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Inside the life of a violence interrupter

Pastor Tracey Lee

During an especially grueling summer, we spent a month capturing a glimpse of 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.

For decades, the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Englewood has suffered from underinvestment and systemic discrimination, leading to disparities in access to health care, education, and employment, fostering the conditions for gun violence to occur. Most gun violence in Englewood is rooted in retaliation and in-fighting between small factions, and since COVID-19 struck, the neighborhood is facing a rise in violence, mirroring trends occurring across the country.

Pastor Tracey, along with her outreach workers and victim advocates at  Target Area, (Opens in a new tab) are fighting back with hope. The organization plays a key role in defusing tensions and preventing violence through community service and data-driven response.

We spoke with Pastor Tracey and captured photos of her and her work, from August 18 to September 8, 2020. Over the course of the month, she and her team responded to ten shootings, seven of which happened in just a 24-hour period. Of those seven, five were connected, with an initial spark of violence leading to four subsequent retaliatory shootings.

For Pastor Tracey, this work can often feel like an uphill battle, but the moments of peace add up and give her the strength to persevere. Take a look at the photos and stories that offer a glimpse into her life as a violence interrupter.

Photos by Carlos Javier Ortiz.

Pastor Tracey Lee looks at a photo on a woman's phone.
A closeup of the image Pastor Tracey is looking at.

The 15-year-old victim’s mom shows Pastor Tracey photos of her daughter and her friends.

Normally, Pastor Tracey and her violence interruption team respond to shootings, but this tragic incident warranted an exception. A social media feud between two fifteen-year-old girls spilled into an in-person fight to settle the matter, and resulted in one teen being stabbed to death. Pastor Tracey and her victim advocates were there to help the family set out on the life-long journey of grief and healing. “These were both young girls, 15-year-olds, and somehow adults got involved, like grown women, grown men. They met at a park inside of the Englewood community and one 15-year-old stabbed the other 15-year-old to death. There was, I believe, an 11-year-old girl who was cut in the face, and a 38-year-old woman who was also stabbed. It was a very tragic event.”

Pastor Tracey and her team respond to nearly every violent incident in Englewood. Every time, they follow the same steps with precision. In the case of the stabbing, Pastor Tracey’s outreach workers and victim advocates “went over there, we took food to them from a local Englewood business and just loved on them and offered them the support and assistance they may need to get through this process.”

Pastor Tracey Lee sits at her desk doing research.

Sometimes that assistance comes in the form of prayer and condolences, but more often it involves preventing retaliation, helping with funeral arrangements and burial costs, compensating victims, and providing access to mental health care. Due to COVID-19 and  safety (Opens in a new tab) concerns, her team typically doesn’t attend a service. After the service, however, they remain in close contact with the family, first once-a-week calls for six weeks, then every ten days, then monthly calls to provide additional support as needed.

Pastor Tracey speaks to her team, who are all wearing bright orange shirts.

Pastor Tracey manages five victim advocate workers and five outreach workers at Target Area. Together, they start their work days with a briefing to share information on shootings that occurred during the previous week and strategize on how to engage the victim (or their loved ones in the event they don’t survive), the shooter, and other affected community members. Once they align on their schedule and planned course of action, it’s time to begin their shifts.

A woman holds up a map of the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago indicating where shootings have occurred.

“These are different hot spots in our areas that we need to go and canvas on, some areas where we need a heavier presence.”

Target Area (Opens in a new tab), the organization where Pastor Tracey works as a program coordinator, uses a data-driven approach to prevent shootings. “Based on our data, we know that we’re up 31 percent in shootings on Saturdays into early Sunday mornings. We know exactly where they happen and have intel on the people involved, and we build relationships and plan our coverage around those active days and times.”

Pastor Tracey and her team serve the seventh district, which includes most of Englewood and the neighboring community of West Englewood. Oftentimes, they’ll talk about their organizing in terms of beats. “A beat is a sixteen-block radius and is the way a specific district is organized and policed,” she explains. “Every beat is its own microcosm of Chicago, with leadership that ranges from Chicago Police Department beat officers, community-member beat facilitators, and beat captains who are responsible for communicating updates from the city and police to residents at beat meetings.” She attends one-to-two meetings each month to keep up with what’s going on in her community and build relationships with neighbors.

A team of outreach workers walks through a neighborhood in bright orange shirts.

Before any of Pastor Tracey’s outreach workers can enter a community that’s experienced a shooting, they must have a license to operate, or an LTO. An LTO is acquired when an outreach worker gets permission from a key community member to enter the area to provide their services. Once they have an LTO, they get to work.

Pastor Tracey gestures to a group of forlorn people standing on the front porch of their home.

