Golden Moments to Save Lives and Curb Violence in Chicago

The Metropolitan Peace Academy and its street outreach workers carry out direct and intense work in neighborhoods, especially with young people who are part of gangs or have committed crimes, to help both victims and perpetrators break the cycle of violence. The work of Ricardo Estrada and Jesús Salazar, among others, at this institution is based on having themselves experienced and overcome violence, and then projecting their commitment, knowledge, and empathy to help others, especially young people, and to prevent violence in Latino neighborhoods of Chicago

Jesús Salazar at the Metropolitan Peace Academy facilities in Chicago. (Aileen Ocaña / La Raza)

Jesús Salazar at the Metropolitan Peace Academy facilities in Chicago. (Aileen Ocaña / La Raza) Crédito: Impremedia

The Metropolitan Peace Academy program represents a tangible hope in the fight against violence by offering programs and fundamental support to transform communities and promote peace. As an integral part of the Metropolitan Family Services organization, Peace Academy stands as an example of the transformative power of community initiatives in fostering peace.

La Raza spoke with Ricardo Estrada, executive director of Metropolitan Family Services, one of Chicago and Illinois’ historic assistance institutions with 167 years of existence. Metropolitan Family Services is the largest non-religious institution of its kind in Illinois. Focused on education, empowerment, economic stability, and emotional health, its services are offered throughout the Chicago metropolitan area.

The synergy between Metropolitan Family Services and Peace Academy represents a powerful commitment to the comprehensive well-being of our community. While Metropolitan Family Services is known for its dedication to providing resources and support to families, Metropolitan Peace Academy is dedicated to promoting peace and personal development. By joining forces, they form an alliance that transcends the boundaries of social services and education to build an environment where family harmony and personal growth are intertwined.

Metropolitan Peace Academy emerged from and to support the Communities Partnering 4 Peace (CP4P) initiative, an alliance that leads street outreach work and organizations working in restorative justice to reduce gun violence in Chicago with a comprehensive approach.

Estrada recalls that during 2016, when violence levels in Chicago dramatically increased, he himself questioned: “Violence was not our focus, we were not in that branch, we are a large institution with a reputation, but we did not have the capacity or the training to tackle violence.” So, they joined forces with leaders and other organizations and, through local, private, and public funds, began their violence reduction strategy, gathering data and information to start their own program, which is still in place and has been successful in graduating peace-making leaders.

Thus, the Metropolitan Peace Academy was born out of the commitment to generate peace.

Estrada could not understand how the city of Los Angeles, in California, had more peace in its neighborhoods: “We are similar communities, and there is more peace there than in Chicago,” Estrada wondered. Los Angeles has the Urban Peace Institute, which is also an institution that works on creating peace in its communities. In fact, in its early days, Metropolitan Peace Academy hired staff from Urban Peace in Los Angeles to teach the first training course, and then Metropolitan Peace Academy created its own curriculum, tailored to the needs of Chicago, has made progress, and has professionalized its street outreach workers.

Training Peace Professionals

In 2018, the Metropolitan Peace Academy began its services as an academy and succeeded in graduating 25 street outreach workers. Its program focuses on training professional street outreach workers, centering its curriculum on non-violence, trauma-informed services, and restorative justice. The training consists of 144 hours over 18 weeks, a scheme designed by three professionals with doctorates. The course offers credits recognized by the City Colleges of Chicago. Topics of study include adverse childhood experiences, the impact of violence on the community, mental health, and psychological well-being, among many other topics.

However, one of the major challenges remains recruiting future street outreach workers, who are individuals that were involved in crime or gangs but have matured and decided to change their lives, have transformed, and still have influence on the streets to calm situations. Estrada asserted that with the training provided by the Metropolitan Peace Academy, these individuals can act as messengers of peace and gain the community’s trust.

Turning to individuals who were involved in crime or gangs, Estrada mentioned, “is an old strategy, always used in different ways. Even the Black Panthers used it. The problem is that police, the community, politicians do not believe it is effective, they do not trust that the collaboration of those people who were criminals and were part of the problem is going to work.”

