“This is how we fight back.”

We had the chance to sit down with members of Chicago CRED and their partners at the MAAFA Redemption Project to hear how they’ve been able to counter gun violence by investing in young men who are at risk. Below you’ll find their words, their wisdom, their personal stories of struggle, and their insights from engaging in “the spade work” of making communities safer for the next generation. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Quentin Harris

MAAFA Redemption Project, Former Chicago CRED participant

Growing up just bad decisions, a lack of role models, and systematic things going on in our neighborhood. I mean up till today, to this point, I’ve accomplished so much stuff just trying to change. I think the problem comes from, I’m being completely honest, it’s the lack of value. 

Having these guys, these mentors, and these life coaches—they deemed me valuable. As humans, we all deal with our own insecurities and our own problems. All the stuff that I thought that I couldn’t do, or all the places I thought I couldn’t go, they always told me, “You could do it, you could do it.” They always pushed me.

That’s what helped me the most, and that’s something that I didn’t have through my life. Me going to school, my momma working when I get out of school, so I could do what I want to do when I get out of school. Even with sports, I had no support. No one came to my games. My momma was at work. My grandma, she taking care of the other kids. My daddy, he in the streets. All that together made me turn to the streets, and do other stuff, because no one valued me in different ways and things that I wanted to do.

You can’t be what you can’t see. You can’t think what you can’t conceive.

Watch Quentin describe his time with the MAAFA Redemption Project, a residential program that recruits and invests in young underserved men, and how his experience has inspired him to develop other young leaders.

It’s sad; I lost count. You lose a lot of people. It numb you. It take away a lot of feeling from you. It take away a lot of hope. It take a lot from you. I’m 31 years old—I’ll give you an estimate of about 30-to-40 killed in the last five years.

In the past it place hatred in your heart. It makes you not care about nobody else. Y’all didn’t care about my people. I don’t care about y’all people. That’s how it made me feel, but I feel different now. I just want to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. I just want to help. That’s all. Too much bloodshed, too many children dying. 

With more wisdom comes more sorrow. So, it’s like now a lot of stuff make me sad. I feel it. I wasn’t always like that though. The numbness is all the stuff happening, like trauma, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], it’s real. We’re so far gone in the community where you don’t even know you got PTSD, and you wondering why you just act in a certain way, or doing some stuff that you can’t think straight. We don’t have all of the resources around to inform us about that.

The older I get, I just want to help, so much. I want to right my wrongs a little bit. I ain’t supposed to be here. I could be in jail. I could be in the graveyard. So, I just try to make the best of everything I can while I’m here.

Dr. Donald Tyler

Director, Clinical Services, Chicago CRED

If you grow up in a poor or working class neighborhood in almost any city in America, or even really around the world, you have similar experiences especially if you’re Black. You have similar types of socialization experiences. You often grow up in the context of violence of different types and initially having to fight. 

We’re talking about individuals and families living in the communities that are exposed to chronic stress. When I say chronic, I’m talking about generations of all manner of stressor from the social environment, in the context of poverty.

Fighting is not a choice if you grow up in one of these neighborhoods. You’re going to fight, or you’re going to get beat. Those are your choices. So, you have to learn to use aggression to protect yourself. But then, as you get older, then the level of aggression can grow exponentially when guns are introduced. When it’s no longer a matter of fighting now it’s about shooting, and when it happens frequently the impact is even greater.

When you’re exposed to that much violence it can have a significant impact on a person’s functioning. When you have this response over and over into survival mode, fight or flight regularly, it can be debilitating in terms of the human being’s overall function. People get locked into this mode of responding to threats in this fashion.

In terms of flight, we escape in different forms. Drug use is a form of escape. We also physically escape in terms of leaving the neighborhood. We escape in terms of avoiding situations that may provoke certain types of emotional experiences. 

We have to develop other responses. Probably the best way to respond is to connect with people in order to resolve the problems. What we do in our programs—and MAAFA does this very well—is provide opportunities for them to stop having to fight, stop having to escape. They can connect with other young men and older men to learn how to solve these problems in a different way together, collectively, without needing violence, without needing to escape.