“A lot of times, the families of the victims—whether it’s a homicide or not—they’re out there. Because they live there. They don’t have the privilege of picking up and moving somewhere else that may be safer or would help them cope with their feelings more easily. Although they were upset, they were there for each other.”

Along with one-on-one conversations, prayer, and food and PPE distribution, the team hands out pamphlets and flyers to residents that range from COVID-19 guidelines to school enrollment reminders. If they can, they speak with the families, friends, and loved ones of the victim to prevent retaliatory violence. “We approach this work with the assumption that everyone is loved.”

One of the most effective tactics to prevent retaliation is a non-aggression agreement. Two parties agree to stand down for a critical but short period of time, which often prevents a string of connected shootings. But, as Pastor Tracey notes, “a non-aggression agreement can only do so much.” In the case of a 16-year-old who was shot over a weekend, her outreach workers secured a non-aggression agreement for a three-day period. Once it lapsed, however, shootings began again.

Pastor Tracey Lee and team providing supplies

As part of her work as a pastor and violence interrupter, Pastor Tracey hosts community events in Englewood that are designed to curb violence through community service. “This was at 63rd and Stewart, at the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. Once a month, the Chicago Police Department faith base in the  Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (Opens in a new tab) (CAPS) office hosts a food giveaway in partnership with the Chicago Food Depository. I’m the vice chair lady of the faith base for the seventh district, so we go to different churches each month to offer food to people who need it in that specific part of Englewood.” In light of COVID-19, the food drives have been moved outdoors, a welcome change over the summer.

Officer Shelton is a close friend of Pastor Tracey, and recruited her to serve as the vice chair of the CAPS office faith base.

Officer Shelton, pictured above, is a close friend of Pastor Tracey, and recruited her to serve as the vice chair of the CAPS office faith base. Their shared interest in community service and faith has strengthened Target Area and the Chicago Police Department’s relationship with the community.

“I met Officer Shelton two years ago. Apparently, he saw me on Facebook Live doing an outdoors event. Officer Shelton was like, ‘Who is this pastor, and where did she come from?’ From there, we just connected. I host a lot of outdoor events, and he would pop in every time, whether he was on- or off-duty. He’s really good at building relationships with pastors in the community. Eventually, he convinced me to serve as vice chair by bringing me my signature coffee with a straw every day until I said yes. [Laughter] So, we’ve just been rocking super tight since then. I think of him as a brother—a really, really close friend.”

Pastor Tracey sits across from Commander Snelling.

Larry Snelling, Commander, 7th District – Englewood

The effectiveness of Pastor Tracey’s work depends on positive relationships with police and community members that are built on respect, trust, and boundaries, but sometimes, those relationships can be strained.

During the week of August 9, Pastor Tracey and her team celebrated the fact that there were no homicides in Englewood over the weekend, but braced for a potentially violent response to the police shooting of  20-year-old Latrell Allen (Opens in a new tab) at 57th and Racine. “The police shot the young man who allegedly shot at the police. Misinformation spread, and riots started in the downtown loop late Sunday into the early hours of Monday.”

“When there’s a lot of unrest going on, we still also have to be careful that we don’t look like we’re the police.”

“It was pretty bad. So, the City of Chicago Violence Prevention Director called me. The commander of the 7th district called me to see if I can get some of my team and myself, if we can come out on the scene to help with the community side of things. So, the understanding that we have with the police department is although we may, in a sense, partner as far as community policing, not we’re going to be giving you intel, not get a criminal on the platform for you, none of that, because we have a lot of trust. The community trusts us to prevent and reduce violence, but not in the police method. Now, we don’t get in the way of the police doing their jobs, and they understand our job, too.”

Pastor Tracey looks over Commander Snelling's shoulder at his computer screen.

“We need the beat car to ride around at 1 am and 2 am. We don’t want the police to be somewhere chilling, waiting to respond to a call, but we need them to patrol and protect. That’s the bridge that connects law enforcement to our work. 35,000 people live in Englewood, and there are only 12 of us outreach workers out there at any given time. In the police department in our district, there might be 500 officers. We need the police to be the police. We need them to serve and protect, not harass or disrespect people because of the color of their skin. Be professional. Do your job, and we’ll do ours. We will never get in the way of the police or stop them from doing their jobs. We expect the same.”

Pastor Tracey has a personal connection to the Chicago Police Department, too. Her husband served as a Chicago police officer and sadly died of suicide. “The day that he died, I told God, ‘I will not be mad at you. I’m going to serve you for the rest of my life.’ I was widowed when I was 23. It took me some time, but I preached again on my 33rd birthday and shortly thereafter, I found my church and everything grew from there.”