Estrada’s strategy has been criticized because, in his own words, “finding a good street outreach worker is more difficult than finding a good police officer, because a police officer you take from university, from the academy, but a street outreach worker, most of them were prisoners, have felonies, were incarcerated for at least a decade, have come out and had to leave that life behind, have taken on a new mission, have decided to heal and it has not been easy.”

Therefore, identifying and finding a good street outreach worker to heal the community remains one of the many challenges. Thus, the Metropolitan Peace Academy supports future street outreach workers, who were convicted and are now free, to reintegrate into the community and assists them with legal, civil services, and justice services to be able to get a job, to rent housing, so that their rights are respected, to have a normal adaptation to their new life.

The work of the Metropolitan Peace Academy goes beyond training peace creators in our communities. Estrada feels great satisfaction in sharing that Light in the Night is a practice against violence, replicated from the program in the city of Los Angeles. During past summers, by implementing this activity in the ‘hot’ zones of Chicago, referring to communities most affected by violence, Metropolitan Peace Academy has noticed that a violent event has never been recorded in those neighborhoods. Light in the Night are gatherings in parks where the community shares music, poetry, sports, or art, with activities taking place from Thursday to Sunday during the summer from dusk until midnight. Each neighborhood designs its programming according to its tastes and needs.

The nine most violent communities, all located in the west and south of Chicago, where more homicides or attempts at homicide are recorded, are the areas where the Metropolitan Peace Academy participates and develops programs to curb violence, Estrada comments. According to Ricardo Estrada, 85% of the people who have died or are using firearms are African American, and for that reason, more work is done to generate peace in those neighborhoods. “Latinos began to say ‘what about our areas? There is also violence here’, but the statistics indicate that help is mostly needed in African American areas,” Estrada affirmed.

Therefore, to show respect and support, and to make the work of street outreach workers more local or personalized for each community affected by violence, the Metropolitan Peace Academy trains candidates from organizations already doing work in Latino neighborhoods and that are allies, such as New Life in Little Village and Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Back of The Yards. In addition to training, the Metropolitan Peace Academy supports these organizations, which are also part of CP4P, with resources from public and private funds, so that they themselves can create their programs and structures and do their own outreach work in their streets and neighborhoods.

Personalities attended the inauguration of the new Metropolitan Family Services facilities. (Courtesy of Levern Danley)
Crédito: Cortesía

Efforts to Promote Peace

To solidify the branch of training street outreach workers, the Metropolitan Peace Academy recently inaugurated facilities located in Pilsen: a modern building with offices, classrooms, and conference rooms that serve as spaces for study and progress. Senator Dick Durbin and public and private funds supported the construction of this building. However, Estrada pointed out, the challenge is not in building the facilities, but in maintaining them and securing funds, and in the daily work to ensure the project’s success.

Estrada recalled that when he hired Bryant Vaughn, who is currently the Executive Director of Metropolitan Peace Initiatives, he told him: “If you make this a success, you can go anywhere else and replicate this project,” referring to the Metropolitan Peace Academy, which is the academy where all peace initiatives are taught. The project continues to progress in order to reduce violence numbers, with efforts and collaborations having grown, now working with 27 communities and 13 institutions to reduce violence in Chicago.

Estrada is no stranger to violence; he and his family have been victims of it, living in the Little Village neighborhood. When asked about the differences in experiencing violence between African American and Latino communities, Estrada indicated that the concept of family is different, as there is a stronger sense of family integration among Latinos. The gang system is also different. There used to be well-organized crime among African Americans, which is no longer the case, Estrada explained, adding that Latinos have more leadership within their organized crime cells.

Regarding how the impact and results of the Metropolitan Peace Academy are measured, Estrada said: “When the program started, violence decreased, and then it increased with the pandemic. Last year [2023], a decrease was noticed, so violence is constantly fluctuating.” Estrada’s goal is to reduce violence to levels before 2016. With the infrastructure they have created with the Metropolitan Peace Academy and peace initiatives, Estrada believes they can achieve this.

