In 2023, Tyree Belfield, 24, was acquitted two years after he was accused of fatally shooting a young man. Despite never being convicted, headlines portraying him as a criminal continue to appear online, affecting the way the world sees him and taking away job opportunities.
As he continues his legal battle to expunge his charges, he has found support and guidance in a youth program called Mr. Dad’s Father’s Club. There, he connected with his mentor Joseph Williams, who Belfield said took the time to get to know his story and learn about his interests.
Belfield said his experience has led him to see how the criminal legal system is flawed and widened his perspective about what other people like him may be going through. “Life is really traumatic,” he said. “Just to get up every day and to pretend like everything is good is hard for a lot of people.” His personal experience has inspired him to study the criminal legal system and the connections he has made through the program have empowered him to believe it’s possible to make a difference.
Black and Latino Chicagoans, on average, witness at least one shooting by the time they turn 14, according to a study published this year. There are many programs in Chicago looking to help young people like Belfield heal from the trauma they experience from living in neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence, but unlike the connection Belfield succeeded in making, not all of these programs are reaching the young people they set out to help. Some youth say they often don’t feel heard and that the programming doesn’t necessarily reflect their specific needs.
The Trace spoke to more than a dozen organizations and a dozen young people to assess whether youth programming effectively reaches its intended participants. Organizers said they need to create a space where young people feel safe, heard, and valued, even if trauma makes it harder to build trust. Youth interviewed said they are not always aware of the resources available to them and they need more accessible and effective programming offered throughout the year. “Violence, conflict, gun violence, all of these issues, manifest from needs that are not met,” said Shane Calvin, the communications coordinator for Circles and Ciphers, a youth-led restorative justice organization.
Needs can’t be addressed if young people don’t feel safe enough to ask for help. “It does take some young people some time to get comfortable,” Calvin said. “The outside world, it can make you feel disposable if you have moments where you are less than perfect.”
Ask young people what they need
Davonte Dudley, a 21-year-old resident of Austin, said young people should be involved in the conversation about how to serve them because they see what happens first-hand.
“The majority of the boys I am working with are literally the men in their home,” said Aisha Oliver, founder of Root2Fruit Youth Foundation, a youth-led organization. Some have to make the hard decision of stopping their education to help their families.
She said youth deserve a seat at the table. “They have the skills, they know how to speak for themselves, they just need the opportunity to do so,” Oliver said. “Who best to tell you what works in their community, for their age group, than that particular group?”
Instead of city leaders or organizers reaching out to directly ask what they need or want, youth interviewed by The Trace said they don’t feel adults take the time to get to know them. Belfield said it sometimes seems like organizations are just trying to keep young people busy.
There’s often miscommunication between adults and youth, said Lakya Knight, an 18-year-old resident of West Pullman. “Youth want to be heard, free of judgment,” she said. “We should have free room to express ourselves and not be told we’re coming on too strongly.”
Knight began to participate in Communities United, a racial justice organization, last year and said they have created a welcoming environment. She became emotional as she described how they helped boost her self esteem during a rough patch. “Make the youth feel like we’re here, we’re present in the room, like our dreams, our aspirations, our presence matters.”
Familiarity breeds trust
A consistent presence in the community is key to building trust, both youth and organizers said. Dudley said organizations often reach out to youth for approval of programming they have already implemented instead of asking for input on what would be effective. He usually hears from these people just once. “If I don’t know you,” he said, “Why do you think that I would come to you and give you what I got in my chest?”
Dudley has been part of Root2Fruit since he was 13. Before he joined, he said he noticed that Oliver carried a presence in the community. So he recognized her as someone who cared.
Oliver began her work by simply talking to kids and teens and asking them what would make them feel safe in their neighborhoods. Since then, she has worked with a small group of young men from their childhood to their early adult years to bring their ideas on safety to fruition.
Organizations and their new centers that have broken ground in disinvested neighborhoods need to build a foundation of trust with the community first to be successful, Dudley said. You can’t just throw money into a community, he added, and expect everybody to embrace it with open arms.
Pastor Phil Jackson, founder and CEO of The Firehouse Community Arts Center of Chicago, said about 90 percent of his staff are from the neighborhood they work in, North Lawndale, and that the majority are Black. If youth don’t see people who look like them and have experiences similar to theirs, Jackson said, it makes them feel like their own people don’t care.
Many organizations said it’s hard to find the right staff, and that once they’re on board, it’s crucial to train them to properly communicate with participants. It’s more important to create connections based on respect and understanding rather than fear and punishment, Jackson said.
Both youth and organizers said mentorship is essential to guiding young people in the community. Christian Terry, program director for CHAMPS Male Mentoring, said not everybody is qualified to be a mentor and that it is hard to find people who can fully commit to their young men. “You got to make space for it,” he said. “You got to be willing to talk to them when they need you.”
We’re all in this together
Several organizers mentioned that there is tension between smaller and larger organizations, frequently stemming from funding. Jackson said his organization sometimes shies away from applying for certain big grants because they come with caveats and metrics that don’t gel with the way the organization works.
“I want to play in the sandbox with everybody,” he said. “But I make castles differently.”
Unfortunately, Jackson said, instead of sharing resources and collaborating, the field is competitive. But Oliver said larger and smaller organizations can have a mutually beneficial relationship when smaller groups with close connections to youth can convey community needs to larger ones, which can provide resources. Oliver often teams up with BUILD, an organization providing violence prevention, intervention, and educational support for youth. She said some of the young men she works with have acquired jobs through BUILD and staff members can be spotted at each other’s events. Collaboration, she said, can help give youth access to a wider range of services.
Chicago’s city government has created the Community Safety Coordination Center (CSCC) to foster this type of sharing. Rob Castaneda, community engagement manager at the CSCC and executive director at Beyond the Ball, said that the Center helps groups like his make sure the city knows what residents need.
Organizers said it’s important to also involve the families of their participants. Many have created parenting programs.
“We want to make sure that the healing is taking place in every aspect of the community,” said Jennifer Maddox, founder and CEO of Future Ties. “Parents are the foundation of the household, and if the foundation is cracked, then the kids fall right through.”
Letting youth take the lead
Many organizations have taken steps to involve youth in their planning through direct feedback or youth councils, where young people are invited to lead projects and guide adults.
Most of the work at Root2Fruit, Oliver said, is done by her participants. For the past few years, her mentees have been in charge of the Austin Safety Action Plan, a youth-led initiative that reclaimed a public area in Austin that had been overpowered by crime. Here, they host events and activities and maintain it as a clean, safe space. “We should be training and shaping the next generation of leaders from within,” Oliver said.
Several organizers shared that they once used to be participants in the programs they now staff. Ahja Howard, a 25-year-old from the West Side, was involved in Step Up, a mentoring program for young girls, when she was in high school. When she graduated, she interned there and helped a new generation of girls going through the program.
Adeeb Borden, 16, is taking matters into his own hands. Last year, he created CEO’s of Color NFP, Inc. to elevate young entrepreneurs and their voices. He said programming like his empowers young people to take action now. In the past, he said, people like him have been denied opportunities to advocate for their needs. “If we begin to highlight young people who are doing good in Chicago, then only maybe will we see young people in a different light.”