Class X: Who Gets a Second Chance in Our Criminal Justice System?

Class X: Who Gets a Second Chance in Our Criminal Justice System?

Nigel—Montgomery’s godbrother—at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation holding up pictures of Montgomery (Photo: Davon Clark).

Nigel—Montgomery’s godbrother—at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation holding up pictures of Montgomery (Photo: Davon Clark).

By Sajedah Al-Khzaleh and Bia Medious.

Illinois has been making moves toward reducing incarceration, but there is a large group of people who are being left behind. People like twenty-one-year-old Joe Montgomery, who have been sentenced with Class X felonies, make up almost a third of Illinois’ prison population, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Some say these individuals who need the most help are instead left with few options but prison. City Bureau reporters Sajedah Al-khzaleh and Bia Medious spoke with Montgomery’s friends and family about the hole his absence means to his community.

This report was produced in partnership with the South Side Weekly.

Why Illinois Has So Many Wrongful Convictions—and How to Fight Them

Why Illinois Has So Many Wrongful Convictions—and How to Fight Them

More men have been exonerated in the ongoing Ronald Watts corruption scandal. We spoke with a wrongful-convictions attorney who’s working the case.

By Bashirah Mack

Last week, 18 men who were wrongfully convicted of crimes linked to corrupt former Chicago police Sgt. Ronald Watts had their cases overturned. Joshua Tepfer represented 12 of them.

As part of a reporting project about how incarcerated people fight their convictions, City Bureau spoke with Tepfer, an attorney with the Exoneration Project – a legal service organization that reinvestigates cases of individuals who claim that they were wrongfully convicted.

 Since 1989, 2,240 people in America have been wrongly convicted of crimes and then later exonerated and cleared of all wrongdoing due to new evidence of innocence. Illinois ranks No. 3 on the list, with 225 exonerations in the past nearly 30 years. That’s according to the National Registry of Exonerations, which counted 20 men and one woman in Illinois who were exonerated in 2017 from the crimes of murder, sexual assault, drug possession and robbery.

 Earlier this year, Tepfer sat down with City Bureau to discuss racial bias and police misconduct in the criminal justice system, as well as how individuals and their families cope with the emotional and material impact of wrongful convictions.

 Information from this interview, as well as dozens of other interviews and extensive research, is compiled into a zine: “After the Trial: A Legal Toolkit for Prisoners and Their Loved Ones.” If you would like a free copy, please go to

 According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Illinois consistently ranks in the top two or three states for exonerations each year. Can you explain what led to this?

Sometimes the criminal justice system gets it wrong. Illinois has a lot of wrongful convictions. Chicago’s got a lot of wrongful convictions.

 One of the reasons is we have one of the most active post-conviction litigation bars. I work at the Exoneration Project. There’s another organization called The Center on Wrongful Convictions, where I used to work. There’s another organization called the Illinois Innocence Project, that’s downstate. That’s pretty rare for a state to have this many groups working on these types of issues.

 The second reason, of course, is the horrible history of police misconduct that we have in Chicago. It’s led to an extraordinary amount of wrongful convictions.

 Have you worked on any cases involving police misconduct?

What I’ve been involved in more recently is the Sergeant Ronald Watts scandal. This was a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department who ran a housing unit at the Ida B. Wells Homes and was basically facilitating his own drug trade from 2000 to about 2012 until he was federally indicted. It involved maybe 15 officers who worked under him. We’ve had something like 30 convictions overturned in the last couple of years based on that, and that’s just gonna be the beginning. [Ed. Note: After last week’s ruling, that number is now 42.]

 African Americans make up 13 percent of the American population but are 47 percent of the exonerations. What leads to racial disparities?

Racial bias infringes on every aspect [of the criminal justice system] because the system is made up of individual actors – prosecutors, judges, police officers, defense attorneys. Individuals come with their own flaws. As we know, many people have their own biases whether it’s explicit racism or implicit bias.

 Bigger picture, the flaws are at every level. Incarceration is disproportionately Black and Brown people. There’s a problem with how police conduct searches and investigate crimes and make arrests. And then of course, the oversentencing problem is huge. Nowhere do you see that more than in drug crimes. It’s well documented. [White] kids who experiment in college with drugs are not prosecuted, whereas Black, Brown or urban youth who are experimenting in the same way are sent away for very, very long periods of time. Needless to say, when you are overprosecuting Black and Brown people as a whole, you’re going to see disproportionate wrongful convictions from those individuals as well.

 What was it like working with the families of those who were wrongfully convicted?

It’s always difficult to go back to court and to go through this process. But they’ve been living with [the conviction] a lot longer than I have, and they’re the ones who know that their son or loved one or themselves is innocent. Usually they’re heartened that somebody is fighting for them and bringing it back to court. It gives them some hope.

 The alternative is they’re fighting it on their own in an unfamiliar system, in a system that already wrongfully convicted them, in a system that they’re not trained to fight in, in a system that is not going to take untrained lawyers, or loved ones advocating on their behalf, seriously.

 Some people remain in prison for 10 or more years before their innocence is proven. What does a person lose when wrongfully convicted? What have your clients lost?

Well, it’s brutal. They’re taken out of society for a significant period of time. They lost time with their family. Loved ones die. Loved ones can’t always stick by them or they lose touch with them. They are unemployable because they don’t have job skills. Lots of times they are very, very young, like high school age, when they were wrongfully convicted, or younger. They don’t have education. They suffer from violence in the prison system from correctional officers and other inmates. Many times they are hardened. They have significant Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when they’re released.

 Are folks who are wrongfully convicted compensated in Illinois?

They can be. There’s a statute called the Certificate of Innocence and if you’re certified innocent, you can then petition for state statutory compensation. But it takes a long time. It’s not automatic.

 Some of them are more successful than others. I have a client who never got the money for three years because the state wouldn’t pass a budget.

 The process to exoneration seems really difficult. Have you been more successful than you expected?

You know, the successes are wonderful but the losses stick with you more. I’ve had a lot of success. I’m proud of that. I’m super happy for my clients especially in the last year or two – I’ve had more success than I probably ever envisioned in some of these cases. But I still have clients who I firmly believe in who are still sitting in prison. So, I think of them more often than I think of the wins.

This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Defender.

The History of Cook County Bond Reform and Beyond

The History of Cook County Bond Reform and Beyond

Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, offers a look back at Cook County Courts’ bond system over the past decade– and a look at what’s next.

By Lynda Lopez

Over the past few years, bond reform has taken center stage for efforts to reform the Cook County Courts. In July 2017, Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans issued an order stating that no one should be incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay their bond. This directed judges to set monetary bonds only in amounts people could pay. By December 2017, three months after the implementation of the order, the Cook County Jail population had decreased by 1,500 to its lowest total in decades.

 A decade ago, these changes were unthinkable. Malcolm Rich of the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, a research and advocacy organization that aims to identify and propose solutions to systemic problems in the courts, spoke with City Bureau about the changes within the Cook County Courts and the next battlefield for reform.

 Here are some of the highlights from the conversation on the many changes to bond court over the years:

 When bond court was centralized at 26th and California:

“Bond court used to be in six municipal courthouses found throughout Cook County. There was an idea that it would be more efficient to have centralized bond court at 26thStreet.

 “Then-Chief Judge Donald O’Connell centralized bond court for felonies on June 1, 1999 …

People get arrested, they’re held overnight at the lockup at the police station, and the next morning at 6 a.m., they get bused to 26th and California.”

 When bond hearings were held via video conference:

“There used to be a podium set up in the basement of 26th and California and sort of an ancient version of a camera. Defendants would step in front of the podium… and the judge was in Room 101 and would look at the defendant on a television screen.

 “Sometimes the judges would end up giving bonds to the wrong person until somebody would say ‘Judge, I think this is the wrong person.’ And lo and behold, someone could be in jail or freed on bond or have an individual recognizance bond and they didn’t deserve it because it belonged to someone else. You could end up having people who were in jail who should not have been in there and vice versa.”

 When Cook County switched to in-person hearings and added pretrial services:

“On October 1, 2008, Judge Evans announced that [the Cook County Court system] was going to go to in-person hearings. In fact, it would also implement a pretrial services program, which had not been in existence since 2001 because of budgetary constraints. That all went into effect on December 1, 2008, over the great objections of the sheriff’s department that said that logistically it was not possible to take people from the basement of 26th street to the first floor safely. That all got worked out, following negotiations held in our [Appleseed] offices.”

 When the Cook County Jail population started (and stopped) dropping:

“[The Chief Judge’s order to not issue money bonds in excess of what people could pay] was a key benchmark milestone in July 2017. There was a dramatic drop in jail population between September 2017 and January 2018.

 “The number has now plateaued and the advocates are trying to figure out why it stopped going down. Another reason that it’s stabilized is that the length of stay in the Cook County Jail is going up. Even though you have fewer people going in, the people that are going in are staying there longer. We and another number of organizations are looking into why the length of stay is increasing.”

