Peacemaking: Stories from the front lines of violence intervention in Chicago

Peacemakers violence intervention program workers

2020 was one of the most violent summers in recent memory on the streets of Chicago. Unemployment in some Black neighborhoods topped 30 percent and Black people died exponentially from Covid-19. Many only saw young Black men on the nightly news portrayed as menaces to society and wondered what’s going on.

The following are stories I compiled of three young Black men in a violence intervention program called Peacemakers. I spent the summer of 2014 working with them at St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s South Side. Some of these young men were former gang members who turned their lives around to become positive role models and disrupt the trauma that they were once a part of. 

Meet Christian, Corey and Eugene. 

The interviews with Christian, Corey and Eugene were originally published in St. Sabina Church’s newsletter, The St. Sabina Times in 2014. More on The Peacemakers violence intervention program was printed in the October 2013 issue of Ebony Magazine as a part of Shirley Henderson’s 6-part series “The Village Keepers” copied below.

Christian Austin

I’m 23 years old and grew up on 79th and Laflin.  I grew up with my mom, my brother and my sister and attended Cook Elementary School.  My father was around but he was inconsistent and wasn’t really there for us all the time.  We lived with my grandfather.  He wasn’t extremely engaged in our lives either but he gave us a place to stay and that was important.  Because of my dad’s absence, I had to grow up fast.  I had to help out with raising my siblings around the house along with bringing in money to help support the family.  I always had odd jobs that allowed me to help my family.  I worked at places like: Walgreens, The Board Of Elections, CeaseFire, Union Pacific and O’Hare Airport.

I was active in after-school programs early in life and met Father Pfleger during one of the After School Matters activities in the St. Sabina gym.  This was the beginning of a long relationship where he would stand by me like a parent and even help me get jobs when I needed money and other assistance that my family needed.  He always encouraged me and has been a real blessing in my life.

Growing up was fine but I found myself attracting a bad group of people.  I wasn’t in a gang but a lot of my friends that I hung out with were and they were always getting into trouble.  Because of this, my mom moved us to the suburbs so I’d be safer.   We ended up moving into a housing complex in Carpentersville, IL.  While there, I attended Dundee Crown High School.  This was the beginning of a series of high school changes and moves that I would experience over the next couple years.  Since the new housing complex I was living in had some of the same bad elements and influences as back in Chicago, I ended up getting kicked out of Dundee Crown.  At that time, my dad became involved for a time and moved me back to Chicago to live with my grandfather again and I attended Winnie Mandela High School.  The story here was the same as the last 2 high schools; I got involved with the wrong crowd and was expelled from here as well.  This was not the end.  I then went to Charles Houston high school where gang activity and getting into fights remained an element.  Believe it or not, I was kicked out of Charles Houston as well.  At that point, I never returned to high school but did successfully get my GED.

My life changed when I encountered a mentor in the PeaceMaker program (Patrick) who grew up on the same block as me.  He spent some time in prison and dedicated himself to non-violence afterwards.  I would see him in the neighborhood telling people about positive community resources, like St. Sabina and places to get job help or GED training.  I was fascinated and inspired at how he turned his life around.  Then a partner of his, who is a Peacemaker as well (Brandon), eventually saw me and asked me to join.  I liked that the Peacemakers gave me the ability to do something positive like Patrick and make a real change in the neighborhood.

In addition to community outreach, I also liked the basketball component of Peacemakers with the city-wide Peace League and tournament.  To me, basketball has always been a major component of gaining notoriety in the neighborhood.  If you’re a good basketball player, people know you and respect you.  Playing together is also good for peace.  If you know someone and play on the same team in the gym, when you see them on the street, you’re less likely to get into quarrel.  Because of the Peace League, I’ve even seen members from rival gangs play on the same team, just to have the chance to play.  This is unheard of!

There have been many positive outcomes since I became active with the PeaceMakers.  I’m happy to say that I’m now working for the M&M Mars Company in Burr Ridge, IL.  I take the positive skills I’ve learned as a PeaceMaker everywhere I go.  I’m very hopeful for my future after being a part of this program.

Corey Williams

I grew up mostly on 79th and Laflin, not far from St. Sabina.  I moved here with my family at the age of 3.  I enjoyed growing up around here.  Both of my parents were there and there was a sense of peace in my life.  I attended Cook Elementary School at 81st and Bishop.  My friends and I spent a lot of time playing basketball and simply growing up together without threat of harm.  We didn’t realize we were living in fractured gang territories until we grew a little older.  For most kids, it was approximately 8th grade when they discovered that the neighborhood we lived in wasn’t as innocent as we thought; for me it was around 6th grade however.  It was around this time that I began to be approached by gangs.  There were really no particular gang initiations like there used to be.  Joining a gang can happen casually – for example, one day you’re somewhere and people starting saying, “What Up Folks” to you and before you know it, it sticks and you’re going around with them.  You’re in their gang.  “Folks” was like a term of endearment at first.  It gave us a sense of belonging – like a group of brothers or brotherhood – a family.  The “family” you were in primarily related to the neighborhood you lived in.  You would see guys on the block or on the basketball court and they were your brothers.  It wasn’t until later that I learned about the illegal activities they were in.  Before I knew it, I was going around with them committing robbery and sticking people up for money.  Some friends and I (one of whom is also a Peacemaker now) used to go around with me punching people in the face for fun.  I used to look for fights.  I would go places and turn my hat to the wrong side (signifying affiliation with a rival gang) for the purpose of attracting my enemies to peacefully approach me and I’d suddenly start fighting with them.

