Chicago’s “worst areas,” under restoration

The media tends to focus on the bad in Chicago, especially in neighborhoods like Englewood and West Garfield Park. Camera crews are quick to arrive on the scene of the crimes committed in these areas though they cease to capture the good that is going on. So instead, the world and its’ citizens of more privileged areas of Chicago go oblivious to what is going on in their city. The hope for these neighborhoods is given up and they are then ignored and alienated by citizens of Chicago. But Chicago is not Chicago with out these areas.

During my very first week at DePaul University, I took part in immersion week. A week dedicated to learning from and about Chicago and seeing ‘behind the skyline’. The class that I took is titled Discover Nonviolent Chicago. During that week we traveled all around Chicago visiting areas of high crime rates but within them, great organizations working to bring about change and provide hope for its’ neighborhoods. Though I lack the luster to thoroughly explain all that I witnessed because I was quite often left speechless, I will do my best to explain the power of hope in these areas.

One of the first places we visited was in West Garfield Park. When you Google this area, the first few websites that come up are “West Garfield Park—Crime in Chicagoland” and “West Garfield Park Highest Murder Rate.” Though going into this area, I had none of this background knowledge. All I knew was that it was considered an unsafe area, one where no one other that it’s residents should go. Yet against this advice, we went there anyways. Whether I was naïve or had too much faith in humanity, I did not feel unsafe. I felt out of place, but not unsafe. The point of us visiting West Garfield Park was to learn about an organization based there, the Peace Corner.

The Peace Corner is in the heart of West Garfield Park, though it’s exterior looks much different than the buildings alongside it, seemingly representing a metaphor for what the organization does. In contrast to the old brick buildings, the Peace Corner stands with glass windows surrounding it’s exterior. I find this to symbolize the work towards change that is going on behind those windows. As we learned while visiting and their website explains, “The Peace Corner Youth Center provides a safe haven from gang violence and drug activity, a [free] after school program for children, job training and placement for young adults and GED classes.”

When we visited, we were fortunate enough to not only hear of all the work they do, but see it first hand. School hadn’t started yet in Chicago so even though it was around noon, the facility was filled with life and laughter. Here in the middle of all of the heartache and danger that is commonly known about, these children are given a break. I was moved deeply by the Peace Corner’s ability to give the children a childhood, even if just for a couple hours a day. While there, we played a few games of dodge ball with the kids and staff members, I (attempted) to play video games with some of the kids and others talked with the girls about school and their hobbies. Behind every child’s eyes, I saw a glimmer of hope and a fire within them. The Peace Corner doesn’t only give children and it’s other community members a safe place to go, but hope for a lifetime. A hope that one day, they won’t have to worry about whether or not their beloved family members and friends will make it to tomorrow, next week or next year.

Another place we visited that gives hope to children is in Englewood. The neighborhood of Englewood is to some, considered the worst neighborhood in Chicago. It is quite often the location that one hears on the news when relating to criminal activity. The place we visited within Englewood is a school called Perspectives Middle Academy. It is a school for students between the sixth and twelfth grade. Here, they focus on discipline and consistency so that the students will know what to expect, which is something that can’t be said when they go beyond the walls of this school. While education is the main focus at Perspectives, the students’ mental and emotional well-being is at the forefront of its’ atmosphere.

All of the students are enrolled in a class called ‘A Disciplined Life.’ Here they work through their feelings of what is going on in their personal lives and learn about problem solving, utilizing peace circles and peer mediation. We were fortunate enough to witness one of these classes. We were in a class of about twenty, all in the eighth grade. The students demonstrated a peace circle for us, standing in a circle talking only when holding the ‘talking piece’. Whenever they heard something that they agreed with and felt strongly about, they would snap their fingers. What surprised me was how brutally honest the students were about what they were going through and how open they were with their classmates. One girl shared how she had finally come into contact with her half siblings and another spoke about how she was dealing with her Uncle being killed in a drive by shooting. Once again, as I interacted with the students and watched them interact with each other, I saw the hope and fire for change behind their eyes. In fact, they have a passion so strong for change that each year the students organize a peace march in early June. It goes from one school to another, to raise awareness for peace in Englewood and Chicago in general. The campaign is titled ‘I am for Peace’.

Near Perspectives Middle School is another organization called the Precious Blood Ministry. Here is an afterschool program for male students within the area as well as a safe haven for conflict resolution, whether between grieving mothers or dueling gang members. They use the same strategy as used at Perspectives, a peace circle. Which by title seems weak, but when put into action, it moves mountains. It mends the un-mendable, solves the unsolvable and gives hope to the hopeless. We were able to hear first hand accounts of the astonishing achievements that have been made within the circle. A mother forgave another mother for her son killing her own, a policeman forgave a young man for breaking into his house and gang members have forgiven each other for their wrong doings. Here, I not only saw hope through the efficiency of peace circles but I was able to feel hope within myself from the power of forgiveness that was such a strong theme there at Precious Blood Ministry.

Within the same neighborhood, Englewood, we visited an office for the organization called Cure Violence (formerly known as Ceasefire). This organization is compiled of ex-gang members and ex-gang members only and because of this, they are able to do something that no one else is able to do. They, unarmed and unprotected, go into the heart of the violence in Chicago and interrupt situations that could become violent by utilizing their former positions in the gang community and reasoning. If I, being a young Caucasian adult from Wisconsin were to approach a potentially violent argument and interject myself to hopefully put out the fire, I would not be taken seriously. However, if someone goes into the situation, having been around the neighborhood and already having respect from their positions that they held in a gang, those involved may listen and solve the situation in a nonviolent way. The interrupters and other workers at Cure Violence not only have hope and see the potential in their neighborhoods, but are also working towards making Englewood a safer environment.

Many citizens from northern Chicago haven’t even stepped foot into the neighborhoods I have recently visited. This is for reasons that I, of course, can understand. For the focus portrayed by media outlets on southern and western Chicago is only of the violence that occurs there. Because of this, the general public seems to have given up hope on these areas. I also think, that at some point in time, these areas have given up hope in them selves. Though because of organizations like Cure Violence, the Peace Corner, Perspectives Middle Academy and the Precious Blood Ministry, hope in areas like Englewood and West Garfield Park is being restored. This is the first step towards things truly changing. Though the next step is restoring the hope and faith in the entire city of Chicago, which can only be done if media outlets venture further into the unknown and shed light on the wonderful work that is being done to create a nonviolent Chicago.

Within this, is a lesson for not only residents of Chicago, but everyone around the world. As the cliché goes, ‘everything is not always what it seems’ and one cannot base their opinions on someone else’s account. It is important to venture into the world of unknown and find things out for yourself. So keep an open mind, experience things for yourself and never give up hope.

For more information about the organizations I have mentioned, please visit their websites:

The Peace Corner

Perspectives Middle Academy

Precious Blood Ministry

Cure Violence

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