SWOP and CCJF Commit to Carry Out in Chicago Early Intervention in Communities at High-Risk of Violence

To prevent violence, assist its victims, and provide social reintegration options for individuals who have committed crimes and served their sentences, organizations like the Southwest Organizing Project, the Chicago Community Justice Foundation, and others are expanding their infrastructure and services to benefit more people residing in neighborhoods affected by violence, improve community safety, and promote equity and opportunities to get ahead

Sandi Byrd, Executive Director of CCJF, shows one of the illustrations of the future community facilities of her organization. (Irene Tostado / La Raza)

Sandi Byrd, Executive Director of CCJF, shows one of the illustrations of the future community facilities of her organization. (Irene Tostado / La Raza) Crédito: Impremedia

Among the organizations offering services and resources to divert teenagers from wrong paths, the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) stands out as a community organization comprised of 45 entities, including religious groups from a variety of denominations, schools, community development corporations, hospitals, wellness centers, social service agencies, and other representatives from different sectors based in southwest Chicago.

Beyond the police, these community groups advise parents and provide funds to support low-income teenagers with limited economic growth. They mostly work in communities characterized by restricted employment opportunities, a scarcity of resources, and low levels of community engagement, in addition to suffering high rates of violence.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are several social factors that lead to a decrease in quality of life and poverty crises.

The multiplicity of risk factors causing and at the same time the consequence of the lack of local economic investment also imposes limited access to satisfaction of needs considered basic: healthy food, safe housing, quality education, and adequate medical care.

In communities with high levels of poverty and inequality in the Chicago area, non-profit organizations like SWOP dedicate their resources to empower and support individuals with the necessary tools to face factors that make them more vulnerable to violence.

Through their community contributions, initiatives like ‘Light in the Night’ awaken the blocks of Chicago characterized by high rates of violence with an impressive display of activities for the whole family, food, and access to resources.

Community leaders like Calvin Brown, SWOP’s director of the anti-violence program, make a difference in the lives of teenagers and parents in communities where inequality disproportionately affects people of color.

Brown began his career with SWOP as a case manager but is also part of the Communities Partnering 4 Peace (CP4P) group. This group of community interventionists focuses their efforts on preventive measures to reduce violence and gang activity in high-risk violence communities.

“Much of my work consists of going out and looking for the perpetrators of violence and the victims of perpetrators to try to talk to them and see if we can help them with a lifestyle different from the one they lead,” Brown told La Raza.

The next step in the intervention process is to invite community members to attend one of the personal enrichment programs that SWOP offers at its facilities currently located at 2558 W. 63rd St., in the West Lawn community.

“Once we have them at the center, we offer them counseling with our outreach workers and help them connect with essential needs, which can include help to get an ID, birth certificates, or social security cards. Additionally, we help them prepare their resume and connect them with job training and job search preparation programs,” explained Brown, 49 years old.

For those who are eligible, food, lodging, access to medical care, and mental health resources are also offered free of charge.

The goal of this organization is to achieve personal growth for every individual who walks through the doors of the community center or those who are identified after a violent incident or during one of SWOP’s community events.

Achieving this objective requires consistent attention and a team with a lot of patience and personal motivation. Brown, who was raised in low-income housing located in south Chicago, has first-hand experience with an early prevention program: the Henry Booth House initiative.

“I am actually a product of the work [of a mentor]. I was never jailed or locked up, and that’s because one of the outreach workers approached me, helped me finish high school, and even do some college. He helped me get a good job. In fact, to this day, I am still connected with him,” said Brown, originally from the Bronzeville community. Brown uses the lessons he learned from his mentor to help SWOP participants “have a better life.”

These community centers offer teenagers and their families an escape from their daily lives, which sometimes involves contact with drugs and alcohol, emotional suffering, violent conflicts at home, and the presence of gangs. Instead, at SWOP, participants can take computer classes and vocational courses, play basketball, attend a peace circle to address difficult situations in a safe environment, learn to be machine welders, obtain construction certificates to operate a forklift, receive a weekly salary for their participation, or simply relax in a peaceful space.

The day La Raza spoke with Carlos Ortez, one of SWOP’s outreach workers, he was conducting a peace circle, a restorative justice activity, with a group of young people. Inside the circle, the young participants took turns reading from a book and practicing their diction.