One of the things that pulled me out of that life was basketball.  I was a good basketball player so by the time 7th and 8th grades came around; I caught the attention of our school’s basketball coach, Mr. Simmons.  He told me about the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball league.  This league put me in contact with some of the best players in the city; in fact, the top 2 ranked players in the city at the time were a part of my team.  My skills increased significantly at this time.  Equally important was that it exposed me to other neighborhoods.  We had our tournaments at Rich Central High School in Forest Park and I began to spend more time out there.  The homes were so big and everyone had nice cars – I thought they were all rich.

I continued to play basketball into high school and distanced myself from gang-life by working at the same time.  I held jobs working at a local movie theatre and Walmart during high school.  I had leadership skills but my behavior continued to be bad in a lot of ways and I ended up getting kicked out of high school during my senior year.  I continued to work at Walmart for a while and then I learned about the St. Sabina Peacemaker opportunity from someone in the program that I used to hang out on the streets with.  Since then it’s been an amazing opportunity for me.  I see people on the streets that used to know me when I was in a gang (I’ll probably always have that moniker hanging over me), but now it’s very different because they see me talking about peace and know I’ve changed my life around.  It’s perfect for me because I wanted to make a positive change and show the world that even though some of us made some mistakes; everyone out here is not doing illegal gang activity.

Since I’ve become a Peacemaker, I’m more prepared for my future.  I’ve gotten great long-term jobs leads, great interviews and I’m working towards my GED.  It’s been great getting to know Father Pfleger as well.  I had heard of him of course living in the city but never knew he would be cool with me like that and would want to help me.  He made me feel important and that this work we do as Peacemakers is important.  We need Peacemakers in the street.  If we were not here, believe me, things would be a lot worse.  We’re talking to people and risking our lives at the same time, all so we can see a brighter tomorrow.

Eugene Alvarez

I grew up in a city in Belize called Dangriga.  It was extremely friendly – I felt a great sense of freedom.  My mom was hard-working but no matter how hard she worked, she couldn’t make enough money to support us the way she wanted to.  Because of this, we moved to Chicago when I was 5.  We lived in a Belizean community on the Northside of Chicago until around 2008 when I was in high school.  It was then that we moved to the south side on the block of 80th and Ada St.  I went to Lakeview High School on the North Side and made the long daily commute on the train to school.  I saw the negative aspects of growing up in the neighborhood around here but I was always more motivated by the words of my mom who told me to always push and be my best.  I grew up with my mom and dad in the house.  I consider myself spoiled.  My mom always took great care of me and showed me love.  I am the oldest of 2 siblings, a younger brother and sister.  I’m very protective of my brother and sister and worry about them when they’re on the street and especially getting on the bus.

While living on the block, I got involved with some good friends who are also in the Peacemaker program, Jabril and Patrick.  Our common bonds were friendship and basketball.  Playing basketball is a time when I can relax and get my mind off of problems or dangers.  We would see each other and hang out on the block around Laflin Street and then we would go to different basketball courts like The Ark at St. Sabina.  It was at The Ark that I met Father Pfleger.  He always encouraged me and had something nice to say to me.  He always kept the court open for us.  He’s been a blessing to me and kept me away from a lot of violence.  He also always told me to come to church.  I started taking him at his word and came to church while I continued to play basketball.  Eventually my friend Patrick brought me into the Peacemaker program and it’s been a real blessing to me.  It’s kept me out of a lot of trouble and even kept me from making enemies.  It’s funny how you naturally make enemies depending on what side of town or block you live on.  Since people know that I’m with the Peacemakers now though, it doesn’t matter.

I graduated from Lakeview and am currently a junior at the University of Illinois at Chicago, majoring in physical therapy.  I have dreams of being a professional athlete one day.  I’m a part of the Peace League and a member of the PRO-AM league which is a feeder for a lot of players to play professionally overseas.  Through St. Sabina I was able to link up with Joakim Noah’s Arc Foundation and had the honor of playing at the United Center in his tournament.  It was so exciting playing on that court!  If I can’t play basketball professionally, I plan to utilize my degree and work in physical therapy for athletes and maybe NBA players.  My dreams are big and it’s great to know that I’ll have a degree that I can utilize no matter what my future holds.

Published by Kelwin Harris

Kelwin Harris is a public speaker, city planner and public engagement professional who focuses on creating equitable communities, empowering people that have been historically excluded from connectivity, and dismantling inequity in Chicago.

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