Kendra Snow was working the closing shift at a laundromat in Englewood when her phone began to ring. It was a neighbor, telling her not to panic. Then, the devastating news: Snow’s 16-year-old son had been shot outside of a nearby liquor store. He was alive, but she needed to hurry.
Snow remembers locking the laundromat door and running three blocks south toward the corner of 75th and Stewart. She knew the intersection well. It had long been a hotspot for neighborhood violence, one where both her younger brother and her son’s father had survived shootings. Still, nothing could’ve prepared her for this race toward her wounded son.
“This is my neighborhood. I was like, how did this happen to my son?” Snow said of that night in October 2015. “How dare you? This is my baby.” Once she reached him, she learned he’d weathered two shots in the back.
He survived, but would need months of physical therapy and long-term care that Medicaid wouldn’t cover. His journey toward healing would be long and arduous — a path Snow says he’s still pursuing nearly seven years later.
That journey would also prove challenging for the women in his life, women who loved him and watched him grow up. Snow, her aunt, her sister, and sister-in-law all rallied behind him, stepping in to provide the long-term care that he couldn’t access easily from hospitals or the state.
Snow’s experience reflects that of many women of color in Chicago and elsewhere whose loved ones survive gun violence. In the aftermath of a shooting, they are often the ones who provide emotional labor and care to alleviate the ricocheting impacts of gun violence. This work is vital, necessary for people to forge a new normal for their everyday lives. Sometimes, it extends beyond familial ties and to communal ones. But even when it comes from outside the walls of a single home, it is often unpaid, undervalued, and hidden from public view.
During the early months of her son’s recovery, Snow, along with her sister and sister-in-law, guided the teen through everyday tasks like eating, bathing, and homeschooling. Having to juggle her son’s care along with parenting six other children — while also working two jobs outside the home — was stressful. That stress was compounded by a trauma unique to survivors of gun violence: For months, Snow couldn’t shake the fear that every time he left home, it would happen again.
“It was a battle of getting him back to his normal self,” Snow remembers. “I was absolutely stressed and drained … he was like an infant again.”
Snow’s efforts are part of a patchwork of woman-led care that serves Chicago communities where shootings are common. These women lead block clubs, grow community gardens, organize food drives, and provide free childcare. It’s labor that bears little resemblance to the tougher talk of often male-led violence prevention work, with its street intervention, workforce training, and behavioral health counseling. The women foster safety and address community needs, functioning as the hidden scaffolding of the more visible work.
For decades, scholars and economists have raised concerns about the unpaid work women provide their families and the country at large. In the U.S., the uneven distribution of unpaid care work often stifles women’s employment opportunities, while keeping the economy afloat. The added stress and responsibility forces many women to take time off from work or leave the workforce altogether. The lack of national policies like paid family leave, affordable childcare, and paid time off make it difficult for women to engage in care on their own terms. This is especially true for women of color with low-paying jobs.
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“Women who are working in [low-paying jobs] are definitely not getting three months of parental paid leave, which means they can’t stay with their children during the most critical years of raising them,” says Karla Altmayer, co-founder of Healing to Action, a nonprofit that works with labor and anti-violence organizers to address sexual violence. “But they’re expected to provide for somebody else by working and making sure that there’s food on the table for other people.”
While the gender gaps in unpaid household and care work have narrowed in recent years, women in the United States still spend on average of two hours more per day on unpaid care work than men, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In a paper published in January 2020, the group used data from the 2018 American Time Use Survey to examine the relationship between unpaid work and economic inequities in the U.S. They found that gaps in unpaid care work persist across all income and education levels as well as race, but are greatest for Black, Hispanic, and Asian women.
In a 2020 paper, economist Nina Banks argued that Black women’s community work and activism is also a form of invisible, unpaid labor that fuels the economy. Banks said women of color have deep-rooted connections to their communities that often lead them to provide this work in response to systemic harms and unmet collective needs.
That community work can look like the time Snow now spends volunteering with Mothers Against Senseless Killings, a group of mostly Black women who have been occupying the corner directly across from where her son was shot. The group runs a free summer camp for children and provides meals to community members throughout the year. Their presence has helped to calm the block.
Shortly after her son’s shooting, Snow considered leaving Englewood, her home for over 40 years. But with rising rents and seven kids, moving would take some time. So she channeled her energy into helping make the community safer.
“I do this for the kids,” Snow says, “because, hopefully, we can teach them that you don’t have to grow up and kill each other.”
She eventually moved about five miles north to Bronzeville, and started a new part-time job as a parent organizer for Raise Your Hand, a grassroots education organization. She often does that job remotely from the MASK site in Englewood. Without a car, she has to make that costly commute via Uber.
She gets only a few moments to herself. She holds her biweekly manicure appointments sacred for the peace they bring her. But sometimes even that boundary breaks — on a recent Thursday, she spoke to a reporter from the salon chair. MASK, she said, is hard and sometimes thankless work, but she shows up for folks because she knows they’d show up for her.
“Should we be compensated? It would be absolutely great if we were,” Snow says. “But, I mean, the work still gotta get done.”
