On June 17, about 30 street outreach workers tuned in from around Chicago for a virtual graduation ceremony for the newest class of the Metropolitan Peace Academy, known as “Cohort Five.” The program offers outreach workers — sometimes known as violence interrupters — training on community wellness, conflict resolution, and how to interact effectively with city agencies.
“I’ve lived a life of chaos and confusion most of my life, and not until this cohort and being around people that I relate to, did my life start to come into a correct mode where I feel like there’s a purpose,” said one graduate in a pre-recorded video played during the ceremony.
“Cohort Five revitalized who I am,” said another.
Outreach workers respond to every shooting they can in their community, piecing together what happened in an effort to stop retaliation. Their success relies on the relationships they build with community members, especially the men and women most likely to be involved in gun violence. The workers, who are often former gang members, help residents secure jobs and housing, and navigate other needs.
Starting in January, Cohort Five met twice a week at Kennedy-King College on Chicago’s South Side. Their four-hour classes delved into a range of topics, from the history of the city’s gangs, to generational trauma, to how to interact with the police. Some of the participants were new to the world of street outreach. Others had worked in the field for years. All of the students continued working in their communities while attending classes.
During a session in late February, dozens of poster-sized sticky notes lined the walls, highlighting some of the subjects the group discussed, classroom etiquette reminders, and inspirational statements. Next to the white board, a poster listed the goals of Communities Partnering 4 Peace, or CP4P, a citywide gun violence prevention collaborative: “1.) Reduce shootings and homicides, 2.) Create safe spaces in our communities, and 3.) Professionalize the field of street outreach.” All of the outreach workers attending the academy are employed by CP4P member organizations.
Ric Estrada helped craft the vision for the Peace Academy when it launched in 2017, following a historic uptick in the city’s gun violence. The blueprint for the program comes from the Urban Peace Institute, an initiative in Los Angeles that provides training for intervention workers. Estrada, who is CEO of the Metropolitan Family Services, oversees several of Chicago’s major gun violence prevention initiatives, including the academy.
“One of the key reasons for this was to have some kind of professional understanding and trust from the Police Department,” Estrada said, “because if they don’t believe that our outreach workers are well trained and that they are out of the street life and gangs, then it would be pretty difficult for officers to trust our guys and leave them alone and do their work.”
But not every participant was immediately sold on the concept of The Peace Academy.
“When I first started class, I was standoffish, my back was to the facilitators, I was only talking to the people I knew, I was real quiet,” said Carlos Wilson, who graduated from the program last week. He eventually warmed up to his cohort, though, and won an award for “Most Improved.”
“For them to give me recognition for that, really made me want to push and be better, and do more,” he said.
Wilson works as a street outreach worker for the Target Area Development Corp in Foster Park, on the city’s South Side. He went through the academy with two of his neighborhood friends. One of them is Marva Modeliste.
“The one that thing that stuck out to me was ‘Know Your Rights,’ because a lot of us don’t know our rights when dealing with the police,” said Modeliste, who works for Roseland Ceasefire on the South Side. “A lot of us, a lot of my participants don’t really know and once [the police] pull them over, they just tell them everything.”
For Marcus Mitchell, who goes by the nickname Moon, the class taught him how to balance the multiple roles street outreach workers juggle as violence interventionists, social service providers, confidantes, neighbors, and street-level investigators.
“At first my street outreach work was mainly about violence, dealing with the violence, stopping the violence, and creating the peace,” Mitchell said. “Now my street outreach work has been about the violence, but also staying healthy, feeding the community, helping the community, getting them masks, sanitation, and then also schooling the young brothers dealing with the police.”
Like Modeliste, Mitchell said learning how to interact with the police was helpful. Chicago Police often patrol the same “hot spot” areas that street outreach workers canvass.
“We came from the street,” he said. “We instantly shun dealing with the police, so we have to understand that it’s a professional responsibility we have.” Mitchell works as an outreach worker with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago in West Garfield Park on the West Side.
The pandemic forced the academy to move its classes online in April. For outreach workers, the moment was particularly challenging: In Chicago, the coronavirus has disproportionately devastated the same Black and Latinx communities affected by gun violence.
“They were fighting the virus, they were fighting the violence each and every day,” said Vanessa Perry DeReef, the academy’s lead instructor and director. “My hat’s off to them, because they have extreme resilience.”
Even on video, DeReef has a commanding presence. Whenever a student shared a profound or personal thought, she would lead a fiery count to three, ending with an echoing “BOOM!” that the entire class would say in unison. It became the cohort’s rallying cry. “[The BOOM] was just about modeling, in real time, how you adapt when the environment forces you to,” she said.
The Peace Academy held its last class on the Friday after Memorial Day weekend. The holiday turned out to be the city’s deadliest in five years. By the end of May, Chicago had erupted in protests and riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death by a white police officer. Shootings have continued in the weeks since.
As of late June, there have been more than 1,200 shootings — up nearly 40 percent compared to the same time frame last year — and nearly 300 people have been fatally shot, according to the Chicago Police Department. CPD data does not include police shootings or shootings that occur on highways, which are handled by the Illinois State Police.
Some researchers predicted the potential increase in violence earlier this year, hypothesizing that the pandemic would exasperate the same underlying causes that contribute to the city’s gun violence.
Estrada said he believes the Peace Academy is key to addressing Chicago’s gun violence long-term. “During this moment, I think there’s going to be the temptation as there always is in Chicago, to say it [the academy] was working for three years, but it doesn’t work [now],” he said.
Estrada pointed to the Urban Peace Institute in Los Angeles. “They implemented exactly what we’re doing here; it didn’t take them one or two years, it took them essentially a decade-plus,” he said, “but they stuck with a plan that works.”
As the pandemic continues, Estrada said his team is still working out what will happen in the fall, when the program will welcome a new class of students.
Last week, DeReef ended the ceremony with her signature rallying cry:
“As we continue to build the beloved community, let’s remember that we have a realm of control that we have an impact, but collectively we can make an impact across the City of Chicago.