In 1995, Adam Alonso met a 15-year-old who changed his life.
Alonso was working at Casa Central, an afterschool program operating out of a church basement. The teen came looking for a pastor, but there wasn’t one available. As the young man walked away, Alonso felt moved to call out and ask what he needed. From their conversation, Alonso learned that he was a father of a 2-year-old, had a mother addicted to drugs, and a father who had been shot and killed. The boy was considering suicide, he told Alonso, and was looking for guidance. (If you are having thoughts of suicide, help is available 24 hours a day: The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a free, confidential service for those in distress. Call or text 988, both toll-free, and find more resources here.)
This chance encounter opened Alonso’s eyes to the reality of Chicago’s youth. It’s a story he often tells when explaining why he works to help young people in need.
Alonso has been the CEO of BUILD — short for Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development — for eight years. For 54 years, the organization has served Chicago’s most vulnerable youth on the West Side, providing violence prevention, intervention, and educational support.
BUILD works with about 2,500 people yearly, offering after-school programs, academic support, mental health services, mentorship, conflict mediation, and support for families affected by gun violence. On February 25, BUILD officially opened its new 51,000-square-foot headquarters, the culmination of a $24 million fundraising campaign. The additional space, Alonso said, will enable the organization to expand its capacity: It expects to reach twice as many kids, teens, and young adults while it increases its staff by 30 percent. In the next phase of the project, they plan to open up rental space for other small organizations that don’t have their own offices.
Austin, where the center is located, is a neighborhood that continues to face high rates of gun violence. In 2022, for every 10,000 Austin residents, nearly 23 people were shot, according to the City of Chicago’s Violence Reduction Dashboard. BUILD’s 2022 survey indicates that 78 percent of the youth they work with have witnessed community violence.
The expansion, Alonso said, was a response to community demand for more services. He said he hopes the building creates a space for young people to feel safe, explore their interests, and meet peers who are also facing difficult situations. They will now have access to a gym, a fitness center, a recording studio, a performance space, a community garden, a cafe, and lounges. There will also be workforce programs that allow them to explore different careers.
In a conversation with The Trace, Alonso reflected on his time at BUILD and shared his thoughts about the importance of funding violence prevention groups. (This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity).
The Trace: What inspired you to join BUILD and enter the field of violence prevention?
Adam Alonso: After college, my first job was working at an after school program in Humboldt Park, at an organization called Casa Central.
When I started out in 1995, there was a gang war at the time, and I remember BUILD reached out to all of the youth-services organizations in the area to let them know to keep their kids inside or get them safely home while they’re trying to get the situation settled. I was always very impressed.
How have residents in the Austin community responded to BUILD’s presence?
When I arrived in 2015, there were some mixed reviews. People weren’t sure who we were and the services we offered. We took that as an opportunity to be more visible. We went door to door and met our neighbors, we showed up at community meetings, we did events, and we started to show what we have available.
When we opened a teen center on site and started producing programming, that’s when it started to really change because now the community knew that we had services where young people could be safe.
As BUILD continues to grow, what is something that you would like to change or improve about the organization?
What’s important is what the neighborhood wants. What’s important is what our young people want. I hope that as we find and live in this new building we understand that there might be some other things that we missed that the community would like us to do.
How does BUILD measure or track success?
We have mutual accountability plans. All of our young people work with their case manager or mentor to create a work plan for the year. Then, it’s the mentor’s and the young person’s job to check in periodically to see whether they’re making progress toward their goals.
At intake, we do an assessment and then we check with them quarterly to see how they’re doing through a behavior standpoint and also academically.
We typically have not said, as a result of our work, we’ve reduced violence in the neighborhood. I’m cautious about saying that because there are too many factors, too many other partners in the space for BUILD to say that. Our portion, plus everybody else who’s doing it, collectively, we’re helping to change lives and change the narrative in a community. But no single organization or institution could ever say it’s because of them.
If a parent can tell us “Oh my gosh, my son or daughter has changed,” or that young person is saying “Thank you. I’m alive. I’m in school. I’m actually going to college,” those to me are measures of success that you can’t always fit neatly in a box.
So you’re saying it’s unrealistic to expect that that one organization is going to solve gun violence.
It’s the same when people think that the police are going to solve gun violence. It’s so much bigger. I think the deeper we understand all of the intricacies of a community and how interwoven it is, there’s no single solution.
In your 2022 annual report, BUILD cited CPD data that showed a 60% decrease in gun violence victims in Austin since 2018. Have community members felt that decrease?
I think they feel there is a reduction, but it’s hard to make sense of that because there should be none, right? If you had 50 and you went down to 25, that’s still too many.
How police work in the Austin community, how they work in partnership with schools and nonprofits feels different [from other Chicago communities], reciprocally. I’m not going to say it’s perfect. There are many young people who would say Austin cops have not been kind to them. I don’t think that we’ve finally figured out how to make [relationships with police] work. We’re trying hard every time to make it better.
What are some of the things that you’re most excited about with this new expansion?
I’m super excited for people to walk through the door and really see what’s available to them and learn that it’s a youth center, but it’s also a community center. What I really can’t wait for is to have this place filled with kids and people.
How has BUILD created a sustainable model so it can continue to grow?
We have always had a pretty good mix of funding. For the most part we were maintaining our public funds to 30 to 33 percent, and the rest of it was from foundation support, individuals, and events.
Obviously, more recently, as a result of ARPA [the American Rescue Plan Act], they put in tons of money out there in the field. I know that the worry is once the ARPA funds go away, what’s going to happen? Will they have grown so big and shrink back down? Prior to ARPA funds, we’ve grown year over year because the projects and the programs we’ve launched have been so critical. I’ve convinced myself that if you’re doing good work and you know how important this is, the money is always going to be there. If you only rely on one source, then you might be in for a rude awakening. If we’re doing good work, people want to support that.
How should Chicago tackle gun violence? What are some of the most important factors people should focus on?
You have to be consistent. You can’t just be gung ho: “We’re going to do this.” That cycle of having something great, it loses funding and it shuts down, then there’s this weird period of nothing happening, and it starts back up, that’s inconsistent.
There’s something to be said about going back to the very basics of just being people with each other, asking how people are doing, connecting with them, and being genuine. If you don’t have that as your foundation, you can put every strategy in place you want, but if you don’t have that connection deeply with the community and certainly with the young people you’re working with, I can’t say that that will be successful for very long.
Then how do you eradicate poverty? How do you bring people out of poverty so that they don’t have to feel forced to make decisions to feed their family and have a roof over their head. You have to go deeper to the root. It’s got to go deeper to making sure people can have food, rent, and they don’t feel the stress and struggle of, ‘will my lights be turned off?’ Just the basics of raising a family. I think when we start and really can move that needle, it moves all of the other needles as well.