Given its size and population, Estrada pointed out, Chicago should have the same success as New York or Los Angeles in reducing violence and should register 200 homicides annually. Unfortunately, the reality is different: 2023 ended in Chicago with more than 600 homicides. Therefore, one of the long-term goals is to count fewer than 250 homicides annually in Chicago. That is the challenge of Arne Duncan, of the Chicago-CRED organization, and many other leaders who also work to bring peace to communities, Estrada affirmed. He is aware that achieving this requires tripling the number of street outreach workers, about 300 extra workers. Therefore, the Metropolitan Peace Academy offers its resources so that people committed to healing the community can be trained and work to reduce violence.

Estrada believes there are three actions or changes that are important to promote safety in Chicago’s Latino communities. First: “The safety of our community is everyone’s responsibility—parents, teachers, politicians, priests, but if we do not take it seriously, it will not be achieved.” Second: “Police are not our enemies; they must be responsible for their actions. We are an important part of bringing peace to our communities. The police should embrace programs like the Metropolitan Peace Academy because if we succeed, their work as police officers in tackling violence will be more efficient.” Third: “Government agencies, institutions, must invest more in community violence intervention.”

Certainly, the Metropolitan Peace Academy remains one of the priorities for Metropolitan Family Services, Estrada asserted, who has a professional background supported by a bachelor’s degree in sociology, theology, and philosophy. He still remembers not having a clear direction for his professional path but heard about social work and started working in that field. Then, he obtained a master’s degree from the University of Chicago to focus on counseling and administration, which led to the opportunity to lead Metropolitan Family Services. Since 2011, he has served as its president and executive director.

Jesús Salazar serves as the field manager for the Metropolitan Peace Academy programs. (Aileen Ocaña / La Raza)
Crédito: Impremedia

The Work of Peacemakers

Jesús Salazar is one of the four Latinos who graduated from the first generation of the Metropolitan Peace Academy in 2018 and now serves as the field manager for the Metropolitan Peace Academy programs. Salazar is a clear example of the success of the Metropolitan Peace Academy in recruiting individuals who were part of the problem, who were involved in a gang, experienced jail, and reformed to later be accredited as street outreach workers through professional training.

Salazar experienced jail in 2010, acting as both perpetrator and victim. In his family, brothers, uncles, and cousins were gang members, so he became one too. “When you grow up, you are inspired by those people, and the role models are involved in gangs, not always bad, some of them are good people and perform good deeds,” added Salazar.

The last time Salazar was in jail, he was 30 years old. He remembers looking around. The people in the cell represented all the different generations of his life: boys, young men his age, and 60-year-old men imprisoned. There he saw himself in the future in all three stages of his life. He said to himself: “That ‘Don’ sitting there on the bed is going to be me, at that age imprisoned.” At that moment, he decided to change the direction of his life.

After serving his sentence, Salazar sought help from Jorge Roque, who had long served as a mentor and guided him away from the wrong path, sought him out, and insisted he leave the gangs. Roque kept him and other youths focused on sports and activities, discussing various topics and life. Salazar actively participated in mentor groups but says he was hesitant to leave violence, always returning to the streets, being stubborn.

Salazar’s transformation story is remarkable, with all the vicissitudes that led him to reflect and retake his life. Now, as part of the Metropolitan Peace Academy, his professional role has constantly changed: last summer he was promoted and now serves as the field manager for the Metropolitan Peace Academy. He has completed all the training at the Metropolitan Peace Academy, fell in love with this initiative from the beginning, and has also participated in case manager and victim services training. That’s why he was hired; they saw his interest, invited him to apply for a job at the academy, and made him part of the team. Salazar is so involved in the mission of the Metropolitan Peace Academy that, in addition to teaching, because he is an expert in all the topics that are part of the training, he also designed a class called ‘History of Chicago and Gangs, the Latin Version’.

