Horizons Community Services' recent firing of Youth Program Director Karen Hutt prompted about 15 youth to protest inside and in front of Horizons last week, demanding that she be brought back.
The spirited protest Oct. 2 was organized by two youth...Stephanie and a young man nicknamed Pastor Dre...after Hutt was dismissed from her position on Sept. 26 after about a year at Horizons.
Hutt claims that the firing is, in large part, retaliation for a racial discrimination complaint she filed against Horizons with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations in August. In the complaint, she alleged that both she and the heavily African-American youth program were mistreated and targeted because of their race.
Horizons has declined to comment directly on the firing, instead issuing a statement thanking Hutt for her work with the agency and wishing her "the best in her future endeavors."
The youth...most of them of color...said they feel that Hutt was a vital resource and important ally for them.
"Karen was the only one who stuck her neck out for us," said Patty, one of the youth.
On Tuesday, Oct. 2, the protesters began by congregating in Horizons' youth space, where staff were on hand to help them process Hutt's firing, they said. After a few minutes, they left to fetch signs they had hidden in the building and marched down to the lobby, where they stood chanting.
"We want answers!" they yelled, holding signs reading "Bring Karen back," "We Deserve a Safe Space" and "Horizons Needs to Stop Trippin."
Youth said they had three basic demands: to know why Hutt was fired; to know what will happen to homeless and jobless youth in her absence; and to know why the youth space is in such disrepair.
According to Hutt and the youth, the library is currently off-limits because of black mold that is growing in it and the bathroom is frequently unusable.
Pastor Dre lead much of the protest, rallying the youth by asking Horizons, "Why do you get so much money from the government, and we don't see any of it? w Because we're youth of color."
Gradually the chants changed from "We want answers" to "We want Roger!," referring to Roger Doughty, executive director of Horizons.
After a few minutes, Nikita Buckhoy, Horizons' director of programs, came down and told the youth that if they didn't leave the lobby the police would be called. "You all are disrupting services for our clients," Buckhoy told the youth. "You can march up and down the street, but you can't march in the lobby."
Youth responded by yelling, "They want to call the police on us, they don't love us!"
After making a hasty retreat from the lobby, the youth spent about 30 minutes outside chanting and talking, demanding an audience with Doughty.
Many of the youth talked about the things Hutt did for them during her relatively short tenure at Horizons, including finding them well-paying jobs, getting them back into school and securing homes for them.
"Karen is a mother to us w we look up to her," said Walter, one of the youth. "We ask her for advice. She gives us most of the things that we need."
Another youth noted all of the things Hutt has done both for her and for her straight brother.
"Horizons has taught most of us how to be activists, and now that we're protesting, they don't like it," she said.
The protesters called Horizons anti-youth, particularly youth of color. They stressed, however, that they are happy with the services being provided by the youth services staff.
They noted that not all of the Horizons youth agree with them and that not everyone thinks Hutt should be brought back.
Eventually, youth advisor Kenneth McClane came downstairs and said that Doughty would speak to the youth's spokespeople, Pastor Dre and Stephanie.
After spending a few minutes with Doughty, the two reported back that he would not comment on Hutt but assured them that the youth space would be fixed as soon as Horizons can negotiate a new lease with its landlord.
Horizons serves as the steward of the upcoming Gay and Lesbian Community Center, located on North Halsted, and staff have said they want to stay in their current location, 961 W. Montana, until the Center opens in 2003.
"We're not as satisfied as I want to be, but we got halfway to where we're going," Pastor Dre said after meeting with Doughty.
Youth said they plan not to go back to Horizons until Doughty's promises are fulfilled. Instead, they all planned to go a new youth space being run by the Church of the Open Door, where Hutt is a pastor.
Starting last Wednesday, the church was holding youth drop-in at its building, 5954 S. Albany, and providing shuttle service from the red line "L" train to the space.
Doughty declined to comment on most of the youths' claims, confirming only that, "We did have a discussion about the building."
"I don't believe that this is a matter for public discussion," he added, referring back to Horizons' statement that the agency has been serving youth since 1979 and its "commitment to serving all LGBT youth in Chicago is absolute, unwavering, and it is stronger than ever."
Hutt joined Horizons staff at a time of transition for the youth program, when its demographics were dramatically shifting from having mostly white, middle-class youth to mostly youth of color from working-class families. Hutt said she was instrumental in beginning a series of initiatives aimed at serving Horizons' new youth, including GED classes and advocacy for GLBTs within the Department of Children and Family Services.