One of the preventive tactics Brown learned from his mentor was to remove young people from their comfort zones, thus stripping them of their limited perspectives and keeping them busy during hours when they might engage in dangerous activities.

“Generally, when I got into trouble, I was surrounded by people who weren’t good for me, especially gang members,” emphasized Brown, who has been working in this field since he was 18 years old.

It’s not easy to push some of the younger participants to fully commit to the program because they don’t always have support from their parents or partners at home. The biggest struggle, Brown said, is keeping them focused through education or quality employment.

A day in the life of outreach workers may include visiting or contacting 20 or 25 participants and confirming the safety and mental health status of each. As a mentor, Brown ensures he has learned that his role is to “lift them up, set them on their feet, show them the path they should go, and hope they take into account all the things you’ve taught them.”

SWOP’s service focuses on the communities of West Lawn, Chicago Lawn, West Englewood, Gage Park, Ashburn, and West Elsdon. Mostly, the participants are men between the ages of 16 and 24. This focus aligns with the priorities of the City of Chicago and its comprehensive violence reduction plan called ‘Our City, Our Safety.’

In Chicago, efforts and funds dedicated to creating safe communities are centered on 15 community areas that comprise 24% of the city’s population.

According to this action plan, “violence has persisted here for decades because the underlying causes (systemic racism, disinvestment, poverty, lack of social services) have not been addressed, and the use of policing as the main solution has failed.” These communities, where shooting and homicide rates are highest in the city, are also mostly African American and Latino.

From 2018 to 2020, 63% of the city’s homicides and non-fatal shootings occurred within these 15 community areas. In 2020, 79% of homicide or non-fatal shooting victims were African American, and 15% were of Latino origin.

Hearing these figures, Brown recognized there is much work to do but won’t give up and admitted it’s worth it because SWOP is contributing to the improvement of two of the identified communities, West Lawn and West Englewood. It’s especially rewarding for him when his protégés contact him to thank him for all his effort or to let him know they got a job, some pursuing careers as police officers or firefighters.

Calvin Brown (right), case manager, alongside his colleagues. (Courtesy of SWOP)
Crédito: Cortesía

Expanding Reach and Services

According to a glimpse at the map and summary of data collected in real-time on violence trends in Chicago, most victims of violent incidents in Chicago, 84%, are male, and 68% are between 20 and 39 years old.

Similarly, Brown highlights that most of his clients are male, but recently there has been a drastic increase in the number of homeless women seeking support and social services.

“The women who are seeking help are between 18 and 26 years old and are homeless people with children. Our organization works with a shelter to help them gain access to housing or lodging,” Brown shared.

SWOP plans to move to a more spacious property to expand its services and respond to the wide variety of needs of its participants.

Currently, they have six case managers who work with between 50 and 100 participants a year. Additionally, with the aim of increasing their impact on the community, they will hire more workers upon moving into the new building located at 2631 W. 63rd St.

Establishing peace in a community is exhausting work. Those who pursue this career have to be versatile and resilient to stay standing after long workdays listening to devastating stories and maintaining composure to inspire others to fight for a better life.

In a larger office, there will be additional space to carry out this important work and offer clients the necessary privacy to consult with doctors and lawyers, if necessary. “Here there is no space for community events or to deal with victims of shootings and street violence,” explained Brown. “We want our facilities to be a reflection of the professional quality service we offer.”

The impact that SWOP has on the communities where it offers services is amplified with the help of other social organizations.

Brown is proud to highlight that in the coming months, they will collaborate with organizations PODER, the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline, CP4P, Chicago Cares, and Equal Hope to uplift and empower women.

In March, they planned to celebrate Women’s Appreciation Day with services for women over 16 years old, such as self-care techniques, massages, and manicures during an event at the PODER facilities, to connect women with resources and create a social support network. Additionally, they plan to hold the third annual anti-violence event for mothers whose children have been victims of gun violence in May.

“We don’t invite them to remind them of what happened, but so they can form a sisterhood. And many of them who don’t seek professional help can meet someone who has gone through what they have and can connect to talk,” said Brown.

These events foster a sense of community, one of the elements missing in most neighborhoods with a high risk of violence. By empowering mothers, they can come together to stop the troublemakers taking over their blocks and influencing their young family members.

