as if I had been waiting for him.

Lydell has been living and growing in Chicago for a little over a year. He’s originally from Shreveport, Louisiana where he helped start a successful youth ministry but made the decision to resign for some needed clarity in his life. During this departure he found a peace of mind and was ready to make his next move. A book called Sun Stand Still by Steven Furtick reminded him of big leaps of faith, which helped push him to his next move. He said it was terrifying, but that fear alone was a sign to come to Chicago. Now Lydell was no stranger to this city. He came to visit his cousin a couple times before and every time he stepped in the city he didn’t have the classic tourist experience. His cousin made sure he went straight to the neighborhood spots to feel the heart beat of Chicago.

Once he made the big move to Chicago, it took Lydell a while to get a job and exercise his passion as a mentor. Along the wait he met some people that helped him connect with the city and other opportunities. But he had to take a moment and decide if he would take up an offer as a mentor for the Friday Night Live middle and high school youth program that the New City Church led in Wicker Park. He said it was hard because he saw himself taking up “bigger” positions. Coming from such a successful start up made him feel like he was ready for the next big step. Eventually he realized that no victory was too small for him. In fact, this is one the toughest position he has ever experienced in his life.

Every Friday the Friday Night Live youth program meets at the Field House in Wicker Park. At the very most, on a Friday night there may be twenty-five people coming out. Even thought these numbers are tiny compared to his previous experience in Louisiana, he says it’s challenging for a very important reason. “You can’t microwave relationships.” He realizes that prior to his participation, this program ran for a year but had to stop for a year due to a lack of help. Since it has started back up in August 2015, he has had to show these youth that he is there for them. Similar to my assumptions, one may assume that these youth are well off in the gentrified privileged Wicker Park. What is he doing there? However, gentrification is a process. And as much as it seems like all the people who used to live in Wicker Park have been displaced into other neighborhoods, there are still people who are hanging by the threads in some lower income areas of the neighborhood. In turn, as they live in what is left of the government housing, they don’t get to indulge in the overpriced luxuries Wicker Park has to offer. They are displaced within their own neighborhood. These circumstances lead to a lack of positive role models. Therefore, Lydell understands that he has some work to do, while mindfully treading in some deep waters.

While cultivating these relationships with the youth, his main goal is to empower the youth to live healthy, happy lives, and have access to opportunities through knowledge of their importance and power. Sure they mostly come for the basketball but that is simply the surface of what is being offered. What they may or may not realize is that they are receiving a space to not be used but to feel like they are useful human beings. They are in a space where they have role models that can show them respect, dignity, patience, and capability. At the same time, Lydell admits that he has learned from the youth as well. They constantly teach him patience and how he doesn’t always have to push as a leader but take a step back and let them use their own voice.

In the future, Lydell wishes to see this program better than what he started with. This requires external funding. The budget is quite small, so it is not easy to expand the opportunities they wish to give the youth. Internally, he wants to see anyone come out better than they came in. “I get to see them every Friday but what I really want to know is what you are like on a Monday.” He wants the youth to carry these fundamentals in life to reach a sounder mind and greater heights. He admits that he may not be able to see it because the measure of the programs results could appear in twenty years when the students have a job, family, healthy life, or any sort of qualifying measurement. Despite the long wait to see how these youth’s lives play out, he finds constant energy to keep going through his faith and progress towards a balanced life. “I know I can’t change Chicago, but I can change one kid in Chicago.” In short, Lydell finds purpose in Chicago, purpose in the youth, and purpose in himself.


Chicago Rises is always excited to learn about the Chicagoans and we hope that you feel at home with us so we can cultivate a space to share your story too. If you’d like to be apart of this and share your experience as a Chicagoan then make sure you contact our editor Yvette Mushimiyimana at Keep on rising Chicago!