Salazar indicated that violence also affects Latinos and explained that the problem dates back to the great migration in South Chicago when communities escaping rejection, persecution, and discrimination from other states in the country came to settle in Illinois, which offered job opportunities and more tolerance in these lands. However, in Salazar’s opinion, the first generations of Latinos who were involved in gangs did so due to discrimination they suffered because of their race, color, language; they had to defend themselves. That’s how they built coalitions to fight for their rights as Latinos. But Salazar added that in the 1980s, the alliance of forces of color groups took a very different turn due to the crack drug epidemic. Gangs then transformed because they began to participate in drug distribution and fought for territories, explained Salazar.

Regarding the work of these mentors and peacemakers, Salazar indicated that they are individuals who were involved in or lived through violence and now teach young people because they experienced it and were part of it; they are people who have the ability to connect and guide the community with services and many other resources. Salazar insists that when you are a mentor, you are a mentor for life. He himself served as a mentor, was a leader, knew how gangs operated, and managed to be a violence interrupter. Indeed, he continues to be a mentor or softball coach in Little Village for a group of youths, and their season runs from spring to fall. Happily, Salazar shared an award that adorns his office in the new facilities of the Metropolitan Peace Academy. He has received awards as a player and coach of softball and likes this sport for its great tradition.

Golden Moments Against Violence

Metropolitan Peace Academy represents a great hope for communities and individuals suffering or having experienced violence. The professional training participants receive is aimed at enabling them to secure a job, reintegrate, and give back to their community, commented Salazar. He reflects that if he had never approached the Metropolitan Peace Academy and worked as a street outreach worker, he has no idea what direction his life would have taken. His beginnings as a street outreach worker started with the organizations Enlace and YMCA, where he learned to work with youth and violence intervention programs.

During the interview with La Raza, Salazar received an alert on his phone and then explained: “it’s a shooting, a young man was shot, his condition is critical, the incident occurred in a hot spot in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.”

It’s 5:26 pm on a Monday, in situations like this, the street outreach workers assigned to the area where the incident occurred are responsible for keeping track of the young man’s condition, offering guidance to the relatives with interpretation at the hospital, especially if there is a language barrier. Once the victim recovers, the so-called golden moments or golden moments arise, the opportunity to visit the victim to work on steering them away from violence.

In a sensitive manner, Salazar simulated what his approach to the victim would be: “Son, how are you? You need to think about what happened; you went through something serious, fortunately, you’re alive, what are you going to do about your future now?” “You talk to them to calm their anger, their rage, so they don’t opt for revenge, to reflect and avoid more pain for their family and to save themselves,” explained Salazar.

Thanks to the golden moments, street outreach workers have seen a lot of positive responses. Salazar mentored many young people looking to leave gangs, helping them to find employment. Likewise, he has met many other young people who have been shot and died, but he still believes there are many successful cases where young people rebuild their lives.

In the past, Salazar was unaware of the professional standards for working as a street outreach worker, but the Metropolitan Peace Academy has greatly contributed to his personal and professional development. As a teenager, he didn’t know how to express his emotions and remembers that when one of his friends was killed, he didn’t know how to vent. His immediate reaction was revenge as a form of grief and relief to heal his pain.

At the Metropolitan Peace Academy, emotional intelligence is discussed, learning not to react uncontrollably, to process and correct thoughts, all to avoid normalizing violence behavior. Through holistic work, the Metropolitan Peace Academy offers training for trauma treatment, studies on opioids and other drugs, and violence. Metropolitan Family Services promotes a communication method that avoids certain words, such as abuse, which is associated with something negative. According to Salazar, people who use drugs may be linked to violence or become generators of violence. This new style of communication and being more careful with the words used in their interactions has great healing power. Words have power.

Salazar has countless stories of young people who have managed to rehabilitate their lives. One resonates in which the young person was consuming alcohol and complicating his family, professional, and social relationships. Being part of the Metropolitan Peace Academy, they could assist him with mentorships and detailed conversations, learn his story, and conclude that the reasons connecting this individual to alcohol were the absence of a father figure, lack of support, not knowing how to reconcile the loss of his father, who also drank. All this triggered his inappropriate alcohol consumption.