Many women, of course, have found ways to be paid for their violence prevention work, at least somewhat.
Christine Goggins spent the better part of 12 years volunteering for organizations like the now-defunct Illinois Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, attending events, raising awareness, and collecting signatures for various legislative measures aimed at curbing gun violence.
Goggins entered unpaid advocacy abruptly. The day after her 17th birthday in 2007, one of her best friends, Blair Holt, was riding a CTA bus when a man opened fire. Holt was shot and killed while shielding a friend from gunfire. The killing changed the trajectory of her life: Goggins had long set her sights on medical school, but a month after Holt’s death, she threw herself into advocacy, instead.
“In the immediacy of Blair dying, I blamed the doctors. I was like, ‘I don’t feel like they did all they could do. It’s not their child,’” Goggins recalls. “That just shows my age at the time. I had a lot of misplaced anger. I didn’t really have somebody to say this is trauma. This feels very true … but don’t change the trajectory of your life.”
In 2012, she graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a degree in psychology. Her father died not long after. His death made the trauma of Holt’s killing feel fresh again, and she realized she needed to slow down and face the grief she had been trying to supress.
“Because I threw myself into advocacy, nobody really knew how much I was struggling. It was like oh, she’s doing something good, so she’s OK,” Goggins says. “I didn’t go to therapy. I didn’t really address it at all except for with myself and my friends.”
A longtime poet, Goggins decided to get her MFA from Columbia College Chicago, a decision she says put her on a path back to herself. Her writing courses were cathartic. They demanded she be introspective, vulnerable, opening up space for her to share the things she had mostly kept inside.
Her advocacy work eventually came full circle when in 2018, a friend suggested she apply to work at the University of Chicago Hospital’s Violence Recovery Program, an emerging hospital-based violence intervention system. She’s spent the last three and half years as a violence recovery specialist, helping survivors acquire safe housing, access mental health resources, and apply to Illinois’ victim compensation program. The work inspired her to return to school again for her second master’s degree — this time in clinical social work from the University of Chicago.
Goggins says the violence intervention work can take an emotional toll. Having to tell families that their loved ones didn’t survive isn’t easy. Sometimes she’s taken back to the night when Holt was killed — sitting in the waiting room at Christ Medical Center, the slippery chair beneath her, news coverage of the shooting plastered across the TV.
While Goggins is happy she’s been able to marry her advocacy with her lifelong dream of entering the medical field, she’d like to see violence prevention work be valued more — monetarily and culturally — especially when it comes to women’s contributions.
“You’re instantly kind of disregarded in this field as a woman,” Goggins says. “I don’t think our input is talked about enough.”
For human rights advocate Eva Maria Lewis, that healing work intensified during the pandemic. When Chicago grocery stores closed in 2020 following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests for racial justice, Lewis created a free food-delivery program that provides essentials to neighbors across the South and West Sides.
Lewis says the donation-based, volunteer-run program has fed over 570 people since June 2020. The experience left Lewis aware of the relationship between violence and people’s unmet needs. It also gave her insight into a more understated problem: Black women show up in large numbers to address gun violence in their communities, but are left out of the conversations about its solutions.
“Although we need to focus on our boys and our men, a lot of people’s solutions to gun violence end there,” Lewis says. “We also need to talk about the women who are also stakeholders of this gun violence issue in our communities.”
Lewis grew up on the South Side, where she watched her community grapple with gun violence and the larger systems that create and compound it: racial segregation, economic disinvestment, concentrated poverty. Her first introduction to racial justice work came in the eighth grade, when her mother took her to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin. Then a child herself, Lewis couldn’t stop thinking about how young Martin was. She’d spend the next several years attending protests, organizing neighbors around various social issues, and earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.
Lewis now channels her community work through her nonprofit, Free Root Operation, which combats Chicago’s gun violence crisis by making food and education more accessible. She started the nonprofit in 2020 as a way to house her various forms of community work under one roof. The organization is funded through individual donations and grants. Lewis says she’s only made enough for the organization’s basic needs, and sustains herself through other jobs. She’d like to see city leaders funnel more money toward community-based organizations at a level that’s at least on par with what Chicago spends on policing, about $1.9 billion this year.
“We only have so much capacity and this work is very taxing — emotionally, mentally, physically,” Lewis said. “Folks need resources to give it their all and not have to worry about where they’re going to find their next meal.”
In June, Lewis launched the Bloom Cohort, a program that pairs 10 Black women, mostly single mothers, with a mentor who helps them complete a goal, like continuing their schooling or becoming a baker. The thinking is that investments in opportunities for the women leading households in communities impacted by gun violence will translate to an increase in public safety.
The idea for Bloom came from her conversations with Black women who kept saying they were struggling to find time for things outside parenting and work. Lewis witnessed her mom, who raised her alone, navigate a similar experience. And after years of community work, Lewis is having a related conversation with herself.
“I’ve spent so much time trying to free other people. When I was younger, doing the work, going to protests, I wasn’t making any room for my own healing,” Lewis says. “I realized I needed the same type of care I was putting out. I am so much more than what I can do for other people.”