 What the next battleground for reform will be:

“The usage of electronic monitoring had been going up since 2005 in Cook County, but it has not increased in the last year or so because of great concerns raised about the way it’s administered. You’ve got people who can’t go out on their porch without people showing up to arrest them for felony escape. Suddenly, you’ve got an additional felony on your record.

 “The community organizations, including the Coalition to End Money Bond, have really picked this up as the new cause. The idea is to eliminate electronic monitoring. If we can’t eliminate electronic monitoring, we need to establish benchmarks and criteria that are fair and are uniform.”

This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Defender.

Alternative Courts Offer Paths to Avoid Convictions

Alternative Courts Offer Paths to Avoid Convictions

We spoke with the head of Cook County’s alternative court system to find out more about how they divert people from jail and decrease incarceration rates. 

By Bia Medious

Though the vast majority of Cook County’s criminal cases are tried in criminal courts, the county also has a substantial “alternative” court system—or courts that aim to rehabilitate defendants rather than sending them straight to jail. Nineteen problem-solving courts have been established throughout the county since 1998. Courts dedicated to specific populations such as those with mental illness, drug dependency and veterans offer alternative sentencing options that keep the mostly nonviolent defendants from returning to jail through treatment programs and intensive supervision. In 2011, the county took another approach by establishing deferred prosecution programs aimed at helping low-level offenders before a conviction is placed on their records.  

Emily Cole leads the Alternative Prosecution and Sentencing Unit inside of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. She began her career as a prosecutor with the office in 1998 and has spent the last 17 years in this type of work. City Bureau met with Cole at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, in her 14th-floor corner office that overlooks most of the Chicago skyline. Surrounded by volumes of books on everything from Illinois statutes to reference guides on searches, Cole shared information about the programs and how access to them can be increased. 

What are the deferred prosecution and alternative sentencing programs?

Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo.

Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo.

Deferred Prosecution happens pre-plea [or before conviction]. Alternative sentencing, which is basically the Problem-Solving Courts, happens post-plea [or after conviction]. Problem-Solving Courts handle felony cases, while Deferred Prosecution programs handle both misdemeanors and felonies. When we defer the prosecution of a case, as long as the individual -who is the defendant, but is called the participant— does whatever is dictated by that particular court, then the State’s Attorney’s Office dismisses the case. People who are at low- and moderate-risk at re-offending, and those who are low-need, typically go into a Deferred Prosecution court, whereas high-risk, high-need individuals go into the Problem-Solving Courts. All of the offenses have to be probationable. Illinois statute actually enumerates the specific crimes that are ineligible.  

What are the benefits?

Reducing recidivism [or the rate at which defendants commit new crimes after they’re released] and any sort of reconnecting individuals back into the community would be the main benefit of the programs. Getting a job, going to school, being better role models for their kids, maybe avoiding a case over in juvenile court with their children… I mean, it’s got the trickle-down effect. You can see the trend—in this office, across the United States and even internationally—that this is a cost-savings benefit as well. And it’s absolutely the right thing to do for individuals who are nonviolent to have this type of approach versus being in and out of the criminal justice system their whole life. 

What is the process?

So our office actively looks for cases. We have dedicated assistant state’s attorneys who sit downstairs near bond court and screen every case. Public defenders and attorneys also make referrals. Sometimes parents or family members call. I just had a grandmother call me last week about her granddaughter.  

A case comes to our attention, we review it, we determine if they are statutorily eligible, we reach out to the victim and then the participant has to agree to it. This is because the problem-solving courts are much more rigorous than regular probation. It’s a team approach. In drug court, participants typically get an assessment that’s almost always followed by inpatient treatment and then outpatient treatment. From there, they go to a recovery home and then to a job training or educational program. The mental health and veteran’s courts follow similar paths.  

How can access to deferred prosecution and alternative sentencing programs be increased?

We can always use more assistant state’s attorneys. There are currently 15 in my unit working at all of the district courthouses, but not every day. Everyone in my office should know about these programs, but having someone in court every day who knows the programs really well would be better. 

Also, we could definitely use more funds. The state’s attorney’s office doesn’t charge anyone to go through deferred prosecution programs because that would mean those who had money could defer their cases and not those who didn’t. So we link up with treatment providers that have the resources to figure out how to get reimbursed. So while money may not help with volume, because people still have to qualify, it would probably affect the success rate of the programs. There are things like recovery homes that aren’t covered by CountyCare or Medicaid. We’re always looking for referrals for participants to get into any of these programs. Another example is when inpatient stays are covered, they are usually shorter than we would prefer. 

Getting the word out about these programs is another way access can be increased. I can only do so much training myself, and that’s done with state’s attorneys, public defenders, bar associations, the sheriff’s office, the Chicago Police Department and at a variety of speaking engagements. Occasionally, you will see a success story in the newspaper. 

This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Defender.

Old Town School of Folk Music’s New Deputy Director Says, “It’s Time for the Black Woman”

Photo: Davon Clark

Photo: Davon Clark

We spoke with musician and educator Rashida Phillips to learn about how the School is evolving, what the role means for her and her family and how she defines Black generational wealth.

By Olivia Cunningham

This year the Old Town School of Folk Music, the nation’s largest community arts school, celebrates its first-ever deputy director, Rashida Phillips.

The St. Louis native has spent the last 15 years working in Chicago’s cultural and educational sectors and performing at jazz venues across the city. Phillips says she joins during a significant period of change for the 61-year-old institution. She hopes it’ll mark a time when the “folk” at Old Town School of Folk Music will be more inclusive—reflective of Chicago’s vast musical history as well as its people.

Phillips shared what her new position means for Old Town, the Chicago art scene and her family. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you talk about your role as the school’s first deputy director?

I work primarily with the education programs: community initiatives and operations and school-wide initiatives. The responsibility for me is to think about the enrollment of the future, what those future populations [of students] look like, and coming to ourselves in terms of moving out of a “folk” label. Some people feel like it’s just banjos and guitars, and they don’t understand what folk means.

We started the Teen Collective program that’s growing. We know that Chicago has an active community of young folks, so if we don’t change, they’re gonna change it for us. That’s for sure.

What are a few of your goals for this new position?

We have initiatives that are happening here on [our Lincoln Square] campus. We have a lot of these programs building in North Lawndale and Englewood and its surrounding South Side communities, around arts and community wellness, and that programming is still in its infancy.

What we’re trying to do in those neighborhoods is help smaller, grassroots organizations build capacity, number one, and bring in resources to those communities. That means maybe musical instruments, some funding, shared knowledge of development strategies, instruction in arts and music and supporting professional development and job opportunities. We are supporting some of their ideas around community health and community wellness. We’re really trying to avoid this trickle-down scenario where you have larger arts organizations just handing out the remnants to the Brown and Black community.

Coming into this position, I specifically said I don’t want to “other” those initiatives. We shouldn’t think of them as these alternative programs, these programs way across the city that don’t have anything to do with our programming here on the North Side. We really want to work on being the authentic partner.

What’s the department culture like here?

We’ve been around for 61 years and we were really seeded here not only in the folk movement but in the Civil Rights Movement. “We Shall Overcome” came out of here. Mahalia Jackson was here in the early days working, and they were documenting music of hers. We had a lot of folks coming together with that justice mentality of that time. I’m hoping that we can infuse that in our programming a little bit more because that’s the pulse of this city.

What led you to this position? Tell us about your journey.

I had always really been engrossed in music and came out of parents that educated me on what Black culture looked like and the power of Black people historically. Jazz is what spoke to me in my heart. In high school I started singing jazz and really just found a power in it through stories and storytelling.

Coming out of Oberlin [College], my undergrad, one of the first colleges to educate women and Black people, there was always that consciousness in place. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of arts, of education, of history. I found myself in a place that supported the stories of young people, the Chicago Children’s Museum.

Then I worked at Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, where we looked at arts integration into school curriculum. I think the youth now are so much more ahead of that game than I was at that time. [Art is] the medium in which they express themselves and communicate their life interests.

I had a mom who was a high school teacher and she said, “I always loved high school because they always kept me young, they always kept me hip.” I get that, so I’ve tried to follow that pathway in providing opportunities for young people to find their voice.

What are you most proud of professionally?

I’m most proud of getting to this point. I promised myself that getting into these upper positions, I would be my most authentic self.

In the interviewing process, the executive director had said something like, “Why now? Why is it important?” and I said, “You know what? It’s my time. Particularly it’s time for the Black woman. We have put the elbow grease in. We have helped folks through. It’s our turn to step into the spotlight and not just support people and hold folks up, but really take the reins because we’ve earned it.” And I said to him, “I feel like I’ve earned it at this point. And I feel like a lot of Black and Brown people and Black and Brown women have the right to be at the helm of these institutions.” So I felt proud in being able to take that on.

This summer at City Bureau, we’re looking into stories about Black generational wealth in Chicago; how it’s gained, lost and passed to the next generation. How do you define Black wealth for yourself?

We got a lot of wealth just because we are rooted in ourselves. That’s the advantage that we need to take into consideration beyond the money. And the money is an issue, but the wealth of our culture is so rich. I think sometimes we need to lean into that a little bit more and support each other in terms of our communities. That’s really where our wealth lies. Because we don’t have the legacy of wealth that some of these billionaires have, we gotta think about wealth differently in our community and in our society.