Combating Insecurity with Community Intervention

One of SWOP’s integrated strategies is organizing family events. For this, they request permission from the city to close one of Chicago’s most dangerous blocks, identified by the high rate of criminal activity and violent crimes occurring there. SWOP invites a variety of groups to this type of social deployment, offering support in different areas of assistance, including information about medical care, housing, education, and food.

These efforts in areas of significant impact make a difference in combating one of the causes of citizen insecurity: the fear of going out on the streets due to the possibility of being a victim of crime.

This tactic was identified by Jane Jacobs in her book Death and Life of Great American Cities. The writer, journalist, and activist, who coined the term ‘eyes on the street,’ wrote, “for a street to be safe, there must be eyes on the street, eyes that belong to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.”

Replacing an atmosphere of apprehension with one of peace and tranquility is achieved with this type of festive intervention, which aims to foster a sense of community among neighbors and empower them by providing access to the necessary resources to overcome the social conditions that limit the exercise of their freedom.

“We want to get mothers to come to our center and take away information and resources to push their children, nephews, neighbors, and grandchildren to follow good paths,” explained Brown.

For Brown, it’s a sign of progress to witness a block filled with groups of mothers and children playing outside their homes, chatting without fear with representatives of the organizations that have come to their block to try to help them with information on different areas of need. The alternative is seeing a group of police officers investigating the death of another person shot and killed, with mothers watching the events in fear, hidden behind the curtains of their home.

Replacing Criminal Events with Festive Events

Brown asserts that involving parents and youth in events and conversations about their communities is crucial to truly reducing crime and improving safety. And although it’s a complex problem, Brown has faith in the power of a community united for peace. However, there are social structures that perpetuate inequality and must change to truly prolong the positive impact of an organization like SWOP.

“There need to be more opportunities and job options for everyone, not just for young men and women, but also for adults. We don’t have many employment opportunities that offer fair wages, and poverty in our neighborhoods creates more crime,” explained Brown.

It is also of utmost importance to invest in community centers and safe spaces where people of all ages can come to stay away from bad influences and meet basic needs such as food, housing, education, and medical care. These changes won’t happen immediately, but any help, no matter how small, is monumental for residents who are victims or witnesses of crimes just steps from their doors almost every day.

Calvin Brown, case manager, with SWOP employees and participating families during a basketball tournament. (Courtesy of SWOP)
Crédito: Cortesía

Peace Work Is Everyone’s Business

The media plays a significant role in disseminating information of interest and usefulness to members of marginalized communities. “In predominantly Latino and African American communities, we want to show the good things that are happening and what is being done to try to help, instead of just giving the bad news,” emphasized Brown. In addition to the events SWOP holds, Brown highlights the importance of establishing local connections and spreading information through churches, businesses, and trusted groups in high-risk communities.

Combating crime requires a multifaceted approach with victims or individuals at high probability of being so. SWOP is part of a network of non-profit organizations that receive financial support, through their affiliation with the CP4P initiative, to jointly reduce the number of shootings and homicides in Chicago and establish and recover safe spaces in communities most affected by gun violence.

These Community Violence Intervention (CVI) groups interrupt activities involving illicit acts and resulting in crimes. As an alternative, they offer access to therapy, counseling, legal support, training programs, and help obtaining a high school diploma. The goal is to create a holistic model to confront the social factors driving crime.

In 2021, the state government enacted the Reimagine Public Safety Act, established the Office of Firearm Violence Prevention, and began funding CVI groups. According to a report on CP4P published in March 2023, CVI intervention prevented 383 fatal or non-fatal shootings in the communities where these groups offer services.

At the end of 2023, the anti-gun violence initiative Chicago CRED revealed its plan ‘Scaling Community Violence Intervention for a Safer Chicago’ (SC2), which will support the coordination between dozens of community groups and local and state government. The goal of SC2 is to offer services to 10,000 Chicago residents, half of whom are estimated to be at the highest risk of being shot.

This financial support from the government, philanthropic groups, and businesses will make possible the development and implementation of intervention programs that will respond to the needs of each community.

A Site with Many Solutions

Local investment in organizations working with high-violence-risk communities will allow the expansion of support groups to make legal assistance accessible to people who need it. Like SWOP, the non-profit Chicago Community Justice Foundation (CCJF) will soon open the doors of its new facilities and offer legal advice to low-income individuals. CCJF is part of the Alliance of Local Service Organizations (ALSO), which joins the list of CVI groups.

