Westside NAACP program helps youth heal relationships with dads through writing

Students work highlighted at organization’s Community Day event

Spoken word artist and South Side native J. Ivy speaking with students at the Westside Branch NAACP's Community Day event July 25 at ICE Theaters in North Lawndale.

Spoken word artist and South Side native J. Ivy speaking with students at the Westside Branch NAACP’s Community Day event July 25 at ICE Theaters in North Lawndale.


Starring at the poster on the wall with the words she wrote to her father, Ariona Hairston shed more than a few tears.

Though is was done as part of a summer enrichment program sponsored by the Westside Branch NAACP, Hairston, 14, felt it was something she had to write.

“I mean, this was a way to get everything out,” said the Chicago Bulls College Prep freshman.

“Basically, he was never there, and I wish he knew how much that hurt. And now that I’ve grown up and getting older, I don’t need him. It was so much holding in so I was like ‘You know what, I’m gonna be serious about it and I’m gonna write how I really really feel.'”

Hairston was among the Chicago area students participating in the Westside NAACP’s “Freshman In Transition” program this summer. One of their assignments, to write letters to their fathers, was inspired by Dear Father: Breaking the Cycle of Pain by author and spoken word artist J. Ivy, whose book they read.


Many of the students had their work on display Saturday July 25 at the Westside NAACP’s Community Day event at ICE Theaters in North Lawndale. The day included free movies for youth, food and games, including a bounce house set up in ICE’s foyer.

Enlarged posters with the student’s letters aligned the walls inside ICE, 3300 W. Roosevelt.

Ivy, who was an invited speaker at the event, met with Hairston and other students about their letters, and also signed copies of his book.

Published in January, Dear Father was inspired by a poem Ivy wrote to his father, who was absent during much of his childhood after his parents separated and later divorced. The South Side native said he was touched by the students’ letters and definitely could relate.

“It’s been an incredible journey, even coming here and seeing the affect and seeing the young people write letters to their fathers. It’s incredible,” Ivy said. “That’s one of the things we want to use the book to do, is inspire people to write letters to their fathers.”


Ivy shared his story with the youth and their families during an assembly at the event, and also performed two poems, including the one he wrote to his father, James Ivy Richards, better known as former WVON DJ Jim Richards.

J Ivy recalled listening to his dad on the radio growing up. After many years apart, the two reconnected in 1999. Ivy said it was his mother who sparked the reunion and got him to forgive his father.

“She said he was a good man. If there was anyone who could say something negative about him, it was her. But she didn’t.”

Ivy said he had to learn to, and eventually did, forgive his father. But a little over a year after reconnecting, Jim Richards died. Ivy recalled having to start the healing process all over again.

“The poem and the book is all based around the power of forgiveness. It was forgiveness that allowed me to let go and say, ‘OK, you got me here. My gifts and abilities, a lot of my traits, all that comes from you; my ambitions and even my entertaining and speaking. That same drive,'” Ivy said.

Dear Father is Ivy’s second published book. HERE I AM, the same title of his second studio album, was released in 2012. Ivy has appeared in film and on television, including HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. He’s also a Grammy Award-winner for his work on Kanye West’s debut album College Dropout (2004).

Ivy’s book was chosen for the program because of its message, said Renel Perry, a Westside NAACP vice president. More than 100 youth from partnering neighborhood schools participated in the organization’s programs this summer, Perry said.

The students’ letters, she added, were very touching. After writing hers, Hairston said she felt better.

“It still kind of hurts a little, but I’m doing fine. I’ll be fine.”