So my wealth is having my children be proud of me, having the opportunities that I can help provide for them and for each other. That’s what I consider wealth.

How do you define Black wealth? This summer we’re collecting stories of Black Chicagoans and compiling a holistic picture of Black generational wealth. You can contribute by emailing or using the hashtag #BlackChiWealth on social media.

This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Defender.

These candid photos capture how seniors are growing communities—while growing older—on the south side

From Auburn Gresham to Hyde Park, seniors and their allies are doing whatever it takes to combat social isolation and other issues of aging.

By Pat Nabong

Older adults line dance at Mather's More than a Cafe in Chatham. The cafe, which caters to older adults but is open to all ages, serves affordable, healthy food and pay-as-you-go fitness classes (Photo: Pat Nabong).

Older adults line dance at Mather's More than a Cafe in Chatham. The cafe, which caters to older adults but is open to all ages, serves affordable, healthy food and pay-as-you-go fitness classes (Photo: Pat Nabong).

Older adults in their 70s and 80s gather in the lobby of New Pisgah Haven Homes every Thursday morning. The low-income senior building in Auburn Gresham provides a necessary service, run by residents for residents: a communal trip to the grocery store.

On a sunny day in June, four of these older adults sit on the couch chatting while waiting for others to join them, and after 20 minutes, they board a small white vehicle that resembles a school bus.

Carlton Brown, 72, is the volunteer designated driver this morning. He lets his crutch lean on the railing. His neighbors sit in the back with their walkers and collapsible grocery carts. Some days, Brown takes them in his car and they go to the doctor's office. Sometimes he drives them to restaurants and shopping malls. Other times, Brown visits people in the building who can't get out of their apartments. When Brown doesn't need to shop for food at the grocery store himself, he keeps an eye on his neighbors as they scan the aisles.

"Some peoples can't get out to do what they need to do. Some don't have the means to get there," said Brown, who's been living at New Pisgah Haven Homes for 11 years. He anticipates that one day he may need help too, in the same way that he helps his neighbors. "Right now I don't [need assistance], so I make myself useful while I can. . . . If you live in a building like this, it's what they call a congregation, a peoples that are around together, and you have to learn how to live that way."

For many older adults who live alone on the south side, being part of a community, remaining active, and having people to rely on are not just important—they're necessary to their everyday needs and their overall health and well-being. Access to health care on the south side looks starkly different from that of other areas in Chicago. According to the University of Chicago, it's one of the most medically underserved communities in the U.S. Lack of access to health care is particularly magnified among the elderly.

"Isolation is more than just being alone. It's being at risk," said Debra Thompson, chairperson of Age Friendly Englewood Village, a nonprofit that visits isolated seniors, organizes porch parties for them, and helps them with everyday tasks. "We have to get out and socialize with people. That's why we send our kids to day care for socialization," she added. "It don't only take a village to raise a kid. It takes a village to raise a senior."

But not all older adults have people they can rely on, or the ability to participate in activities. Social isolation is a common concern among older adults on the south side, said Dr. Katherine Thompson, program director for the South Side Healthy Aging Resource Experts (SHARE) Network and a geriatrician at the University of Chicago's Outpatient Senior Health Center in South Shore. Studies show this goes beyond loneliness—social isolation among older adults can be linked to depression, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and coronary disease, among others, according to a report from the American Association of Retired Persons.

"The people who age well have some kind of purpose in their lives or something that brings them meaning, and they tend to be people who have been able to stay active," said Thompson.

Many older adults who live alone find that sense of belonging in their neighbors, their home-care workers, or their yoga classmates. Some find it at the local senior center, at church, or even in line dancing class. Many say that being involved in different activities has made them happier and healthier.

Eva Early, 73, who lives alone in the same Auburn Gresham building as Brown, said she was reluctant to move out of her apartment in Englewood and into a senior building. But she's come to enjoy weekly activities like Hawaiian luau-themed cookouts, field trips to museums and gardens, and health-related discussions. Early said she seldom sees her family these days, but when she gets bored or lonely, she goes to the building's common room to talk to other residents, who have become a second family to her.

"It's like a little community, and I like that. They look out for you. We don't see you for a while, [we] check up on you," she said. "This is home. This is where I was supposed to be." 

This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Reader.

Future TV and Radio Stars at Tilden H.S. Credit Media Program, Mentorship

Future TV and Radio Stars at Tilden H.S. Credit Media Program, Mentorship

Tilden Career Community Academy’s Michael Finney founded Tilden TV and Radio six years ago to help his students think creatively and become more confident with their communication skills. Photo: Pat Nabong

Tilden Career Community Academy’s Michael Finney founded Tilden TV and Radio six years ago to help his students think creatively and become more confident with their communication skills. Photo: Pat Nabong

By Amanda Tugade

When Michael Finney was making rap videos with his friends in the ’90s, he remembers filming his friends jumping over fences or setting garbage cans on fire just to get some footage.

“We were learning the game. Nobody was telling it to us,” says Finney, who now works at Tilden Career Community Academy, where he forges partnerships between the school and local organizations as a “community connector.” But after the bell rings, his office becomes a home base for a program that draws from his experience as a young rapper: Tilden TV and Radio.

It began with lessons on public speaking six years ago. Finney could see his students had interest in creative arts but no outlet; the school offered sports teams but few artistic extracurricular activities. “They were interested in possibly dancing or being on TV or heard on the radio,” Finney explains. “I had to fit the different aspects of what the students were interested in and make the program fit them.”

So, he hosted mock debates, assigned students to make school announcements, and gave them cameras to try out photography. On some days, his space transforms into a recording studio for young artists; on others, it becomes a small venue where students debut their songs, poetry and choreography.

Though Finney never received formal training in the field (he uses Google and YouTube tutorials as reference), he takes students to visit local radio stations and area colleges with media programs to show them how to turn their hobbies into potential careers.

For young musicians like senior Christopher Cox, it’s the mentorship and the exposure that make a difference. Finney brought Cox and his classmate, fellow aspiring rapper Shareef Peoples, to perform at an event at the KLEO Community Family Life Center last year. It was a “big accomplishment,” says Cox, because it was his first time getting positive feedback from an audience outside of his friends.

Shareef Peoples, a member of Tilden TV and Radio, performs his rap songs in front of his peers inside Finney’s classroom. Photo: Pat Nabong

Shareef Peoples, a member of Tilden TV and Radio, performs his rap songs in front of his peers inside Finney’s classroom. Photo: Pat Nabong

Both Cox and Peoples look to Finney as a brother and father figure. “Coming to Tilden TV and Radio made me the best person. I am so happy that I am the person I am now,” Peoples, 19, said. “If it weren’t for Tilden TV and Radio and me getting my anger out in my music, I probably would’ve been dead or in jail.”

Other students like Lexii Brown and Katrina Knight thought back to when Finney supported them when they lost members of their family.

“He didn’t try and force his way into our personal lives,” Brown, 18, said. “He was just there to help us through it – anything.”

Finney said it’s easy to relate to his students—he, too, grew up on the South Side, and he knew what it was like to be a teenager and to want to act “tough.” He was the son of a Chicago police officer, but that didn’t stop him from getting into trouble.

“Inside of my household, it was very nourishing, very healthy, very structured. Every Saturday, I had to read the atlas, dictionary, encyclopedia, just to go outside,” he said. “But on the other side of that threshold, there’s this thing called West Englewood, and it’s a lot different from your front door. There [are] some things I got involved in when I was younger, not because I had to – simply by choice.”

 He often brings the conversation back to that word: “choice.” As he tells students, while life changes can be unexpected and unavoidable, it’s up to them how they move forward.

“They have a lot going on,” Finney said. “Sometimes, they come in this door and can’t focus on what we roll out every day. … They may have family issues like domestic violence that they had to deal with at 5 or 6 in the morning and still come to school and be here at 8.”

His advice, presence and open-door policy do not go unappreciated.

“If you want to talk, [he’s] here. If you don’t, [he’s] still here,” Cox said. “He’s going to have his door wide open. He’s going to see you when you come down here. That door’s open, and you’re welcome.”

This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Defender.

Special Training For School Police:  How Do Young People Feel About It?

Special Training For School Police: How Do Young People Feel About It?

As lawmakers move to require additional training for police in Illinois schools, five young people weigh in on whether it will make a difference.

By Jeremy Borden, Olivia Cunningham, and Alex Y. Ding. Photos by Pat Nabong. 


Legislation that would require specialized training for all school resource officers or police officers permanently stationed in Illinois schools now awaits Gov. Bruce Rauner's signature as the Senate-approved bill passed the state House Friday.

The training curriculum would include conflict resolution and crisis intervention techniques specifically designed to address working with youth.

The House vote on SB 2925, the Safe Students, Trained Officers Bill, comes a week after the latest mass school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, and as the nation continues to grapple with school safety issues. Young people across the country have been weighing in, and one of the things they’ve been discussing is whether police belong in schools at all.

