Community groups helping prevent crime through mentorship, guidance

Chicago Forward: Young Lives in the Balance
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CHICAGO As escalating gun violence, carjackings and brutal attacks have residents of Chicago on edge, many are demanding police find a way to stop it. Other Chicagoans believe there’s a more effective way to address the problem.

People who work in this arena say too much money and attention is being put on after the crime is committed through policing and the criminal justice system. They believe the focus should be on preventing the crimes in the first place.

The age of the perpetrators in some incidents have left many residents particularly shocked, with children and young teenagers being on the offending end of heinous crimes.

“What I always hear is no one cares,” Dar’tavous Dorsey of the University of Chicago Crime and Education Lab said.

Dorsey is the Associate Director of strategic engagement with the U of C Crime and Education Labs.

“They are responding the way they are because they feel no one is trying to engage or give them any type of empowerment or hope to believe that like their situation they can overcome these obstacles,” Dorsey said.

Dorsey is also a mentor with the youth guidance group ‘BAM’, standing for ‘Becoming a Man.’ It’s where he met Ron Stewart Jr. four years ago.

“He’s a huge figure in my life, he’s helped me out with so much,” Stewart said.

Ron and Dar’tavous met as Ron was entering his freshman year at Marshall High School when Stewart had several bouts of homelessness. Stewart also had lost his mother when he was eight years old. His father passed away in the summer of 2020.

Stewart said he has also lost friends to gun violence, some of which he actually witnessed. At 18 years old, he worries about being a young Black man in Chicago.

“It’s most definitely scary sometimes. Most of us don’t trust the police.” Stewart said.

Daniel, a 7-year-old elementary school student, has a mentor in Luckson Emmanuel of Friends of the Children. Emmanuel will be Daniel’s mentor until he graduates from high school, no matter what.

Daniel and Luckson were paired through the organization “Friends of the Children.” It’s a national, non-profit organization that is new to Chicago.

The organization connects kindergarteners with a paid, professional mentor who has been trained to support them for the next 12 years, until they graduate from high school.

“So these are the kids that are consistently not showing up to school or regularly late to school or acting out in the classroom or falling asleep at their desks,” Friends of the Children executive director Taal Hasak-Lowry said.

Friends of the Children works to reach out to families that are falling under the radar of other social service organizations.

“We know that if you have a positive, consistent relationship, that can buffer the toxic effects of all of that stress and trauma,” Hasak-Lowry said.

Hasak-Lowry added that there is nothing a child can do behaviorally that would get them removed from the program.

Intensive mentoring is one of several proven strategies identified by the University of Chicago Crime Lab. It was started 10 years ago with the intent of using data and research to figure out how to combat violence.

“Keeping young people engaged in school is one of the most important things we can do and there’s still much more work that needs to be done there,” Roseanna Ander of the U of C Crime Lab said.

Ander points to research that shows that just 5 percent of blocks on the West Side of Chicago account for more than a third of all shootings.

That’s an area concentrated between Madison Street and the Eisenhower Expressway in Garfield Park and Austin, as well as along Roosevelt Road in North Lawndale.

Those areas also suffer from extreme poverty, a disproportionately high young population with very few grocery stores, financial institutions and poor internet access.

“I think the pandemic took all of the challenges our city was facing and just dialed them up to exacerbate every underlying inequity and challenge,” Ander said.

With the bulk of victims and perpetrators in between the age of 18 and 29 however, some believe the focus needs to be concentrated on that age group.

“Our efforts have to be concentrated with that population,” Eddie Bocanegra of READI Chicago said.

Bocanegra is the executive director of READI Chicago, whose primary goal is to reduce gun violence. On average, READI participants have been arrested 18 times, 80 percent have been a victim of violence and 34 percent have been shot.

The program has connected more than 1,200 men with mental health services, housing and a job.

“It’s not enough to tell somebody to put the gun down, you want to give them something in return,” Bocanegra said.

Through new, innovative approaches for different age groups, organizers hope to improve all of Chicago.

The Chicago Tribune Editorial Board has been exploring that question with a series focused on how to reach disconnected young people. Read more on their website here 

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