Quentin talked about not caring when he was out in the street. Now, he actually can have some feelings. To feel sadness, to feel fear, to have hope. He had those feelings before, but when you’re living in a context where you have to deny those feelings, then you’re not able to benefit from the experience of them. That’s where the healing is.

Watch Dr. Tyler recount a harrowing experience he endured as a young man at the hands of police, and how it led him to devote his life to helping young men of color overcome police violence and disinvestment.

I’ve met a lot of young men and women over the years who’ve been involved in street life; I haven’t met a single one who really wants to be involved in it. Sometimes, they feel like they have to be involved. Sometimes when they lose someone, they feel like they must retaliate. But if given a real choice, they don’t want to be involved in that. That’s where most of my hope comes from those young people who when we sit down with them, they really express to us how much they want a different life.

Quentin said it as well: His options were limited. He was limited by what he knew in terms of what he saw going around him. He didn’t realize there were other options. There isn’t an option, except for engaging in something that ultimately is going to be harmful. In the moment, it feels like you have to do that for your protection and survival. So, we have to provide them with some different choices.

Marquis Pitts

MAAFA Redemption Project, Chicago CRED Participant

I’m from West Garfield Park, and growing up it felt I was confined in a bubble. You know how the NBA is? That was like my own community. I didn’t know anything outside of it.

Growing up in my community it felt as if we was taught that we were always less than, and not equal to whoever was in the rest of the world. I went to Marconi Community Academy, for elementary school. Our resources were so bad, I had a math book that my auntie had. My auntie name was in it, and she had graduated years prior. That’s what they give us to work with.

That was heart wrenching for me, because I knew what to do. My friends was gangbangers, that’s who I hang around with, but I knew better not to get involved in that type of violence, to pick up a gun. I knew to pick up a book instead.

Everybody used to be in my house. Anybody that needed a place to stay, place to eat, they knew to always come to my house. At the same time, I didn’t have anything to give them other than, “I’m doing good. I want you to do good too.” I didn’t have no job to give them. I’m young, but at the end of the day I knew showing them what I’m doing, and how successful I’m becoming, that’s giving them that sense of hope that they need, that they couldn’t find in a mentor.

PTSD is very present in our neighborhood. I believe I suffer from PTSD. I’ve seen people get shot—one of my close friends get shot in the back. 

“It’s not normal to desensitize it. People are making it seem like it’s normal, because we see it on the media all the time, but it’s not normal.”

In elementary school, I did feel I was less than. I became valedictorian of my elementary school, but my assistant principal did not want me to become valedictorian. I used to be around all the people who used to cause a ruckus. He saw me as one of them. He just categorized all of us in that same category. He would call me into the office, and call my mother. My other teachers would defend me, like, “He has to be a valedictorian! He’s the one that’s been helping us help these students.”

He tried to put me down, but it was like, I understood what he was doing, and I knew it was a bigger picture than the beef I have between him, it was about the students and uplifting them. My friends would let him get to them. He would agitate them to the point where they get kicked out, or suspended for how many days, and that’s not progress. 

You can put a lot of jobs into a community, but you can’t really make a change unless you go out there and really invest in people like me. If you really want to help you’ve got to invest your time, and yourself because that will show that you really care.

You have to find a mentor that’s not going to give up on the kid, and is going to really, really be there for the kid. Show him that they love him, and they’re there for him, because a lot of people in my community have abandonment issues. They feel like no one is there.

I know a lot of people with a tattoo right here [pointing at his arm] that says, trust no one, which means the trust in our community is not there. They don’t have nobody to trust. They don’t have nobody to run to. They always think somebody is going to stab them in the back.

The answer is outreach—going into the neighborhood and having these types of conversations with individuals and develop a relationship enough for them to trust you.

Marshall Hatch, Jr.

Executive Director, MAAFA Redemption Project, Chicago CRED Partner

I grew up in the Black church, the traditional Black church. I saw the best of the Black church. It’s meeting the spiritual, the social, the economic, the political needs of its people. So, that environment is what gave me my confidence. That’s what gave me my identity. That’s what gave me my purpose.