In Chicago, where police officers already patrol many of the city’s public schools and often play a disciplinary role, the issue has had a different focus — less on the numbers of officers and more on the relationship between police and students, as well as the implications of police training.

Nearly everyone that works with youth in Chicago Public Schools — teachers, social workers, school counselors, principals — undergoes specialized training. But until this recent legislation, this hasn’t been required for police officers assigned to work in schools.

Which is why City Bureau and Curious City decided to take on this question from a Chicago high school student:

How should police assigned to Chicago Public Schools be trained to work with youth?

Even as lawmakers push for the training bill, the debate continues on what that training should look like, who will pay for it, how it will be implemented — and whether police should patrol school hallways at all. We wanted to understand what young people in Chicago think, so we asked current students and recent graduates about their experiences with officers at school.

Though the students we spoke with all felt that police shouldn’t be in schools at all, they told us that if officers are going to be present, more training could improve relations between police and students.

Their interviews have been edited for space and clarity.



Nita Tennyson

High School: Perspectives High School '16

Affiliation: Assata’s Daughters, a black female-centered organizing and political action group for young people

Age: 20


What experiences have shaped your views on the role of police in schools? 

When I was a student at Perspectives High School, my cousin got arrested because they thought he stole a girl’s phone. The police came upstairs, they handcuffed him and roughed him up. They slammed him on the lockers. The police room in that school is this small room with no windows and just two police desks. That’s their headquarter room, like a holding room. He couldn’t leave — and it’s real hot in there. They held my cousin in that room for four hours. He couldn’t get food or water. They don’t tell your parents when you’re arrested or detained. They don’t tell you why you get arrested half the time. We knew this time, because they stopped the whole class to find the phone. He really didn’t have the phone. They never apologized. They were just really aggressive with him. They kept calling him boy or n-----. He has a name. His name is DaShawn. 

If you could design a training curriculum for police in schools, what would it include? 

If the police learned how to do restorative work with my cousin, they could have stopped the whole class, like, “Is there someone in this room who stole the phone? Why would you steal the phone? Do you need something?” That’s what they’re lacking — the ability to help. People usually steal because they need something. The police need training on how to work with kids who are experiencing trauma. You never know what’s happened. Somebody could have just lost they brother last night or they mother. They might just need someone to give them a hug, not pull a weapon on them. 

What do you wish police knew about you? 

Police need to learn who students are. You need to know their names. You need to learn their favorite colors. You need to know who their parents are when they come up for their report cards. You need to know all that. They need to know them inside and out.



Khadijah Benson

High School: Prosser Career Academy '18

Affiliation: Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a youth collaborative organization focused on education and racial justice

Age: 18

What experiences have shaped your views on the role of police in schools? 

I would get kicked out of the house, and that led me to be homeless most of my freshman year. But no matter what, I always tried to go to school. And one of the times I did come to school, I was pulled out of class during first period by a police officer and I didn’t know what was going on. I kept asking questions and they said, “I’m not allowed to tell you.” 

I see my guardian was standing there when they pulled me to the main office. I found out that she sent the police up to the school to have me arrested. She made up a whole bunch of things saying I tried to attack her, assault her, stuff like that, but it wasn’t true. 

So I was arrested that day, and it was about the first month of high school. I had interacted with the police before that, outside of school, but this really added to my trust issues because I thought that school’s the one place where I can be myself and be safe and protected. 

What do you wish police knew about you? 

Most of my interactions with police officers is something where it feels like I’m not being heard and they’re just looking past me and just trying to shrug me to the side. Maybe they’re looking at me that way differently because I’m a woman, or I’m young, or I’m black. But just because I’m all these things doesn’t mean I’m a troublemaker.


Yazmin Jimenez

High school: Benito Juarez Community Academy '18

Affiliation: No advocacy affiliation

Age: 18

What do you wish police knew about you? 

I’m not somebody that’s trying to look for trouble, although I can give off that image. I’m just kind of serious. If you just say, “Hey, you just shouldn’t do this,” I’ll respect that. I want to respect your personal space and I don’t wanna make anybody uncomfortable. You know, I’m a good kid, and my mom and my dad raised me to be better — not to cause problems. 

Should police be in schools? 

Yes and no. I get why you need them, especially in the news, you know, there’s school shooters and now [schools] are getting threats. And in that sense, I get why it would give you more security. But at the same time, I feel that creates a little distrust with the students because a lot of people might not have had the best interactions with police officers. So I get it, but at the same time I have mixed feelings about it.







Emily Jade Aguilar

High school: Steinmetz College Prep '17

Affiliation: Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) is a youth collaborative organization focused on education and racial justice

Age: 18

If you could design a training curriculum for police in schools, what would it include? 

I definitely think it’s important for not only police officers to interact with young people, but with teachers and staff. [It would be helpful if] the teachers would tell the school [police] officers, “Hey, just wanted to let you know that this student is going through something,” so that officers would know that “Emily is roaming around the hallways because she’s trans and her dad was deported and her mom doesn’t understand her; she’s going through a lot of different stages in her transition and she doesn’t know how to cope with it.” 

What do you wish police knew about you? 

For me, being a trans woman, there’s a lot of stigma. My trans sisters are scared that one day they’re gonna be stopped by police officers and they’re gonna get misgendered and they’re gonna be harassed. I think I would not only want police officers to understand that every trans individual is different, but I would also ask for more training around that because that’s what the majority of trans women that I speak with are dealing with right now.



Antonio “Tonii” Maggitt

High school: McKinley Lakeside Leadership Academy '17

Affiliation: Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) is a youth collaborative organization focused on education and racial justice

Age: 19

What experiences have shaped your views on the role of police in schools? 

In my eighth-grade school year, I was very mentally and emotionally traumatized, going through a lot at home. Traveling from house to house and worrying about whether or not I was going to have a roof over my head at the age of 13, 14. I went to school one day and I couldn’t focus on schoolwork so I got permission from a teacher to go to my counselor. As I was walking through the halls, a school resource officer was there and he thought I was cutting class so he started to follow me through the halls. And once he caught up to me, he wrestled me to the ground. And next thing I know, I’m being handcuffed and taken out. It looked like the whole police department was outside for one student, and I was later suspended for two weeks and expelled for the rest of my eighth-grade school year. 

If you could spend money on something to make school safer, what would you spend it on? 

We’re living in a time where art and music is booming and students are really interested in those types of programs and support systems that will set these kids up for the future. 

I know there’s a lot of schools on the South and West sides that do not have art class, do not have a music class, and don’t have a librarian in their library. 

When they don’t have those types of programs in schools, they look for a support system outside of school, and that goes to gangs and other bad things. So when they don’t have the support system at home or school? They take a very bad, negative route. 

This report was produced in partnership with WBEZ Curious City. 

Tilden High School Civics Class Helps Students Affected by Gun Violence Find Fellowship, a Way Forward

Tilden High School Civics Class Helps Students Affected by Gun Violence Find Fellowship, a Way Forward

Students joined the National School Walkout as a way to show solidarity for Stoneman Douglas while also remembering classmates and friends who were lost to gun violence.

F. Amanda Tugade

Tilden Career Community Academy students gather around the school’s “peace pole” April 20 for the National School Walkout. Photo by Samuel Davis.

Tilden Career Community Academy students gather around the school’s “peace pole” April 20 for the National School Walkout. Photo by Samuel Davis.

Quarntaz Thomas held the memory of his classmate and friend, Kejuan Thomas, close to him as he stood outside Tilden Career Community Academy last month for the National School Walkout.

Kejuan was shot and killed on a summer afternoon at a Bradley Park basketball court last year. He was only 16. His death had an impact on Quarntaz, who decided to join a group of Tilden students for the demonstration.

“You deal with [the loss] by finding someone who’s dealt with it, who can guide you,” said 18-year-old Quarntaz. “Even though it happened, think about the future. Think about what you can do. Think about how you can prevent it.”

Quartaz found his answers in civics class, where teacher Samuel Davis encouraged him and his peers to stay informed and engaged in political and social issues that resonate with them.

Davis also remembered Kejuan, who he taught as a freshman, as a “bright kid” who he looked forward to teaching again.

“I never had a student who I had a very personal relationship with who was murdered, who was killed,” he said. “It was very difficult for me.”

As a teacher and a father of three young children, Davis struggled with grief after Kejuan’s death and recalled breaking down during his funeral. “I just wasn’t prepared for it,” he said about attending and speaking at the service.

When the school year began, Davis saw his students still mourning and began to use his civics class as a way to offer support and let them all know they weren’t going through that experience alone. He wanted to “help show [them] a positive way” and give them a space where they could talk and listen to each other.

Davis knew all too well what his students were going through. Aside from losing Kejuan, he lost two of his cousins, who were both in their 20s, to gun violence on separate occasions. One of them was murdered on his aunt’s porch in 2009, he said.

“This club, you know, it helps us,” said Harlan Fuentes, another student of Davis’s. “Because a lot of us, we’ve had these personal experiences, and we can just talk about it to other people without judgment or anything. It’s pretty much like a family in our group.”

