Rachel Switall is a graphic artist by profession, but being a gatherer of children’s dreams is her true calling. She is publisher, editor, art director, advertising director and marketing director for StudentsXpress, a quarterly publication first printed in December 2011. Showcasing the writings and artwork of students from more than 25 Chicago public schools, StudentsXpress promotes creativity, literacy, self-esteem and a sharing of viewpoints, experiences and hopes. The publication is the latest incarnation of an idea Switall had in graduate school: To create a place for the voices of those who are not heard. Additionally, Switall has gathered words and art from students at Daniel S. Wentworth Elementary in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side into a book, “Peacefulwood,” published in June 2015. Rachel Switall’s continued work with children relies on outside support through advertisement, corporate and personal contributions, grants and philanthropy. Learn more at studentsxpress.com.
You’ve said that one of the values of StudentsXpress is students’ self-esteem boost from seeing their names in print. What was your reaction when you saw your book, “Peacefulwood,” in print?
Oh, it’s been such a long road to get here. Where I started was a thesis project when I was getting my MFA in graphic design from UIC-Chicago. I went into a Chicago public school in the Cabrini-Green [public housing] projects when that was around and talked to kids about using modes other than violence to express themselves and to solve conflicts. They made pictures and we printed them in a little black and white booklet [called “Peaceful Times”]. They loved that.
Since then, over time, that idea has become StudentsXpress, a magazine. It goes to more than 15 different Chicago Public Schools and it’s in every branch of the Chicago Public Library. It’s more focused on writing and art. Violence was the reason I did this in the first place but the magazines are also a means for kids to express themselves. “Peacefulwood” goes back to the reason I started all this. To really reach the kids in Englewood was great.
StudentsXpress has had a number of predecessors, from “Peaceful Times” and “Wuz Up!” with the kids at Cabrini through “Nettle2the Metal” and “CPSxpress” and others. You’ve kept working at that original idea, haven’t you?
Absolutely, but this book really gets back to my original purpose, which was to reach kids who don’t have resources or are in underserved communities.
“Nettle2theMetal” was something I did at my son’s school, Nettlehorst Elementary in Chicago. We did that for a couple of years and that was a great thing. We happened to get a grant for it; I wish I could keep doing it. But those kids have a lot of after-school programs. StudentsXpress is also for kids who don’t have those opportunities.
After the Cabrini magazines, did you return to your career as an art director?
Yes. Right out of graduate school I tried to keep up the little black and white ‘zine I did in Cabrini. I wanted to keep doing it but I didn’t have the resources; I was using money out of my own pocket. So I got jobs working as an art director on magazines.
What brought you back to working with children?
I remember the moment. I was working on a dog-grooming magazine. I thought, “This is interesting for people who groom dogs but it is not my passion.” I wanted to be designing something that I wanted to put out and I realized that I just had to sell ads to get money to do it. At the magazines where I worked there’d be a whole advertising team that did that. I didn’t understand how hard it could be.
I started at my kids’ school, Hamilton Elementary. We did one issue of a magazine called “Tiger Tales” that the school Parent Teacher Organization helped pay for. I put some free ads in to show how it was done and then took that around to different advertisers and schools to show where I wanted to go with it.
Artists aren’t always the best sales people. Did you have to learn to sell?
I learned about selling ads and marketing. It’s my least favorite part of the job. I liked meeting business people who wanted to support it and I liked being part of the community, but I don’t like selling. I’m not very good at it and I still struggle with that. It’s my project and I should be the one out there selling it, but I don’t like it.
Is it ever dispiriting to see money and grants go to other projects rather than to StudentsXpress, which you believe in so strongly?
I became Rachel Switall Magazine Group, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and everyone says there’s money out there. But it’s all very specific and it’s hard to get support for a printed publication. You have to have more programming in the schools and data on how it will affect students years down the road. I don’t have that. I see money going to some great things, but I don’t need that much. We’re a drop in the bucket compared to some other things.
Did kids buy in on StudentsXpress immediately?
That’s mostly up to the teachers. I’m not in the schools so if they don’t communicate the idea, it doesn’t get through. But if they do, I get way more submissions than I can use, and that’s great. Teachers will send stacks of papers.
The kids love it and I get notes from teachers saying how much the kids love seeing their work in print.
