South Shore Drill Team
How a performing arts program is giving the South Side's youth an alternative to violence
TOMS is proud to support South Shore Drill Team for recognizing the potential of the young people in South Chicago, and for giving them a stage to create positive change.
The South Side of Chicago is a neighborhood synonymous with gun violence. But a performing arts program called South Shore Drill Team is giving the South Side’s youth a chance to tell a different story – one of positivity and hope. By proudly waving the South Shore flag , young members like Dessoni Hardge and Jashon Douglas are challenging the world to look beyond the narrative of violence and towards Chicago’s next generation.
At just 16 years old, Dessoni Hardge has been a member of the South Shore Drill team for over a decade. Dessoni was six when South Shore came to perform at his school, two years short of the team’s age requirement. But Dessoni had been watching the team’s YouTube videos for years, picked up the moves, and impressed the Director with his talent and ambition. A decade later, Dessoni is on the front line, continuing to make his mark, while inspiring younger team members (including his 10 year old sister) to break expectations of their own.
Dessoni’s mom always told him: “Watch the crowds you hang around.” As he got older, and grew into his position on the drill team, her advice became less of a warning and more of an opportunity:
DH: Over the years, [her advice] has changed meaning to me. At first, I thought it just meant don’t hang around anyone bad. But as I got older, I realized it also meant that the company you keep is who you will soon grow to be. I surround myself by positive people for a reason. They spread their positivity to me, and I spread it to others. I’ve always wanted to be someone who’s inspiring, who’s going to change the world one day. That is my mindset. I am here to change the world.
Like many drill teams around the country, South Shore incorporates wooden rifles, colorful flags and sabers into their routines – props that compliment their precision dance moves and powerful, controlled performances. But for the South Shore Drill Team, these are more than props. Against the backdrop of Chicago gun violence, these rifles have become an unexpected symbol of positivity and hope.
DH: To me, my rifle – well I want to refer to it here as a gun – because in Chicago when people hear about guns they automatically think violence. But our guns are used for something positive. It’s not to kill. It’s not to harm. It’s to bring people up. And it’s also changing how people who watch our performances feel - about guns and about our hope for the future.
The South Shore Drill Team is a performing arts program, but their mission extends far beyond entertainment. The organization empowers its young members to create an alternative narrative to the violence plaguing the South Side of Chicago. The South Side Drill team is proving that there is more to Chicago than what you see on the news. Young people like Dessoni are proving that Chicago youth have a different story to tell.
DH: Chicago has a negative name, but it’s up to the people who live here to change that name and change the way people feel about this city. If our team is doing something positive, that positivity spreads to the city. I won’t let anyone tell me that our generation isn’t going to be anything. This generation has the talent and the spirit to bring positive change, and I will always believe that.
Jashon Douglas first watched the South Shore Drill team perform at the Bud Billiken Parade in 2004. The team was poised, energetic, and united. Their passion and precision caught Jashon’s attention. Today, 21 year old Jashon is the captain of the South Shore flag line and a junior instructor. The flag remains an extension of his optimism and outlook.
JD: The flag represents my personality. It’s bold, bright, and visible. A flag pulls those things out of you. Once I have the flag in my hand, I know it’s ‘go’ time. This is time for me to shine. I’m ready.
The South Drill Team gave Jashon an outlet for his own creativity and passion, but it also gave him the opportunity to spark that spirit in younger members. As an instructor, Jashon is helping his team flip the world’s perception of Chicago youth. With a flag that big and bold, Jashon reminds them, you will be seen. By waving the flag, these team members are drawing attention to a community that has been written off as inherently violent. By showing up with energy and optimism, young people like Jashon are forging a new path forward for the South Side.
JD: To do flags is to been seen. That’s what I feel when I hold a flag. That’s what I want [the younger members] to feel when they hold a flag. To be noticed. Not overlooked.
Every time we perform, the crowd’s reaction is amazing. We’ve been waiting on you South Shore! They actually see us. Wow, it’s a shocking feeling. Most times Chicago is just seen as a negative – a bunch of gang members and drug dealers. But that’s not it. There are some good people out here in Chicago that actually care about the youth and the environment and our community.
If you talk to any member of the South Shore Drill team, the resounding sentiment is that their city has so much to give. Beneath the violence and negative perceptions of Chicago, a new generation is rising up and singing a different tune. They are innately creative, overwhelmingly optimistic, and undeterred by the outside narratives imposed on their community – proving that self-expression is one of the most powerful catalysts for change.
JD: I want people to see that there is sunlight in Chicago. There is sunlight that is trying to take over for the good and make better. It’s so powerful and bold and bright that it’s taking over. It’s the people. It’s the organizations that are helping. It’s the adults investing in the youth. That’s the sunlight that’s expanding through Chicago.