Quarntaz partnered with the 17-year-old Fuentes to plan the April 20 walkout, which was part of the nationwide student-led movement that demanded gun reform. Thousands of young people across America marched in memory of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in February and marked the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre.

“It’s important for me because living in Chicago there’s a lot of gun violence,” Quarntaz said. “If something like [the Stoneman Douglas shooting] happened at school, that’d surprise me. I felt like how they felt like when it happened. So, I was going to show my respect.”

That Friday morning, he and Fuentes met staff and students at the school’s “peace pole,” where they offered a moment of silence for those who lost their lives to gun violence.

“We just wanted to get the message out there because there [are] people protesting in other states,” Fuentes said. “Even if we are a small school, our voices are still important no matter what. There’s not that many of us, but we feel like we could do something and try to help stop gun violence.”

Tilden’s principal, Maurice Swinney, applauded his students for their participation. At the end of the day, he called his students into the auditorium and “celebrated their choice” to be a part of the national movement. Beyond that, he spoke to them about how important it was to build relationships with and be respectful to each other.

Quarntaz and Fuentes took pride in seeing how receptive Swinney, Davis and faculty members were to their protest. While the pair continue to bounce ideas on what initiatives to take on next with their classmates, they reflected on feeling a sense of empowerment and strength.

“It was a very liberating experience — just to know that we have the support of the teachers and the staff,” Fuentes said. “Everybody supports us and what we do, especially here at Tilden. I feel like we could just be ourselves. You can express yourself without [anyone] judging you.”

Why Is Chicago Sticking With Its Housing Voucher Rules as the Nation Shifts?

Why Is Chicago Sticking With Its Housing Voucher Rules as the Nation Shifts?

Twenty-four metro areas are adopting a new, more fine-grained way of calculating rents. But Chicago officials believe that makes moving to low-poverty, low-violence neighborhoods in the city more difficult.



On April 1, the Department of Housing and Urban Development began implementing a new rule that requires public housing authorities in 24 metropolitan areas to change the way they calculate payments made through the Section 8 housing voucher program. Rather than using the Fair Market Rent, or FMR rule—which determines payment standards based on rental rates in an entire metropolitan region—these areas will instead use rental data from individual ZIP codes, known as the Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) rule. (The change only came after the Ben Carson–led HUD tried unsuccessfully to delay implementation, arguing that public housing authorities needed until 2020 to prepare for the shift. A D.C. district court ruled against the agency in January.)

But while the Chicago-Joliet-Naperville metropolitan area was one of the areas charged with adopting the new rule, the Chicago Housing Authority had already opted out of the program. Instead, the CHA will continue to use the Exception Payment Standard (EPS), which increases voucher values in “mobility” areas—communities with low poverty and violent-crime rates—up to 150 percent of FMR. It’s part of an ongoing attempt to find the right balance for voucher values that allows flexibility for voucher-holders to move where they want without overspending government money.

Chicago hopes its housing voucher rules will move residents of high-poverty and high-violence areas up and out.  Photo by Antonio Perez (Chicago Tribune).

Chicago hopes its housing voucher rules will move residents of high-poverty and high-violence areas up and out.  Photo by Antonio Perez (Chicago Tribune).

Historically, the majority of voucher values have been determined by FMR, which critics say does not reflect the nature of local housing costs. The city of Chicago, for example, is lumped into a metropolitan area with everything from northern McHenry County to southern Joliet. The region’s FMR for a two-bedroom in the 2017 fiscal year was $1,232, which is way below the going cost of apartments in thriving neighborhoods like Lincoln Park but significantly more than areas with depressed rents and property values like Englewood. By allowing for voucher values up to 150 percent of FMR, CHA officials hoped to give voucher-holders more freedom to move to neighborhoods with more opportunity, ostensibly decreasing racial and economic segregation.

But the EPS model hasn’t been without its share of controversy. When it was initially implemented, the CHA set the possible subsidy at up to 300 percent of FMR. But after critical media coverage of these so-called “supervouchers” and a call for an investigation from former Representative Aaron Schock, the CHA shifted to the current standard of 150 percent in 2014. Now, nearly 2,000 households, or about 4 percent of CHA’s total number of households, have been given exception payment standards, most in the 111 percent to 150 percent range.

Katy Ludwig, the CHA’s chief voucher officer, said the agency considered adopting SAFMR a few years back, but it decided to opt out after determining that the shift might hurt voucher holders in lower-income areas.

Ludwig said that SAFMR would not allow for sufficiently high payments in higher-income areas, and that decreased voucher payments in lower-income areas would hurt voucher holders. “[SAFMR would be] pushing some rents down and shifting others up, and we found that was going to have a potential negative impact on families that were living in the areas where they were going down,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Housing Authority of Cook County was one of the first public housing authorities in the country to adopt the SAFMR rule as part of a HUD pilot program in 2012.

“The geographic size of Cook County is huge—it has some of the most affluent and some of the poorest suburbs in whole country. We looked at [the pilot] as an opportunity to provide housing opportunities in different areas of the county that wouldn’t normally be available,” said Richard Monocchio, executive director of HACC.

For example, in the relatively affluent northwest suburb of Arlington Heights, the SAFMR for a two-bedroom apartment can reach up to $1,370. The equivalent standard in south suburban Robbins, where almost a third of families are below the poverty line, can fall as low as $990.

Monocchio says he’s pleased with the results from implementing the pilot: From 2010 to 2015, the number of new voucher-holder families who moved into high-rent ZIP codes increased from 17 to 21 percent.

There’s not much research on whether EPS or SAFMR is a better policy approach. In a 2016 blog post for the Metropolitan Planning Council, Marisa Novara suggests that, at least in the city of Chicago itself, it’s the former. She notes that the SAFMR subsidy for Lake View would be $1,280, while an EPS of 150 percent would be $1,764, much closer to the $1,880 asking rent Novara found through a quick Craigslist inventory. Still, the EPS only raises subsidies—it doesn’t require the CHA to lower the subsidy amount in lower-income neighborhoods, a process that instead takes place through negotiation with individual landlords. That means rents could be inflated in these areas by landlords seeking to receive the maximum voucher subsidy, a phenomenon which City Bureau is examining in an ongoing project.

The shifting payment standards, however, still haven’t fully addressed long-term problems with segregation and housing discrimination in the city. Last year, a report from University of Chicago and the Chicago Fair Area Housing Alliance showed that voucher-holders in Chicago live in the city’s poorest neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides, and that they disproportionately report experiencing discrimination when attempting to move to wealthier parts of the city.

As one voucher holder put it to the report’s researchers: “I’ve been looking for other places to move. Impossible. The amount of money that I make, there is no moving to any place that would probably be better than where I am [in South Shore].”

How SAFMR will shake out across the rest of the country remains to be seen. Still, Cook County’s Monocchio says that, in his opinion, it’s “very important” that HUD was forced to adopt the rule. “It’s important that this be a national program,” he said. “It’s key to using vouchers to expand opportunities for people—what we’re really talking about is upward mobility.”

This report was produced in partnership with Chicago Magazine.

After Unthinkable Loss

After Unthinkable Loss

Some have sons in prison. Others have sons who were murdered. At Precious Blood Ministry, this group of mothers sits shoulder to shoulder each month to talk about love, grief, and their toughest challenge as parents: losing a child.

By Sarah Conway. Photos by Sebastián Hidalgo.



I. Mary

Mary Thomas sits in an empty circle of chairs, waiting to talk about Ke’Juan.

A clatter of silverware and bursts of laughter emanate from the room next door, which she just left, where a crowd of mostly middle-aged women hug and kiss while balancing plates of taco salad and cups of coffee. It’s a change from the stillness of Thomas’s home where she has spent most of her time since Ke’Juan’s murder three months back. “It will be different to get out and talk to people today,” she says.

It’s the third Saturday of the month: time for the Mother's Healing Circle, or the Mama’s Circle, as it's known among devoted attendees. Anywhere from 10 to 20 women meet each month at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, a tawny brick L-shaped building on a spacious lot just north of Sherman Park. Since its creation in 2013, some 50 women from mostly the Back of the Yards and Englewood neighborhoods have attended this “peace circle,” where mothers who have lost sons to gun violence and the prison system can find peace, sisterhood, and community without judgment.

Holding her phone, Thomas scans through her late son’s Instagram, a patchwork of dance videos and selfies punctuated by laughing smileys and devil emojis, ending abruptly on August 16, 2017. Together, they tell the story of 16-year-old Ke’Juan, who loved drawing and learning new dance moves from YouTube and dreamt of making it to college on a basketball scholarship.

“Come on Ke’Juan, show her how you can dance,” the 40-year-old whispers to her phone, clutching a black sweater around her thin frame as her favorite video loads. She doesn’t go out much these days. Sometimes she feels haunted by Ke’Juan—she’ll feel her bed shake a bit while she's watching TV, as if he is crawling up to cuddle her like he used to.

Outside the window, a gray November sky frames the ministry’s peace garden and labyrinth, a space Thomas’s daughter helped plant a few years back in what was once an empty field near the corner of 52nd and Throop. On Thomas’s phone screen, Ke’Juan appears, adjusting his tall, six-foot-two frame for the camera, then performs a dance routine in his socks on the family’s living room floor.