“Our main focus is legal services to help people address all kinds of issues, whether it’s expunging criminal records, helping people recover their driver’s licenses, or learning about the steps they need to take to get a driver’s license,” Sandi Byrd, executive director of CCJF, told La Raza in an interview at the building that will be the headquarters of the new CCJF community center.

The building is located in the Humboldt Park community and until a few months ago stored mattresses, previously it was a grocery store.

With great enthusiasm, Bryrd shared, “we are in our raw space that, hopefully, next year will become an incredible community center where we will house multiple social services.”

The facilities will offer computers for clients’ use to look for work or for their children to complete homework while their parents resolve their legal issues. The goals are to offer professional spaces, with conference rooms and offices, that connect the community with various social resources and design opportunities for intentional interactions between neighbors. The parking area will also serve as a recreation and special events space where tournaments for young people can be organized.

Brown explained that addressing community insecurity requires a multifaceted strategy. With the opening of the new CCJF facilities, the Humboldt Park community and its surroundings will have access to a comprehensive center that will feature various social service agencies all under one roof to facilitate this access.

“Here we will have a long-term lease agreement signed with an alliance of local service organizations that do work in areas of violence prevention, workforce development for reentry, and mental health providers. A safe environment will be provided for individuals to talk to our lawyers, who can then refer them to other social agencies located a few steps from our offices to help them move forward without worrying about being able to afford it.”

The idea for this organization emerged after several conversations with ALSO clients, during which Byrd learned that the lives of many of her clients were stuck while waiting for access to legal help.

A Bridge to Achieve Fair and Necessary Legal Representation

Legal advice is a valuable resource often out of reach for low-income individuals. In high-risk communities, there’s also a higher likelihood of contact with police authorities and that an individual or their family members have criminal records complicating the process of obtaining a driver’s license or becoming a barrier to employment.

There are legal situations that prevent an individual from excelling or functioning in this society. Byrd explained that these legal issues deal with credit problems, housing issues, or matters related to regaining custody of children and family. And, in most cases, the lack of financial resources paralyzes individuals in seeking appropriate legal services.

“When people can’t work to earn a living, they don’t feel safe in their community. And that’s when we see the rise in crime, because people feel they have no other option,” said Byrd, who has been practicing law since 1996.

Byrd assured that many of the cases she litigates are for crimes originating from some need when an individual thinks they have no other resource than to commit a crime to survive. It could be a mother who was detained for stealing bread to feed her children or a father who does not have money to pay for his car registration and the infractions that have resulted in the suspension of his license. Still, the individual has to drive to take their children to school or go to work to get the funds to pay the fine.

“It’s true that not paying your fines is a crime, but if you don’t have a job and your driver’s license is suspended and you drive because you need to get a job, you get in trouble for driving with a suspended license, and it all becomes a vicious cycle,” explained Byrd, who switched from being a public defender to help marginalized communities.

“One of the things I’ve discovered doing this type of work in recent years is that most of the experiences low-income individuals have with the justice system have been negative, and the system has done something to them rather than helping them.”

Legal cases and the judicial process can be overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, it is indicated, it’s important to educate low-income people about their legal rights to give them the opportunity for a fair defense. “Having someone to help them navigate that process is life-changing,” added Byrd. “With the flow of migrants, the need for free or low-cost legal help and in various languages will be even more critical.”

CCJF offers legal services to a full spectrum of ages and handles 30 to 50 cases a year. Most of their clients are male, indicative of the reality of the criminal justice system. The Illinois Department of Corrections reported that 95% of incarcerated adults were male, 53% of them African American, and 12.5% of Hispanic descent.

Reforming the Judicial and Social System to Foster Personal Improvement

The relief of criminal records needs to be expanded to help more people. In the opinion of the former public defender, there should be a better distribution of the available financial resources to address convictions related to cannabis use and other types of crimes that have a significant impact on an individual’s life. It is a gap in the criminal system that should be reconsidered to improve community safety.

Additionally, Byrd emphasized that it’s critically important to change the social perception of individuals with criminal records to allow these people to reintegrate into society and be productive members after paying their fines and serving their sentences.

“An individual needs to be able to move forward and cannot do so if they are constantly being punished for a mistake they made 10 or 20 years ago because their criminal record doesn’t allow them to get a job, housing, or a loan to buy a car,” Byrd shared.

