Kirin Pauline works on his podcast on Saturday, April 24, 2021, in his backyard in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Liam Nikolakakis wants people to know his uncle made money by selling virtual trading cards through the NBA Top Shot. Kirin Pauline is curious about the sudden rise and fall of Europe’s super soccer league, and Christopher Denneen has something to say about the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial.

That’s the plan so far for the next episode of “Hour to Empower,” a podcast led by Nikolakakis, Pauline, Denneen and nearly a dozen other students at Brooks Middle School, 325 S. Kenilworth Ave. The podcast, which launched late last fall, was carved from the school’s BRAVO performing arts program, said Alekzander Sayers, a BRAVO teaching artist, who oversees the project. 

For about an hour twice a week, Sayers and his student storytellers meet over Zoom for their editorial meetings. They talk about ideas, workshop scripts, give feedback on segments and offer tips to finetune their audio skills. The sessions are also meant to serve as a space for students to express how they feel, said Sayers and Tina Reynolds, BRAVO’s artistic director.

Reynolds recalled how heavy 2020 was, especially during the spring and summer. At that time, she saw her students, like so many across the nation, grapple with the novel coronavirus and watch the civil unrest unfold around the deaths of innocent Black men and women, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. With everything happening, Reynolds sought to offer an outlet where her students could feel safe enough to be vulnerable, “or they could do the complete opposite and maybe use it as an escape.”

Eleven-year-old Denneen decided to confront the hard issues facing America with his segment “Politics with Teens.” In an upcoming episode, Denneen, a sixth grader, said he’d like to recap the Derek Chauvin trial and talk about what the guilty verdicts for the former Minneapolis police officer mean.

“I think it’s very important to educate people on current issues in our society,” he said. “These are really big issues that need changing, and kids are the next generation, and we need to know about those current issues.”

When asked what he hopes listeners walk away with, Denneen said he wants them to know that Floyd’s death is not an isolated incident. This is not the first time “a police officer has killed an African-American person because of their skin color,” he said. “That’s not just happening one time.”

Other “Hour to Empower” episodes have tackled equally serious topics such as voting rights and President Joe Biden’s plans to safely reopen as the pandemic eases. Back in February, students released a two-part episode celebrating Black people, ranging from political figures to poets, for Black History Month. Other times, students are reviewing popular TV shows and movies, discussing the best and worst of Disney Plus, or chatting with family or Brooks faculty.

As an educator, Sayers said he often reminds students “Hour to Empower” is their podcast, and because it is theirs, they hold the power to create and push those tough conversations forward, if they want to. Sayers added his role, like Reynolds, is to be there and support them. 

“I always think that adults sometimes like to talk down to kids or set the mood for kids,” he said. “I think in this space, especially from day one, it’s been like, ‘What is your idea?’ [or] ‘Let’s talk about your idea.’ If the idea comes from them, they’re going to be so much more excited to create and iterate and make it better and stronger.”

That rings true for Pauline, the 12-year-old behind “What’s Dup?”, a segment that lets listeners know what trends are popular and what trends are fading. From a live review of McDonald’s Shamrock Shake and Taylor Swift’s re-release of her 2008 “Fearless” album, Pauline said “What’s Dup?” is one of the more “sit back and listen” types of shows.

“I wanted to make something different, especially because of the pandemic and everything; it’s a very serious time,” said Pauline, also a sixth-grader and one of Denneen’s classmates. 

“There’s a lot of serious issues happening right now, and I love talking about those,” he said. “It’s something that we should talk about, but I feel like for me, I just wanted to give something that was about entertainment.”  

And while Denneen and Pauline have approached their pieces differently, they do share one message for their listeners, especially those close to their age.

“It’s really important to just use your voice,” Pauline said. “You have one for a reason.”

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