“Dance, act silly, and play basketball—that’s all my son did,” says Thomas, touching the final still of Ke’Juan on her phone. “He really didn’t deserve it.”

“It” was Ke’Juan’s murder. He died on the Bradley Park basketball court near 97th and Yates in South Deering last August—one out of the 3,457 shooting victims in Chicago in 2017. According to a Tribune report, prosecutors alleged that the shooter walked up to Ke’Juan, pulled out a gun, and shot him in the head. After Ke'Juan fell to the court, the other man stood over him and continued to fire as children as young as 10 years old watched, prosecutors said. Ke’Juan’s older brother was there that day, too.

Farther down his feed, Thomas pauses on a photo of Ke’Juan and his brother, Kenny, deep in laughter, clutching one another in the bathroom after they begged her to relax their hair. “They almost killed their mama with all those chemicals and my asthma,” she says, laughing.

She gets quiet again. “Really, you don’t laugh like you used to. But today isn’t for crying,” she says, wiping fresh tears from her face. Soon after the shooting, Sister Donna Liette, who leads the Mother's Healing Circle, called her to invite her to this special group. It took her three months, but finally, she's here.

Mothers-RJCC-Sebastian-6 Sister Donna Liette.JPG

II. Donna

The seats around Thomas fill up, and Liette taps a Tibetan chime of compassion three times to make the room fall silent. She lights a vanilla-scented candle to “honor the sacredness of the space.” A Catholic nun for more than six decades, Liette dances the line between New Age spiritualism and traditional religion as the official circle keeper, a skill she picked up 12 years ago.

The peace circle is a cornerstone of restorative justice, a mediation philosophy that brings victims and perpetrators together to repair the harm that’s been done to all parties and strengthen the community. Restorative justice has steadily gained steam in Chicago since its induction into public schools in the mid 2000s; it made a big institutional leap when the Restorative Justice Community Court in North Lawndale opened last August. The Mama’s Circle, according to Precious Blood staff, is the only circle in Chicago that brings together mothers of sons who have committed and been victims of crime.

Since spring of 2013, women have gathered here to coo and cackle, tell jokes, knit, and sip coffee. Some mothers cry and yell in small outbursts of anger, recounting bad former husbands or the young men who put out their sons’ lives. Almost all have suffered from the lasting trauma of gun violence—either losing a child to the prison system or the grave, and if not a son then a nephew, a brother, a cousin, a spouse, a father.

At 78, Liette has a small frame, a dandelion puff of white and black hair, and boundless Midwestern energy. She spent more than five decades in ministry and faith-based teaching in Ohio. “I was almost 70 and Father Dave Kelly [of Precious Blood] called me and said, ‘We need you in Chicago.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’m too old now to go to Chicago.’”

But Kelly’s offer was persuasive: Liette was drawn to how the ministry uses restorative justice to help people in the prison system, and she appreciated its holistic approach to combating violence by investing in community relationships. So she prayed on it, and the Friday after Thanksgiving eight years ago, she packed her car for Chicago.

It was in her first role visiting (or “journeying,” as she calls it) with young people in detention centers that she realized that mothers were too often left out of the healing process. “I kept hearing [from the kids], ‘Please call my mother.’ ‘I wish I was with my mother.’ Over and over I heard the words, ‘my mother, my mother,’” Liette says. So, she thought, “Why don’t we honor the mothers that are often left behind to deal with the trauma and pain of losing a child to prison or gun violence?”

Today’s circle starts with announcements. The holidays are coming, so find quiet time for yourself, she reminds the crowd. Stress management meetups are still on Wednesdays. (They’re discontinued now.) “Quite a few of you are getting jobs and that’s exciting!” she exclaims to the applause of the 20 or so women in attendance.

Liette runs through the circle rules: Always speak your truth, even though your truth might be different from someone else’s. Respect each other and the stories. Listen with our heart. And, last but most important, whatever is said in circle stays in circle. (That’s why, besides Liette and Thomas, who agreed to be quoted, none of the quotes during the circle are attributed to named individuals.) Several mothers nod in silent agreement, and others yell out, “Amen.”

A “talking piece” is passed around the circle, and each mother introduces herself and shares one reason she came. For some, it’s for peace of mind; others, to see everybody in a space where they won’t be judged. Then the piece reaches Thomas, the newcomer.

“My name is Mary. I came here cause Sister Donna asked me to,” she starts.

“You’re welcome here, Mary,” shouts out one mom.

“I came to listen and to take this one day at a time. My son got killed August 16,” says Thomas, beginning to cry. The circle sounds off with sighs. They have been there before. Mothers new to the circle almost never make it through their first time without breaking down.

“Oh, baby, can I give you a hug?”

Thomas nods as a mother rushes to her and holds her. “We’re gonna come together now and I’m going to keep you strong,” she tells Thomas. “I don’t feel strong every day but we are coming together and talking about it. We are going to get strength and strength and strength!”

The energy of the group flares up again and the talking piece is passed on; other mothers talk about the stress of the holidays, but many glance back at Mary, trying to draw her into their space.

“How old was your son, Mary?”

“Just 16.”

“Oh, baby, that’s too much.”

CityBureau-RJCC-Mothers-12062017-5 Sakena Barnes.JPG

III. Sakena

At first, the circle was a failure. For the first meeting, two or three mothers came. The next month it was one. Then, none. But Liette and Sara Nuñez, a volunteer at Precious Blood, continued to organize the monthly meetup, and eventually the group took off, slowly building its way to around 20 mothers attending a brunch, then a circle, with Liette’s staples of “casseroles and coffee, china and silverware.” Today it is one of Precious Blood Ministry’s most recognized programs, where mothers say they can share their “tears and fears.”

“Oh, Sister Donna, she’s crazy!” says Sakena Barnes, 41, with a chuckle. She has attended circle for the past four and a half years since its creation. “At first, I was like, I don’t want no peace circle. But I’ve been coming ever since.” It's the anonymity and intimacy of circle that draws her—and the lack of access to pricey therapy sessions.

“We can say whatever we want to say, we can cry, we can laugh, we do it all in there,” says Barnes, who says she gets stressed about her 21-year-old son’s fear of getting shot. “My baby don’t even come outside. He won’t even walk to the store by himself,” she says.

Today she is something akin to a circle recruiter; she calls women or knocks on doors to expand the group’s membership. “We want to show mothers that we care. If we could get 1,000 moms up in there, that’d be great, but you can’t force them to come,” says Barnes. But once a mother does show up, she is usually hooked.

“All the mothers in there, we are a family, we are a community. If someone’s child gets shot, it hurts all of us. If someone’s child gets thrown in jail, it hurts all of us,” she says. “We have lost a lot of our children in the past year. We talk in circle, but then we talk at home, too. We text every morning: ‘How you doing?’ We call: ‘You all right?’ When you’re at home and you are stressed and crying alone, we will calm them down and talk to them.”

Barnes says a lot of the moms blame themselves for whatever happened to their sons. While the circle can’t be the solution to all their problems, it’s a place where they can feel valued—“for just being a mother, period,” says Barnes.

As one mother says at the November circle, “Time is one of the biggest healers. A lot of people want things to go back to normal after your son dies, but it doesn’t ever go away. Healing doesn’t get easier, you just learn to cope with it.”

CityBureau-RJCC-Mothers-12062017-4 Julie Anderson.JPG

IV. Julie

For the past 22 years, Anderson says she feels she’s lived the old adage: “good parents, bad kid.” Over coffee just outside her office at Precious Blood Ministry, she recounts how her son Eric was convicted of killing two 13-year-old girls, Carrie Hovel and Helena Martin, in a 1995 shooting, when he was just 15. He was sentenced to life without parole. People don’t understand it: the slow death that a mother of an incarcerated son feels, each time a visit ends and she sees her baby return to his cell, she explains. Watching her son disappear into the criminal justice system has been deeply isolating. “Some of it isn’t just people judging you as a mom. It is that they judge your kid,” she says.

Over the years, the Andersons have never missed a visitation opportunity—five per month for 22 years, adding up to more than 1,300 visits, sometimes traveling over 100 miles each way. Though she recognizes the terrible harm Eric caused, she says she deeply loves her son and believes he has atoned.

Eric, now 38, has spent more than half his life in prison. But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for minors were unconstitutional, so he was resentenced and now has about eight years left to serve. At the time, Eric was one of nearly 100 people in Illinois serving life without parole for crimes they committed as minors.

“Seven and half more still feels really far. I will be almost 70,” says Anderson, who is 60. “That’s old. I have to make it … I’m always telling Father Kelly, I just don’t want the bitterness to take over my heart.”

Anderson has long felt the tension of existing in two worlds: She’s married to a former Chicago police officer and has lived a life of white, middle-class privilege—the type of life where people tend to be unfamiliar with the criminal justice system. “When I sit with my friends, I might as well be talking about the moon” when she explains the injustices of overcriminalization and mass incarceration, she says. “They think Eric should get out, definitely, but nobody else. He has a good family, a place to go, but the rest of these guys, no.”