Do your children contribute?
They submit things sometimes but I don’t push them one way or the other. If their class is involved they will be. My daughter submitted some artwork for the last issue. But often they’ll say, “Oh, I forgot!” and that’s OK, too.
Are teachers ever defensive or protective of their turf?
Not really. When I first did StudentsXpress, it was just 10 schools: five on the North Side and five on the South Side. And some schools stopped being involved because they never got their kids to submit much. I think the kids would have submitted more if it were communicated to them better. Some of the schools, unfortunately, didn’t take advantage of this opportunity But the ones who continue to take part keep submitting, and the teachers know the impact it has.
I’ve found that most teachers think it’s a good thing. I always tell them, “I don’t want to add to your work.” They already have their curricula but they’ll offer StudentsXpress as extra credit or as an over-the-weekend project. I’ll even go pick up the work if necessary.
I know that one of the themes of the next issue is, “What can you do right now to make the world a better place?” You’re always asking them to imagine a positive future, aren’t you?
I’ve always been big on setting goals and writing them down. I think once these kids write down what they’re thinking and they see that other kids are thinking the same things, that future becomes more real.
The last issue’s theme was “Where I’ll be in 5 or 10 years” or what I’ll be when I grow up. So many kids wrote about helping other people that that inspired me, too. I wanted to do more.
Where do you want StudentsXpress to be in 5 or 10 years?
I want it to still be around. I know it will be because I want to keep doing it. I would love to not have to worry so much about getting each issue out. I’d like to focus more on the design and the theme instead of sales and invoices. That’s hard for me. So I’m looking for a sponsor to help keep it going.
Was it difficult balancing helping other children and raising your own?
Not so much. It was a lot of work but I like that they see me working. When I grew up I was aware of things my parents were volunteering for and helping. StudentsXpress is part of who I am, and my kids know that.
Did you have any role models, doing programs at all similar to yours, from whom you could learn?
It wasn’t really being done, so no, not really. I won’t say I’m naïve but sometimes I just jump into things if I want to do them and figure out a way afterward. I really just figured this out as I went. In the beginning I was just walking to the schools and dropping off letters to the principals with samples and an explanation of what I wanted to do. So I just started doing it.
Right now I have a part-time job with a group of local newspapers. The publisher gives me advice sometimes. He’ll tell me I have to run this like a business and understand what that means.
What have you learned that has been most useful?
I guess it’s just to keep going. There have been times when I’ve thought I wasn’t going to break even or get an issue out but I’ve kept going and it works out. I feel good that I haven’t lost any money.
When I started, my purpose was just to get the paper out. But when you start doing it, you want to get a little money too. But making a difference was the real goal.
Why has it been so important to you?
It’s where I chose to make my mark and make a difference, I guess. I thought, “Well, StudentsXpress could be a side project and I’ll do a 9 to 5 job.” I went out on interviews and nothing else was right for me or my schedule. With this, I can be home with my kids or pick them up at school. And I can work all night if I want.
I’ve always wanted to do something that made a difference. My father is an eye doctor and he helped build a clinic for the blind in Viet Nam. My parents were always doing something, although not necessarily on that big of a scale. When I was in second grade, my teacher wanted a bird feeder as a Christmas present from the class. We collected money from everyone in the class and my dad made the bird feeder. He gave the money we’d collected to the Neediest Kids Fund in Chicago. I’ve never forgotten that. You can always make a decision to help others.
My children don’t realize how other kids live. When I read some of the things that are in Peacefulwood to my daughter, she couldn’t believe some of the things these kids go through. They can’t play outside because it’s dangerous.
Do you feel you’ve made a difference as you’d intended?
Oh, I hope so. There was a boy that I tutored that my family stayed in touch with. I hadn’t seen him on Facebook so I called his ex-girlfriend and he’s in jail. He’s a good kid who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or something. I just have to keep doing this.
Have you had to accept that you can’t solve every problem?
I have. That boy called me when he was 15 and said he was going to be a father. And I thought, “Gosh, why didn’t I ever tell him not to be a dad at 15?”
Now I feel this book is a chance to tell these kids, without being preachy, to be proud of what they’ve done, to take this into their future and try to live what they dream now. Hopefully it will speak to them.