That quote, “An unexamined life is not worth living”? I had to examine my life very early. I was 15 when I was disinvited to high school, and I had to become very serious about who I wanted to be, what kind of man I wanted to be, what kind of life I wanted to live. 

My head was down, and it was the church that lifted my head and said, “You’re worthy of saving. You’re worth investing in still.” I understood love as the people who care about me, seeing me at my best, even when I was at my worst moments. 

It was in my college years where I was introduced to the legacy of Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, who attended the same college I attended, Bates College. He graduated in 1920. He wrote an autobiography called “Born to Rebel.” Here’s a guy from South Carolina who goes up to the state of Maine. In the autobiography, he says, “I did that to challenge for myself, the notion of white supremacy. To establish dignity and worth in my own life.”

The more I studied the man he was and became, the more inspired I was to try to emulate his legacy. He became the president of Morehouse College for 27 years. He met a kid who was 16 years old, a freshman named Martin Luther King, Jr. who described Benjamin Mays as his intellectual father. Mays saw himself as a developer of Black leaders. That was his stated and explicit goal. That was the purpose of Morehouse.

I wanted to establish an institute, something like a Morehouse for young men, like Quentin and Marquis and others. Something designed to challenge and to inspire them to be the next King, the next Malcolm X, the next James Baldwin, H. Rap Brown. 

There was a Rush University study done in, I believe in 2016, that talked about the life expectancy gap that exists between West Garfield Park and The Loop and it’s a 16 year gap. The life expectancy in West Garfield is 69 years. In fact, out of Chicago 77 designated neighborhoods, West Garfield Park ranks number one in potential life loss, which is a metric for premature death. In other words, this is a neighborhood that has been systematically snuffed out. It’s like death by a 1,000 cuts. The education is poor. The healthcare system is poor. Mental health is poor. I mean, it’s so disinvested for so long.

Hear Marshall describe the heartbreaks and hopeful moments he’s experienced as he brings his vision of developing young Black leaders to life.

When I moved back to Chicago from being in Maine for four years, I was disgusted and I was enraged that nothing had changed in my neighborhood. The more research I had done on just how this happened, the context, the more enraged I became.

King was murdered, assassinated in ‘68 and the riots that ensued all across America, but particularly in the South and West sides of this City—that’s the rage that people are feeling, that rage we saw again this year. We cannot understand that rage without understanding what produced it, the context. It’s not to justify the rage, but you have to understand it.

The city of Chicago has not repented of its original sin, let alone America. The original sin of the city of Chicago is of course, residential segregation. I think it was the Metropolitan Planning Council, a few years ago, that talked about the cost of segregation. Not just material costs, but immaterial costs. The loss of lives, which of course is reflected in that life expectancy gap, and the loss of opportunity.

Even still there’s hope. West Garfield Park is actually one of the youngest neighborhoods in the city. Almost 60 percent of West Garfield Park’s 18,000 residents are under the age of 35. It’s a neighborhood with a lot of promise, potential. A lot of young leaders. Quentin, Marquis, so many others. Just everyday people who are doing what Ella Baker, an icon of the civil rights movement, called “the spade work,” which is the day to day grind work of doing the best they can do so that the next generation won’t have to fight the same fights that we’re fighting.

Maafa is Swahili for the great disaster, the great calamity. That word was really meant to convey what it must have felt like to be in the bottom of one of those ships [during the middle passage], stolen from your home land, brought to the so-called new world to be a slave for your whole life.

“The word [Maafa] is designed to explain what it must feel like to be at the bottom of a system like that, but still fight for dignity, worth, purpose in community.”  

The maafa didn’t end in 1865. As Douglas Blackmon says, it was renamed into convict leasing, into Jim Crow, the new Jim Crow, mass incarceration, the war on drugs. I mean, this onslaught is really what the maafa is. Redemption really is a revolutionary act. It’s a call to action. 

This is how we fight back. We invest in young men like this.

We’re all being redeemed together. That’s the point of it all. You cannot talk about transformation in isolation. This is a community effort. That’s ultimately what redeems, is the community.

The highlights have been over the years, the neighbor who lives right down the street on Washington Boulevard, who rings the doorbell to drop off clothes for a young man who has an interview the next day. The beat officer who rides by and hunks his horn and waves his hand, because he knows who we are. We of course know that he’s invested in what we’re doing. Those are the highlights.

