Every day at 4 p.m. Andre, Carla, Mirna, and Myra, meet in a storefront on West 63rd ST. They are there to debrief activity in the community and to make a plan of action for the day of work ahead. The four are community outreach and violence interrupters for SWOP’s CeaseFire program. The four of them, along with Rafi Peterson, SWOP’s director of anti-violence programs, are working hard to lower crime and violence in Southwest Chicago.
SWOP receives funding from the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority to carry out the CeaseFire program. The focus of the work is on police beats 823, 825, and 833. This is basically the area from 55th to 70th Streets and from Claremont to Cicero.
The idea behind SWOP’s CeaseFire work is simple: build relationships and deter people from committing acts of violence. The work is hard. The community outreach workers are pounding the pavement to build relationships with people likely to be perpetrators or victims of violence. They want to understand their needs and connect them with services. It might be getting them into a GED class or a job training program. It might be connecting them with a food pantry or a substance abuse clinic. They host events to provide positive activities for people. They convene support groups to give participants a chance to help each other out.
The violence interrupters are gathering information on activity in the community and are deploying themselves to, as their job title states, interrupt the violence. They use their relationships with individuals to talk them down from taking violent action. They undertake conflict mediation with people who are angry with one another and might use violence to resolve their dispute. They track shootings and meet with family and friends to prevent retaliatory shootings. Sometimes they constructively shadow, as in follow around, individuals they fear may undertake a violent action. Each situation is different, so they develop their response to meet each circumstance.
For each of them, the work is personal. They all live in the community and have a long history with CeaseFire and the people they are working with. They celebrate each and every victory, no matter how big or how small. It might be the breaking up of a fight between a group of high school students. It might be the dad who was active in a street organization and the victim of a shooting who is now a claims agent for an insurance company.
The work is having a profound impact on the community. In the Reclaiming Southwest target area, crime is down 55% since 2012 and 31% in the surrounding community. It only went down 11% in the City as a whole. The challenge is that State funding is intermittent at best and this year’s round of support ends in June, just as things are “heating up” in the community.