Back of the Yards: Fighting fear with friendship

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Peace and Education Summit

photo by John Booz

Peace and Education Summit

On a crisp mid-October morning, 18 students from Hamline Elementary grab their coats and walk to Chavez Elementary four blocks away. An unremarkable event in most neighborhoods, perhaps, but in Back of the Yards the idea of walking from one school to another would not even have been considered just a few years ago.

Four to five gangs dominate the area, and violence was so prevalent back then that youngsters could easily become targets of random gunfire if they dared to venture beyond the landmarks separating gang turfs.

When the Hamiline students arrive at Chavez, they are greeted at the door by Assistant Principal Antonio Perez. “Hey, what school are you from?” he asks, as he holds open the door.

“Hamline,” the students yell in unison.

“I used to teach at Hamline for six years,” he says. “How’s it going over there? Come on in.” He gives a bear hug to a former Chavez student he recognizes on the way in.

Later, he greets more groups that come from Daley, Seward, Hedges and Lara elementaries. Chavez students are there too. In all, more than 150 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders are gathered at Chavez to participate in the Back of the Yards 2nd annual Peace and Education Summit, sponsored by the Peace and Education Coalition of Back of the Yards/New City.

For four hours, students meet others from different schools; work on a project as a group; discuss such issues as diversity, tolerance, racial stereotypes and the pitfalls of gangs and drugs; and have a say in the activities they’d like to participate in.

The summit is one way that community leaders hope to curb violence and crime among neighborhood youths. In a neighborhood where students are segregated by viaducts, blocks and streets, the goal is to show them they are more similar than different, and that their community extends beyond their own streets and schools.

“You reduce fear by getting to know who’s who in the community and caring for the neighborhood,” says Rev. Bruce Wellems of Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, a member of the coalition. “That’s one of the things we are trying to do with the kids.”

Mixing it up

Upon arrival at the summit, each student receives an identical Peace and Education T-shirt with a color-coded name tag. Then, they are put into groups by color and not school, ensuring that they will meet new people.

Each school was asked to send 30 students—10 students each from 6th, 7th and 8th grade—and to recruit student leaders for the event. “They didn’t have to be the best and the brightest,” says Marcey Reyes, Seward’s principal, “but they had to be leaders, those other kids listen to.”

The coalition was clear about why students had been gathered.

“This summit is about building relationships because we are so divided,” Rev. Ed Shea of St. Joseph’s Church told them. “There’s the city vs. the suburbs, the Cubs vs. the Sox. Do you know a fight broke out among the adults at a Peace Coalition meeting over the Cubs and the Sox?”

The students burst into laughter

“So there should not be a Hedges vs. Hamline. What is that all about? That’s crazy,” says Shea. “Is it possible to think that we are one family? Because we are. I hope you’ll really think about that today, okay?”Students were then broken up into groups to attend 30-minute workshops held over four hours. The workshops were led by the 9th District police, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Chicago Children’s Museum, the city’s Animal Care and Control Department, the social-service initiative City Year and Youth Outreach Services, a non-profit social service agency.

Presenters covered topics such as gangs and drugs, the juvenile arrest process and the proper way to treat animals because of the popularity of dog-fighting among gangs. Students also were challenged to examine the perceptions and realities of culture, tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness.

For example, in the workshop presented by Youth Outreach, students were asked to identify the nationality of one of the presenters based on how he talked and dressed. Student guesses: Jamaican or Latin. He actually was African American and Puerto Rican.

How often do we develop misperceptions about other people because we see them act or dress in a certain way?, the presenter asked.

In a Children’s Museum workshop aimed at promoting teamwork, students were grouped into teams and asked to build a device that could move a golf ball from one point to another, without the use of hands.

The police department encouraged students to participate in the 9th District’s peer jury, where students decide punishments for minor juvenile offenses.

“I called to be part of the peer jury program,” says Yasmin Quinonez, an 8th-grader at Chavez, a few weeks after the summit. “It was the first time I’d heard of the program, and I was very interested.”

Another popular workshop was led by Chavez’s principal, Sandra Traback, who asked students to identify community activities they’d like the coalition to sponsor. Among the top requests: karate classes, soccer, basketball, art, football and swimming. Others included a talent show, a play, a dance and taking a community trip.

In response to the students’ overwhelming request for sports, the coalition has approached the Chicago Park District, which Traback says is looking to rebuild Davis Square Park. The park was closed after it was damaged in a serious thunderstorm, and the coalition believes the loss of park programs contributed to some of the neighborhood violence.

So far, the coalition has not heard from the Park District. But with its non-profit status, the group can seek grants to help fund these initiatives.

Imaginary boundaries

In an analysis of 2000 U.S. Census data, the coalition found that 5,000 young people under the age of 18 live in a 10-by-10-block area in the neighborhood, but do not come in contact with each other based on where they live.

Imaginary geographic lines exist that are keeping kids from getting to know each other, says Marcey Reyes, Seward’s principal. “We had to come up with a way to break down barriers, to say, ‘Yeah, you live here, I live there, but we’re the same.'”

In 1998, the coalition began hosting basketball games between schools. Even though some schools are only a few blocks apart, students had to be bused in because of the frequency of violence in the neighborhood.

Last year, the coalition came up with the idea of a Peace and Education summit among the schools. Five of the six elementary schools participated; Hamline could not because of a scheduling problem.

This year, all six public schools participated.

“Eight years ago, these schools hadn’t even considered working together,” says Wellems. But the youth summit has taught the community the importance of adults coming together to help kids.

Next year, the coalition hopes to include San Miguel, a Catholic middle School, in the summit.

Bridges built

In small but noticeable ways, young people are building connections among themselves, say coalition members.

Valerie Brown, Hamline’s principal, says: “I see the coalition’s impact. I’m not saying the violence has totally disappeared. It hasn’t. But [it] is not as escalated as it has been. The peace coalition is making sure all the schools are on the same page.””I learned it doesn’t matter how people look, we are all really the same,” says Julio Alejandre, an 8th-grader from Seward.

“When I was with my friends, I saw a girl that I met at the summit that went to Daley. She was in my group,” says Tywana Gill, an 8th grader at Chavez. “I told her ‘Hi, how have you been?’ I never would have said anything if I hadn’t met her at the summit.”

Jeremy Sanchez, an 8th-grader from Seward, says on a recent trip to a neighborhood park, he also saw a student he’d met at the summit. “I told my friends, ‘I know him,'”says Sanchez. “I met a lot of people from Hamline, Chavez and Lara that I see around here now.”

And fellow Seward student Salvador Rojas says, “When I go home, I see some of the kids from Hedges. I may not say nothing, but I nod my head to let them know I’ve seen them. I thought the summit was going to be boring and all the adults would do was talk, talk, talk, but it was cool.”