Fortunately or unfortunately, violence, gangs, and jail were a path that Salazar had to take, or experience, and now with his own testimony, he can share those experiences with young people. There is an empathetic connection that allows young people to identify with mentors who have lived the same. At 19, Salazar was first imprisoned. He remembers being very cold and hungry in that prison. These are stories he shares with young people: “If you continue on that path, the same thing that happened to me could happen to you,” Salazar tells them. He is also aware that there is a lot of pressure in the streets from gangs, friends, but everyone chooses their own path.

To bring peace to communities, more street outreach workers are needed, and Salazar recommends that those interested in participating in the Metropolitan Peace Academy need to learn to be humble, open to transformation, to knowledge, not to judge, and be willing to provide services and solutions to the violence problem. Not everyone completes the training, and not just anyone is chosen to be part of the academy. There are different and very unique challenges that each candidate must deal with, many of them do not have a college degree, lack work experience, or are not very savvy with technology. Today, most young people communicate through social media, and it is through these platforms that threats are also made between groups or gangs. The Metropolitan Peace Academy offers training to understand and interpret these communication systems among young people, guiding those who participate in the academy to decipher messages and intervene before it escalates to violent or deadly acts. Each year, the Metropolitan Peace Academy offers two training sessions of 18 weeks each, from January to August and from August to December.

If there’s one thing that satisfies Salazar, it’s being a teacher, sharing stories, data, statistics, anything that poses a mental challenge makes him happy. In fact, people have told him, “You’re smarter than I thought.” This native of Little Village did not go to college; he has always been self-taught, likes to think beyond what is established, and this year he will begin his studies in computer science at Daley College. Salazar has been doing street outreach work for 17 years. That’s how he survived and has grown professionally, creating alliances in Latino neighborhoods. Jesús Salazar aspires to be a worthy representative of the Latino community.

Colorful murals at the Metropolitan Peace Academy facilities in Chicago. (Aileen Ocaña / La Raza)
Crédito: Impremedia

Overcoming Challenges and Resistance

The great challenge of the Metropolitan Peace Academy, Salazar and Estrada agreed, is that the community does not necessarily support street outreach work and judges this work, not collaborating. There is resistance from certain schools to the use of facilities or gymnasiums for sports tournaments or recreational activities for young people, certain neighborhoods resist accepting after-school programs. The purpose of the Metropolitan Peace Academy with its peace initiatives and street outreach workers is to prevent rather than just interrupt violence. That organization considers that institutions and leaders in charge of schools should open their doors so that young people and children can be positively influenced, to know the programs and be informed about violence issues. Peace is possible, but it requires the participation of the entire community, avoiding divisions. Salazar still has in his memory, even with some dismay, that when he grew up in Little Village, “all the neighbors used to see each other as family, today that is not seen, there is a feeling that the neighborhoods are not community.”

Almost at the end of his interview with La Raza, Salazar was notified that the young man reported severely injured by a firearm had died. The golden moment never existed for that young man and his family. What to do in moments like this? Salazar replied that now they have to work with the family of the deceased young man, with friends, so they do not suffer threats, so there is no next victim, so there is no blood-for-blood revenge. What hurts Salazar the most is that, despite all the efforts being made, young people continue to die in Chicago. It is very tragic.

The dedication of the Metropolitan Peace Academy to fostering peace among the communities of Chicago is admirable and essential. Combining education, street outreach services, and community involvement, that organization has made tangible progress in building safer neighborhoods. The Metropolitan Peace Academy provides its students with tools and resources to promote positive changes, promotes dialogue, and fosters relationships with communities, which is vital to creating more equitable and harmonious societies. The efforts of expansion, progress, and impact of the Metropolitan Peace Academy imply that its members will continue building a culture of peace and understanding. That generates hope for a more inclusive and safe future for the communities of Chicago.

Contact with Metropolitan Family Services and Metropolitan Peace Academy

Address: 101 North Wacker Drive, 17th Floor Chicago, IL 60606

Phone: 312-986-4000


Websites:,, and

Facebook page: and

The production and publication of this report by La Raza have been made possible in part thanks to the support of the Chicago Community Trust through its Cross Community Impact program.

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