Of course, there are tragedies. Quentin mentioned, we lost our first MAAFA man this year, Myqwon Blanchard. He was murdered. I remember doing the eulogy of his funeral and it was tough, because, here’s a young man who is 21 years old. He had made a lot of mistakes in his past, but he was trying to redeem his past. He was trying to make up for lost time. The true tragedy is that his life was snuffed out prematurely. He was a fallen star, and I’m still trying to grapple with that loss.

But I think the overall lesson is staying inspired through the tragedies and the triumphs. Understanding that this is the hand that we’ve been dealt, but we have to do what our ancestors taught us, which is to walk by faith and not by sight to stay together, and to turn to each other, and not away from each other or against each other—to try to build again the best of the Black church, to rebuild that culture, that community, and have that spill out into the neighborhoods. That’s our life’s work.

I always say, I can’t imagine myself doing anything more enriching, more purposeful than what I’m doing right now.

Terrance Henderson

Outreach Supervisor, Chicago CRED

It’s inspiring to see our future. It’s inspiring to see the transformation in real time. Just to hear from guys that experienced street life at its worst and to overcome those odds that’s placed on them, it’s a beautiful thing. When you see that’s what gives you the hope, and helps you continue to do what you do on a daily basis.

Just the stress and the trauma; it seemed like I was born into that. I grew up in the Auburn-Gresham community. My father killed my mother when I was four. At four years old, I really didn’t understand death, but it was introduced to me in a way that was unimaginable. The trauma that just came with the learning of the situation is nothing that I would want anyone to have to experience, but I know that people experience those types of instances in their own way every day. I used that—that was the fuel that raised me.

I think I was in seventh grade when I realized that instead of me just holding this in, I will get a better response if I express what I was feeling to my peers. We was kids, so we’ll joke and jawns  on each other, and your momma this, and your momma that. That would send me straight off. They’re really not trying to enrage me, but they didn’t know my situation. So, in seventh grade, I asked the principal, could I address the class, and I addressed the class and let them know what my situation was. And I got a great response from that. That was the intro to me understanding the value of just letting that get out.

But, I still played the streets. I had family members that was really, really up in the chain of command in the organization, so I grew up with that imagery. When I was listening to Quentin and Marquis story earlier, that’s the stuff that hits home, because you are what you hang around. You are what your environment is, and you have to be that for survival.

To hear them talk about the bubble—that’s what hit home, because that’s what’s going on in the streets right now. You have guys that’s trapped and closed in a bubble in their own neighborhoods. They can’t even, or won’t even, or have never even traveled 10, 12, 15, 20 miles outside of where they stay.

Outreach is just relationship building. It’s just going into the community and building relationships. It’s actually giving people a visual of the change that can happen.

We go out and we look at the data, and we see the most violent neighborhoods, the most violent blocks, and we go out and we hire guys from those blocks to actually work those blocks, and to help us spread our mission that’s what’s working. We’ve got outreach seven days a week. We’re looking at the data to work our hours, the most violent hours we’re out there. So, some nights we’re out till 4:00 AM. 

To be successful in outreach, you have to be relatable. You have to be from the life. You have to understand the language. You have to understand what these guys is going through, and they have to know that you’ve been through that. You have to be honest with these guys and they have to receive you as being honest. 

 
What I’m seeing every day on a daily basis is a destruction and a rebuild. The destruction of the self-doubt, and the insecurities, and the isolation, and the self-pity, that’s what the CRED family and the outreach teams provide.

The options have to be visible. The resources have to be there. You have to be able to come to these individuals and replace what’s going on in their life with something. There needs to be more of an investment in these neighborhoods with people that live in the neighborhoods. 

I really want to see a reduction in my neighborhood for a lot of reasons. Some of them are selfish. My kids live in this neighborhood. I want my kids to be able to go outside and play. Knowing that I live in Roseland and my kids live in Roseland, if I work in Roseland it makes me work a little bit extra hard to ensure that happens. Even with the police, if you have more police officers that work in the community, then they’ll have more of an investment.