Both Brown and Byrd highlight the need to promote collaboration among groups that offer social services and the availability of diverse job opportunities with fair wages so that communities can feel safer. It’s necessary to change laws or eliminate barriers that prevent people with records from working to improve their own well-being.

“I think the jobs are there because we see the low unemployment rate and the high number of vacancies, but some people simply cannot access them because many companies disqualify applicants with a criminal history. I had a client who worked for 10 years, and suddenly, someone buys his company and conducts background checks on all employees, and the person with a criminal history loses everything because many companies do not hire people with records,” Byrd shared, who, after working as a public defender, in private criminal defense, and civil litigation, “got tired of the unfair side of the criminal justice system” and found a good balance doing criminal defense work and helping people who need it because “we are all worthy of legal representation.”

SWOP collects coats, and its outreach workers help distribute them to those in need. (Courtesy of SWOP)
Crédito: Cortesía

Laws to Achieve Equal Opportunities

In the last two years, laws and policies have been introduced at the local and state level to respond to inefficiencies in the criminal system that perpetuate discrimination or tend to facilitate the victimization of individuals in low-income conditions. The Illinois legislation known as the Safety, Accountability, Fairness, and Equity – Today Act (SAFE-T Act) identifies reforms in the criminal justice system, enacts changes in procedures concerning police use of force, creates policies to safeguard the rights of individuals filing complaints against police officers or the criminal process, and enforces the elimination of cash bail, among other changes.

Illinois is the first state to adopt legislation reforming the criminal and judicial process by prioritizing the rights of crime victims and detained individuals. These reforms were designed to confront racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system. By developing better systems to report injustices and procedures to sanction or prosecute police officers who have acted unlawfully, it seeks to eliminate the gaps of inequality that prevail within the structures of the criminal justice system in Illinois.

In particular, the legislation modifies the process of certification and decertification of police officers; allows the investigation of police officers by the state attorney in cases of civil rights violations; requires the use of body cameras by all police agencies by 2025; identifies restrictions and limits to the justified use of force by an officer; ends the suspensions of driver’s licenses for non-payment of fines imposed by automatic cameras, traffic fines, and fees for abandoned vehicles; increases support for pregnant women; and transforms the trial procedures that determine if the detained individual qualifies for conditional freedom.

“I am pleased that the General Assembly has passed clarifications that uphold the principle we fought to protect: ending a system where wealthy violent criminals can buy their way out of jail, while less fortunate non-violent criminals wait in jail until trial,” said Illinois Governor JB Pritzker. “Advocates and legislators came together and worked hours to strengthen and clarify this law, uphold our commitment to equity, and keep people safe.”

Regarding the implementation of the SAFE-T Act, Byrd agrees with the flexibility it gives judges to decide between keeping a person detained or letting them out without having to pay bail.

“I don’t think people should be punished for being poor, and particularly, in my life as a public defender, I can’t tell you how many people I represented who pleaded guilty just to get out of jail because they couldn’t afford to pay bail to get out. These individuals have families relying on them and need to get out of jail as soon as possible even if it means they have to plead guilty,” said Byrd.

Through this update of criteria and policies, the law issues certain protections for victims of socioeconomic injustices and seeks to reduce inequality in access to justice and generate equitable opportunities for people lacking income, education, health, credit, and other productive resources.

Contact with Organizations

Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP)

Address: 2558 W. 63rd St., Chicago, IL 60629

Phone: 773-471-8208

Email: info@swopchicago.org

Website: www.swopchicago.org

Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/swopchicago.org

Chicago Community Justice Foundation (CCJF)

Address: 3845 W. North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

Phone: 773-458-5323

Email: info@chi-justice.org

Website: www.chi-justice.org

Alliance of Local Service Organizations (ALSO)

Address: 2519 W. North Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

Phone: 773-235-5705

Website: also-chicago.org

Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/ALSOChicago

Chicago CRED

Address: 300 E. Randolph St. Suite 3850, Chicago, IL 60601

Website: www.chicagocred.org

Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/chicagocred

Communities Partnering for Peace (CP4P)

Website: metropolitanpeaceinitiatives.org/communities-partnering-4-peace

Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/CommunitiesPartnering4Peace

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

En esta nota

Barrio y paz Chicago Community Justice Foundation Reportajes Chicago Seguridad comunitaria Southwest Organizing Project
Contenido Patrocinado
Enlaces patrocinados por Outbrain