Great storytellers have a way about them, an uncanny ability to make you feel like you’re sharing their experiences, that together you are participating in the conversation.
Gaython “Lady” Sanders has that way about her, even if her platform isn’t quite what she imagined as a starry-eyed kid growing up in North Lawndale.
Lady spent her days outside with the neighborhood kids getting into one adventure or another, just off of Independence Square near 14th and Drake, close to Douglass Park.
“It was magnificent. We went outside every day to play with the neighbors,” Lady recalled. “Every block had a snowball stand, so you didn’t have to walk very far to get a quarter’s-worth of Chewies or 50 cents bags with cheese or meat on there.”
Lady comes from a big family, where stories are aplenty. Her stories touch the entire gamut of literary genres from tragedies to epics.
One of her brothers owns his own barber shop after a stint in prison and another of her brothers works alongside him. Yet another of her brothers owns his own trucking business. Two of those brothers have been shot. One sister is a community activist and the other is, as Lady describes her, “is a go-getter, a non-stopper.”
“I watched life throw everything at them that was supposed to cancel them out, but they all came out on top,” Lady said, holding off the tears that were forming in her eyes.
There’s a line from Mark Twain in his book “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World” that says: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.”
Lady had her eyes on the bigtime. She wanted to tell her stories to shine a light on her truth.
“All I knew was that I wanted to be a film director and then give back,” she said, speaking about her dreams of becoming the next big star.
So when she graduated from Benedict College with a degree in mass communication and media studies she began pursuing roles that could help her get to California, where she could rub elbows with the stars in Hollywood to hone her craft.
Coincidentally, that’s when she learned from a friend about City Year, a national services program that supports students in classrooms across the country, typically in under-resourced communities, to help build a thriving learning environment.
It was her ticket to the West Coast.
“Initially, I was going to do City Year Los Angeles. I’d get this job, go to L.A., meet Steven Spielberg, and take off with my movies,” Lady jovially remembered. “That was the plan. That was the purpose of me going to City Year.”
Interestingly, she wasn’t entirely sure what City Year was about even after she was hired.
“I was like, OK, let me see what City Year is,” she recalled. “On their website there was a description that basically said that we step in to take care of what teachers can’t focus on. I thought, ‘Cool, helping people.’ One day, I want to help people. I got this.”
Little did she know that it would only take a week of training at the City Year location in Chicago for her to shift her focus from making movies to making a difference in young people’s lives. That journey to Los Angeles was put on hold.
“I knew that I couldn’t step into these kids’ lives and then step out,” Lady said. “I told myself, ‘Lady, this is bigger than you getting to LA.’”
As life will sometimes do, Lady was hit with a plot twist.
“I didn’t even know I wanted to be a mentor, to be a youth advocate,” Lady reflected. “They say you know when you’ve found your purpose because you won’t feel like you have to work everyday. I don’t feel like I work. I feel like I get paid to help people.”
My Block, My Hood, My City is about connections, helping youth venture outside of their neighborhoods to see what else the city of Chicago and the world has to offer. As a program manager working in its heralded Explorers Program, Lady leans into her artistic mind to introduce the kids to a new way of thinking.
“We like to use exploration because we want them to take something away,” Lady said. “Whether it was the way they were greeted or the way that the presentation went. If they take one thing away, it may be enough for them to come back, be interested and ask, ‘What else can I take away?’”
It's a day-in and day-out character development exercise, helping the young people find out what motivates them as they grow into their own personality.
“I want to give youth a platform to be able to voice their opinions,” she said. “My job calls me the ‘Voice of the Young People,’ because I don’t mind speaking up for youth when I know they can’t speak, don’t want to speak, or are too shy to speak.”
There aren’t fast solutions to decades worth of divestment, but by listening to learning from her Explorers, Lady knows where to start.
“It’s so simple that it’s scary,” she said. “I’m realizing what youth actually need and sometimes it’s not what we’re shoving into communities.”
“It’s the basic needs that need to be met. Once you get that, then you can conquer everything else.”
Lady is still preparing for the right time to launch her film career. But for the time being, she’s doing what all the great storytellers do, she’s listening, learning and taking others along for the ride.
Lady Sanders is one of 18 up-and-coming Westside leaders selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of Community Leadership Fellows. Community Leadership Fellows (CLF) is a leadership development experience that involves educational workshops, tactical training, collaborative learning, coaching, mentoring and networking. We believe that the investment in homegrown talent will lead to sustainable, vibrant communities.
Gaython "Lady" Sanders CLF ’23 Fellow and Program manager at My Block, My Hood, My City! Hear more about her mission to save the youth in North Lawndale by being the person she needed as a youth.