The one thing that led me to pastoring is God calling me to be a pastor. I never ever thought that this is something that I would be doing. I never saw myself as a preacher or even ministering on a biblical type of level. But I’ve always had a heart and a compassion to want to help people. And people who look like me and people who at one point behaved like me and people who has been in some of the similar situations that I’ve been in. I just wanted to kind of reach back and get those people and let them know that God had a different way for them. Not necessarily a quote unquote better way, but a different way, a different path that can lead to better decision making better results in our lives.

I’ve been pastoring for four years now and it’s an amazing journey. I meet all types of people from all walks of life. And I feel like I’m called to the broken people, to whom others might consider misfits because I was a misfit. I’m still a misfit, you know. I’m a woman pastor and it’s predominantly men who are called to pastor or who are pastoring. So, yeah. So, I’m a misfit too. So, I understand. So I’m called to the people who people might reject.

Pastor Tracey drives her car.

Pastor Tracey says that everything she does is to bring glory to God, and that she feels protected by her faith when she goes to work. “When I’m in work mode, I get this S on my chest.” When she’s not at work, she naturally feels afraid. It’s clear that the violence interruption work she and her outreach workers do is dangerous and taxing. But despite the violence she witnesses in Englewood, she still finds joy and hope. One weekend, it was at a softball game between Chicago organizations  Hugs No Slugs (Opens in a new tab) and  Think Outside da Block (Opens in a new tab).

I want to just highlight too, our outreach workers, they really put their lives on the line. So, one of my guys called me today right before this call and was like, “Tracey, what’s D’s number?” I’m not saying his real name, but, “What’s D’s number?” I was like, “I’ll send it to you.” He’s like, “Yeah, I just had a situation.” I’m like, ‘What happened?’ and he’s like, ‘I just went on one of the blocks, just driving through,’ he said, ‘and I stopped for a moment and these three little shorties pulled up and pulled they guns out,”‘and he’s like, ‘Hey, wait. Hold on. What you all doing?’ So, he’s like, ‘I’m good now, but I need to talk to him about it.’

So, I just want to…I probably make it sound easy or…It’s a very dangerous position. It’s very, very dangerous, and probably more dangerous than the police, because we look like regular people without a uniform, without a badge, without the authority, without vests and…You know what I mean? People are not walking up on the police and pulling guns out.

Pastor Tracey kneels in prayer.

In light of COVID-19, Pastor Tracey holds her church services outdoors and has made her Sunday service literal: She and her parishioners take to the streets to dance, pray, clean up, offer food, and hand out other essential items. She’ll likely make it a permanent staple of her church.

A group of praise dancers raise their hands in the air.

“This is a group of young people from a group called Imagery. They are a prophetic dance group that travels from the North and West sides of Chicago to minister. They come out with us often, actually. On a monthly basis, they’ll do things with us on the street. They are always so powerful.”

Pastor Tracey prays over a parishioner.

About an hour after the church service ended and Pastor Tracey and her parishioners went home, a shooting occurred.

Some weeks, reports of shootings force her to cancel her outdoor services altogether. When that happens, she takes to her booming social media accounts to share “the Word.” Then, it’s time for her favorite Sunday self-care activities: silencing her phone, taking a nap, and spending time with her two daughters, Michiylah and Mia.

“One thing that I do when I feel really overwhelmed, is I watch a video I found with my two girls from about three years ago. They were interviewing each other, and it is so, so cute.”

Pastor Tracey's daughters interview each other

Pastor Tracey with her two daughters, two "adopted" daughters, and two of her victim advocates.

Pastor Tracey with her daughters Michiylah and Mia, “adopted” daughters Diamond and Fetty, and two of her victim advocates.

In addition to serving as Senior Pastor at the  Reach Church International (Opens in a new tab), preventing violence across Englewood, and serving people in need through her own organization  Access Freedom (Opens in a new tab), Tracey is helping her children grapple with the challenges of virtual learning. “Oh my God. Outside of work, I’m just trying to register my kids for school.”

Pastor Tracey has also found time to support two other teenage girls she calls her “adopted daughters,” who were experiencing homelessness and other challenges.

Pastor Tracey waves a flag and looks to the sky.

Over the course of a devastatingly violent summer, Pastor Tracey and her team at Target Area make sure they celebrate small wins. When they experience a shooting-free weekend, Pastor Tracey thanks God and celebrates with her team. “It makes me feel really good about our community when we go a weekend without shootings. Small wins tell me that the work we’re doing and the relationships we’re building are working. They’re effective. Somebody’s listening.

“It is a privilege to be able to offer hope and love to people in their darkest moments, and that keeps us all going.”


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