Introducing these guys to life coaches and clinicians where they can vent and let that trauma out—that’s essential to the change. I mean, when you talk to a person that has never expressed themselves and they tell you, “Man, I ain’t never talked to nobody ever in my life like that.” I mean, it’s a double-edged sword. It’s inspiring and it’s depressing.

“How old are you? You’ve never had this conversation with no one in your whole lifetime?”

For me and my mind that’s a building point, but it’s still depressing. Like man, we got people that’s 18, 19, 25, 35, that’s never had a conversation with a person where they really been able to let the stress go.

You have to let out, what’s hurting you on the inside and seeing and talking to so many people on the streets.

You just hear the entrapped pain. The entrapped enclosed trauma that they’re just holding on to, that’s just building and building and building. Then when someone step on their shoe one day that they were just having a super bad day, they just let everything out. In reality, you really was just supposed to address them stepping on your shoe, instead of you addressing them stepping on your shoe, your friends getting killed, your momma passing and anything else that was going through that you was holding in.

Just being able to bring guys together from different communities, to see guys just put differences to the sides, and just enjoy life, and bring family together, that’s what our work is all about.

“We have to give these guys more reason for life, because they’ll say, ‘Man, I die for this.’ But what would you live for?”

The more we show people that imagery of positivity, then we’ll see a better day. If we have what we’re doing across the city, I guarantee you that our numbers will go down, because you’re not going to reach everybody. It’s impossible, but the ones that we are reaching, they’re going to help us reach the ones that we can’t reach. It’s a continuous cycle. We just got to knock them down one at a time. We got to bring them in one at a time.

THE INTERRUPTERS

 

Pastor Tracey Lee

Inside the Life of A Violence Interrupter


During an especially grueling summer in Chicago, we spent a month capturing a glimpse of Pastor Tracey Lee’s day-to-day life as a violence interrupter, a pastor, and a supermom. Across several weeks, we witnessed the faith, love, and unyielding hope this young Black woman brought to her community in Englewood, as she worked to make our City safer.

 

Billy Moore

An Old Wound, A New Chapter


When he was just 16, Billy Moore made a tragic mistake, taking the life of another young Chicagoan. After serving a 20-year sentence and losing his own son to gun violence, Billy is devoting his life to ensuring that other young men live lives of opportunity, rather than regret.

THE ORGANIZERS

 

Omaha 360 members meet in 2018.

Curbing Gun Violence in Omaha


To some, gun violence and broken trust between police and community members seem like problems that are simply too big to fix, but not to Willie Barney. Willie shares how his collaborative has used a holistic approach to reduce gun violence in Omaha and build stronger police-community relations.

 

Arne Duncan, former Secretary of Education, holding a microphone addresses a crowd of young men of color.

A Secondary Education


When Arne Duncan left his job as CEO of Chicago Public Schools in 2009 to serve as Secretary of Education, he thought he’d seen gun violence in the City at its worst. He was wrong. By founding the violence prevention organization, Chicago CRED, he’s attempting to overcome a collective failure that has haunted him for years, with promising results. Read about what he’s learned, what’s working—and what we all can do to help.

THE ACTIVISTS

 


Getting Involved and Staying Engaged


In the Englewood neighborhood, Joseph Williams is also known as the “Black Mr. Rogers.” His community activism is rooted in helping fathers connect with their kids through literacy and maintain an active role in their lives. Recently, when a tense situation arose between community members and the police, Joseph stepped in to mediate—using the deep understanding of his community to advocate for a peaceful resolution. Watch his conversation with Michael Strautmanis, Chief Engagement Officer at the Obama Foundation.

 

Will Calloway

Showing Us What Matters


Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Will Calloway became all too familiar with the disinvestment and systemic discrimination that create the conditions for gun violence to surface. But as Will saw more and more lives cut short, he was inspired to take action.

 

Berto Aguayo

Increasing the Peace in Chicago


Berto Aguayo grew up in Back of the Yards, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He’d always heard that to “make it” meant to “make it out of the hood.” To Berto, that didn’t sit right. He wanted to help bring his neighborhood the peace and resources its residents deserved.

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