Yet she’s also a Precious Blood-based organizer and the founder and coordinator of Communities and Relatives of Illinois Incarcerated Children, where she fiercely advocates to improve the conditions of children in the adult criminal justice system. As part of her job, she visits incarcerated men serving life sentences so they can have a visitor and just a normal conversation. “We never talk about their case and what they did. It’s always ‘Hey, let me buy you a pop and a vending machine hamburger, and we can sit and talk about the Cubs,’” says Anderson.

Anderson remembers searching for a support group for mothers in a similar situation to her a decade or so back. “I couldn’t find anything that said, ‘Hey, your kid did a really horrible thing but we are going to help you and support you anyway.’ The concept didn’t even exist until I found the Mother's Healing Circle,” she says.

Today, the circle has become her “free therapy,” but it didn’t always feel this way. When she first joined, she says she felt like a nuclear bomb among mothers whose sons committed lesser crimes—she was the only one whose son was locked up forever.

Even in this group, she felt alone.

Then Timika Rutledge-German walked in.

CityBureau-RJCC-Mothers-12062017-3 Timika Rutledge.JPG

V. Timika

“I don’t know why I’m even here. I lost my son to gun violence,” Rutledge-German remembers saying when she got the talking piece at her very first meeting. Two and a half years after Liette convened the group, the nun had delicately opened it to mothers who had lost children to violence, as a way to encourage reconciliation and healing. Rutledge-German was the first.

She, like Anderson, didn’t think the circle could help her. Her 15-year-old son, Cornelius German, was murdered on April 22, 2013, just blocks from Barack Obama’s Kenwood home. She remembers saying to the group, “Your son is in juvenile [detention] but mine’s never coming back. I have to go to the grave to see him.”

Then she heard Anderson speak about Eric serving a life sentence, and something about the other woman’s loss felt familiar. The two immediately connected.

Inside the Sister Brenner House at Precious Blood one November morning, Rutledge-German, 46, describes her son: “I called him Bread, short for Cornbread.” She’s quick to admit he wasn’t the perfect kid—he hung out with older friends, some who are now in prison, others who are dead—but he was her angel. “He had character and spunk. He was like cornbread that you put in syrup—he just sucked up everybody and everything in a space,” she says.

Funny and short, with his mother’s lips, Cornbread had a ferocious appetite, a characteristic that Timika honors with a birthday party every November 17 with family and a few of his friends who still send her heart emojis when they text her to check in.

“Cornbread eat,” says Rutledge-German with a laugh, shaking her head. She serves up the works for his “birthday Thanksgiving” celebration: pasta with alfredo sauce, dressing, greens, deviled eggs, ham, turkey, pies, and always, always, tall glasses of strawberry Kool-Aid, his drink of choice.

Toward the end of his freshman year at Kenwood Academy, Cornbread was shot walking out to the gate toward his mother’s car. “Even though, he wasn’t the target, he was the victim,” says Rutledge-German. “His friend told me that his last words were, ‘Call my mama,’ and all I could think of was, your mama was right around the corner… It was just him and the sky, laid out on the grass, waiting for his mama to arrive.”

Trying to make sense of his murder, Rutledge-German says his death delivered her to Precious Blood’s circle. At first, she struggled to explain to the other women what her loss felt like: There would be no more birthday Thanksgivings, no homecomings, no marriage or grandchildren. But her words resonated with Anderson. It was a moment of healing for the two mothers struggling to accept the loss of their sons.

Rutledge-German’s story was the first time she felt connected to the group, Anderson says. So many mothers carry their guilt in private. “It’s that fear of being judged—but those moms in that circle, they don’t judge people,” she adds. “We are all healing each other in different ways.”

“Now, some of us vent longer than others,” Rutledge-German says, jokingly. “We’re like, Your time is up! Pass the talking piece on. We got something to say, too.” But in all seriousness, she adds, it’s a place where the forgotten mothers behind sensational headlines can love one another. She and Anderson are something of a symbol for what the group has become: a place that brings together mothers on the opposite ends of Chicago’s violence.

“We are hugging and kissing because we really miss each other,” Rutledge-German says. “That’s so exciting to me ’cause I don’t have any friends, and to be able to come to that circle and be able to smile, and grieve”—she takes a deep sigh, closing her eyes—“I’m not going to say I’m at peace now with Cornbread’s death, but I feel differently than a lot of people about their grieving process because of that circle.”

“That’s what this group does. They help my heart.”


VI. Mary, again

Thomas can't honestly say she’s at the point to forgive her son’s killer. She's just trying to stay busy. “I shine the table three times. I clean the house seven times a day,” she tells the circle. Some mothers nod their heads, seeing their own trauma reflected back at them.

“I can’t say nothing bad about Ke’Juan. None of my children. That’s why I was so blessed to have him,” Thomas says.

“How many you have now?”

“I have three now.”

“Naw, you have four. He is always going to be with you spiritually,” says one mother. Thomas smiles for the first time.

Before long, it’s time to wrap up. Liette announces that there’s more coffee and sweets in the brunch room before she asks each mother to share just one thing for which she is grateful.

When the talking piece makes its way to Thomas, she thanks Liette for the invitation. Her voice is now steady and strong. The mothers clap and hug her as the circle ends. While some tuck themselves into winter jackets to brave the chill outside, Thomas lingers to grab a bite with the dozen or so women who remain.

Will circle help?

“I don’t think anyone in their right mind can get used to their child being gone,” she says, reflecting on the question a few months later. The experience has given her cautious hope, and she feels less alone when she’s shoulder-to-shoulder with other mothers facing the same pain. Still, she says, "I just don't know how I'm going to heal.”

Thomas missed the next two Mother's Healing Circle meetings. She is still acclimating to her post-August 16 life, with its few ups and its deep downs. In January, she and her kids moved to a safer neighborhood; community members who heard about what happened banded together to help her find the new place. But she'd quickly give it up to bring her son back.

“Ke’Juan always promised me a home, and in the end he got me one,” Thomas says, recalling how her son would talk about making enough money to alleviate the family’s housing woes. “I just wish he was there to be in this house with me.”

Instead, she’s found a quiet corner in the basement where she plans to keep a few pieces of Ke’Juan’s clothing and photos spanning the stretch of his short life, from chubby-cheeked baby to distinguished student. That’s where she’ll go to light candles, pray, and feel close to him again. Like many of Precious Blood Ministry’s mothers, she’s learning the boundaries of her grief.

Still, she says she'll return to circle, eventually. And when she does, she'll bring more stories of Ke'Juan, his shoeless dancing, and his basketball dreams.


This report was produced in partnership with Chicago Magazine.

What's With the Demolition Dust?

What's With the Demolition Dust?

Tearing down an old home can release dust containing asbestos or lead. Curious City and City Bureau found that Chicago rarely enforces demolition laws meant to minimize exposure to these contaminants.

By Jeremy Borden, Tucker Kelly, and Manny Ramos


This report was produced in partnership with WBEZ's Curious City. You can listen to the full audio report above. 


Questioner Robert Beedle wondered if there are any health impacts associated with the demolition of old homes. He became concerned after walking past a demolition in his McKinley Park neighborhood (Courtesy Robert Beedle).

Questioner Robert Beedle wondered if there are any health impacts associated with the demolition of old homes. He became concerned after walking past a demolition in his McKinley Park neighborhood (Courtesy Robert Beedle).

Robert Beedle can still remember the frustration he felt one day last spring, when he watched two houses, located across from the daycare near his home, get pulverized to the ground. The dust flew everywhere, and the leftover debris sat there for days.

Robert is not an expert on demolitions — but he knows a lot about the old homes in his McKinley Park neighborhood. When he was thinking about renovating his 19th-century house, he learned there were harmful materials like asbestos and lead in the walls and floors. And there are many old homes like his in the neighborhood.

Which is why the demolition he witnessed that day seemed almost absurd: How was it that these two old homes could be torn down with potentially dangerous dust and debris scattered everywhere?

He says he called 311 because he was so concerned. Then he reached out to his alderman. He didn’t get any response, so he turned to Curious City. Maybe we could find out what the deal was. He asked:

A backhoe lays the foundation for the construction of a new building at the site of the McKinley Park demolition that inspired Robert's question (Photo: Manny Ramos).

A backhoe lays the foundation for the construction of a new building at the site of the McKinley Park demolition that inspired Robert's question (Photo: Manny Ramos).

What are the laws around the demolition of residential buildings in Chicago, and what implications does this have for health and the environment?

The effects of hazardous building materials has been well-documented. Dust from asbestos can cause serious long-term problems, such as the fatal lung cancer mesothelioma, and lead that is ingested can cause severe developmental delays in children. Health and environmental experts don’t agree on exactly how much exposure to these poisonous contaminants is safe, which is why they want to minimize exposure as much as possible.

The city of Chicago has numerous laws on the books to protect the public’s health, but public health experts, contractors, and some city officials told Curious City that they are rarely enforced for residential demolition sites. It’s also unclear if city officials are even aware of the potential health risks posed by these kinds of demolitions.


