When Rachel Switall was earning her master's degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, she partnered with students who lived in Cabrini Green to create a magazine called Peaceful Times.
This was close to 20 years ago, when a series called "Killing Our Children" was running in the Chicago Tribune. The series reported, on the front page, the murder of every child under age 15 that occurred in the city.
"I remember seeing that tally and thinking, 'What can I do?'" Switall says. "I thought trying to reach the kids beforehand and give them some sense of control might help. I had them draw pictures and write about their feelings. We talked about ways to solve things without resorting to violence."
Peaceful Times was part of her thesis project, and she couldn't afford to keep it running after her Master of Fine Arts was completed. She found work as a graphic designer and, a few years later, had two kids of her own.
"I remember working on a pet grooming magazine," she told me. "And I thought, 'I really don't care about pet grooming.' My passion was still to help children in the city."
So many of my conversations — with my friends, my husband, other parents — start and end at a place of defeat. "What could we possibly do?" About gun violence. About bullying. About the increasing number of screens in our kids' faces. "Not much," being the unspoken answer.
Switall doesn't settle for "not much."
After her pet grooming epiphany, she launched a student magazine at Hamilton Elementary, a public school on Chicago's North Side, where her son was attending kindergarten. When her son and younger daughter (now in sixth and fourth grade) started attending Lakeview's Nettelhorst, she partnered with the after-school programmers to publish a magazine of student artwork and writing.
"I worked in the industry, so I knew you had to sell ads to keep it going," she says. So she sold ads — mostly by going door-to-door, business-to-business in her neighborhood. She expanded the magazine to five nearby schools.
"I would just contact the school librarians and principals, who would collect the students' work," she says. "I would pick it up, lay out the magazine and take it to the printer.
"But what I really wanted was to get to the South Side."
She contacted principals on the South Side, got five on board and added their students' work. She makes sure the published magazines, now named StudentsXpress, make their way back to the kids.
The Chicago Department of Public Health sponsored the winter issue, allowing Switall to print 40,000 copies, which reached students last week. She had them distributed to 50 schools, as well as the Harold Washington Library Center, which passed them to branches.
The next issue in March doesn't currently have a sponsor, which means the press run will decrease dramatically.
Switall doesn't get paid for this endeavor. "I just think Chicago's youth really need this right now," she says. "This is what I can do from where I am."
StudentsXpress.com has a collection of notes from teachers whose students contribute to the magazine. A teacher from Coonley Elementary wrote, "When we passed out the current issue … here are some comments I overheard: "OMG OMG OMG I'm IN HERE!!!" "I can't believe my writing is published!"
"The squeals and outward joy were so funny because these are middle-school students," the teacher wrote. "They rarely show this excitement!"
It's not uncommon to see your name in lights these days, Switall says. Kids have Facebook pages and Instagram accounts and online avatars.
"This is more of an honor for them," she says. "It really boosts their confidence when they can show their family their artwork or their writing on a page."
"It shows them they have something important to say," she adds.
And Switall shows them someone's listening.