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What the law requires

Robert says the demolition site he saw in McKinley Park looked like a “cutaway dollhouse,” with its half-exposed inner rooms and potentially poisonous dust exposed to the elements for hours.

In order to reduce exposure to harmful dust, workers suppress dust by wetting down the debris (Courtesy David Jacobs).

In order to reduce exposure to harmful dust, workers suppress dust by wetting down the debris (Courtesy David Jacobs).

The city’s permit process — required for all residential demolitions — is supposed to ensure that developers and contractors adhere to best practices for how to handle hazardous materials.

To obtain a wrecking permit for a residential demolition, a contractor must:

• Have a license.

• Inform adjacent neighbors within a 75-foot radius about the demolition via certified mail.

• Inform the alderman in the ward where the demolition is taking place. In a written letter to the alderman, contractors are required to detail that demolition crews are adhering to best practices for environmental contamination and other issues.

• Obtain approvals from various city departments, including plans to deal with water line issues, public street closures, rodents, flammable liquids, and sewers and demolition plans.

As for how materials like asbestos are supposed to be managed on demolition sites, the law is clear. Chapter 11 of the city municipal code outlines the procedures that need to be followed: contractors should wet down a site to prevent dust from spreading, wet down and bag potentially hazardous asbestos or other materials and remove debris quickly in covered containers. These steps mirror best practices required by the Environmental Protection Agency for asbestos.

While most larger-scale demolition projects require approval from the city’s Department of Public Health, smaller projects — like tearing down single family homes — do not. The city’s Department of Public Health “strongly recommends” contractors hire an expert to handle contaminants for smaller residential demolitions — but doesn’t require it.


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So, does the law get enforced?

The city’s laws and regulations are one thing, but enforcement of those rules is another.

Environmental consultant Ian Cull inspects for asbestos at a client's home (Courtesy Indoor Sciences, Inc.).

Environmental consultant Ian Cull inspects for asbestos at a client's home (Courtesy Indoor Sciences, Inc.).

Contractors and environmental health experts say Chicago officials generally do a good job of inspecting and ensuring there are safeguards when it comes to big construction or demolition projects that involve messy environmental issues, like taking down old industrial plants or clearing old gas stations. The city also stays on top of interior home renovations, which could put the homeowner or occupant at risk.

But environmental experts and contractors say it’s another story when it comes to the demolition of smaller residential properties.

Ian Cull, a Chicago-based environmental consultant who advises contractors on how to handle and remove hazardous materials, says he believes city officials need to pay more attention to residential demolitions. Cull says he often works in nearby suburbs where enforcement is much tougher than Chicago. Cull’s office in is Logan Square, which has a high number of demolitions, according to city data. He says he frequently sees contractors failing to adhere to the best practices outlined by the city.

“I could count on one hand the number of demolition projects that I’ve seen that are using water and spraying it,” Cull says.

In 2017, the city’s Department of Buildings issued more than 50 citations for improper removal of debris out of a total of more than 1,219 demolition permits, according to city records. Just five of those citations resulted in a fine, according to the city’s data portal. The Department of Public Health, which issues citations to contractors for environmental concerns, issued just one citation and fine in 2017 for a contractor failing to minimize dust during a demolition or renovation, city records show.

Department of Buildings Commissioner Judith Frydland says she is not aware of any complaints about her department’s enforcement efforts. She says the department has plenty of inspectors. She also says the buildings department is primarily concerned with ensuring contractors follow the appropriate steps to obtain a permit.

“We look for basic safety,” she says.

While Frydland says she hasn’t heard any complaints, the alderman of an area that has seen a lot of development says he gets plenty. Ald. Scott Waguespack, whose 32nd Ward includes areas of Bucktown and Lincoln Park, says he gets hundreds of complaints about contractors who don’t control dust, set up fencing, notify neighbors, or display their permit as required.

Waguespack, who drives around his ward to check on demolition sites, says contractors know the city rarely inspects for problems like debris removal and hardly issues fines, so they don’t have any incentive to follow the rules.

A worker plows through a plume of dust and debris on a demolition site in the Uptown neighborhood. (Photo: Manny Ramos)

A worker plows through a plume of dust and debris on a demolition site in the Uptown neighborhood. (Photo: Manny Ramos)

"I can’t write a ticket. If I could write a ticket, I’d guarantee you there’d be like thousands of tickets," he says.

Waguespack says he would like the city to deploy more inspectors, particularly during the busy summer construction months. He also says city officials aren’t responsive when he reports a concern.

“When there is an issue, we just don’t rely on the Buildings Department,” the alderman says.

Contractors we spoke with, like Jose Duarte, the founder of general contractor Blackwood Group LLC, say that while the permitting process is fairly thorough, the city could do a better job of sending inspectors out to sites once demolition is underway.

“The Building Department or these enforcement agencies have to be more aggressive on that and distinguish who the bad players and who the good players are,” Duarte says.

An Uptown resident watches as a residential building is torn down. There is no wet down of the debris (Photo: Manny Ramos).

An Uptown resident watches as a residential building is torn down. There is no wet down of the debris (Photo: Manny Ramos).

Waguespack says the city used to be more responsive to these kind of concerns. But he says that’s changed under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and it has to do with how his administration approaches developers.

“It was always hands off the developers,” Waguespack says. “Let them get the job done. Stay out of their way. This is money coming in the door. It was always about money.”

Emanuel’s spokesman, Adam Collins, and a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health did not respond to repeated requests for comment about how the city handles environmental concerns related to small residential demolitions.


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What are the consequences of poor oversight?

So, without this oversight, how much do these small construction and demolition sites contaminate the neighborhood? What kind of health risks do they pose?

Workers are often those who suffer most from contaminant-related diseases because of weak regulation and enforcement, according to a 2015 investigation from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity (Photo: Manny Ramos).

Workers are often those who suffer most from contaminant-related diseases because of weak regulation and enforcement, according to a 2015 investigation from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity (Photo: Manny Ramos).

When it comes to household contamination, experts mostly worry about workers during demolition or children who are exposed. The health risks are serious, and experts aren’t always sure how much contamination people can be exposed to before they develop serious health problems. Lead can cause, among other things, lower IQ and delayed development. Asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a fatal lung cancer, and asbestosis, a chronic lung disease.

It’s often workers who suffer most from contaminant-related diseases because of weak regulation and enforcement, according to a 2015 investigation from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity. Thousands of workers get sick and die from contaminant-related diseases every year, the nonprofit found.

David Jacobs, who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago and works as the chief scientist at the National Center for Healthy Housing, conducted a federal study on the issuethat was published in 2013. Jacobs tested the quality of the air around dozens of demolition sites in Chicago. He found high levels of lead on average of 400 feet away from the construction sites — meaning contractors weren’t doing a good job containing dust.

He brought it up with city officials but they failed to address his concerns, he says. Frydland, the commissioner of the Department of Buildings, argues that smaller demolitions are not a huge problem.

Researcher David Jacobs tested the quality of the air around dozens of home demolition sites in Chicago. He found high levels of lead an average of 400 feet away from the sites (Courtesy David Jacobs).

Researcher David Jacobs tested the quality of the air around dozens of home demolition sites in Chicago. He found high levels of lead an average of 400 feet away from the sites (Courtesy David Jacobs).

“In a single family home, you often don’t have issues that you have in (larger) buildings just in general,” she says.

But Jacobs says that while the issue seems like a small one, it is imperative to change how people think about contaminant-related problems. As it stands, most leave it to the doctors to treat illnesses that are caused by these contaminants. Instead, officials should spend more time, money, and effort to ensure people aren’t exposed to as many contaminants in the first place, he says.

“Chicago has one of the worst blood lead levels in the country,” Jacobs says. “Nationwide, we know that half a million children have elevated blood lead levels, so that’s an epidemic in anybody’s book. There needs to be more done. I am hopeful that instead of just chasing poisoned children around, we would take some proactive measures, investigate the sources of exposure, whether it’s in existing housing or in demolitions.”


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What can be done?

For his study, Jacobs also measured the amount of lead in dust near residential teardowns in Baltimore. He found that contractors in Baltimore generally paid close attention to contamination issues and frequently adhered to best practices — namely wetting down demolition sites so dust didn’t spread. Interestingly, Jacobs found that compliance was voluntary. There was usually a person on the construction crew who ensured best practices were followed.

As a result, the amount of harmful lead in the air was considerably lower than in Chicago.

A research team uses a lead dust fall sampling apparatus to measure lead levels in the air during a demolition in Baltimore. (Courtesy  David Jacobs )

A research team uses a lead dust fall sampling apparatus to measure lead levels in the air during a demolition in Baltimore. (Courtesy David Jacobs)

Jacobs says the Baltimore example offers just one possible solution — a contractor community that is hypervigilant to the issues — to ensuring contaminants like dust don’t end up hurting people nearby. Other solutions involve stricter enforcement of the current laws.

“This is not rocket science,” Jacobs says. “Wet methods like this have been used in industry. … It’s a tried and proven technique. It works. There’s no good reason not to implement these things.”



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More about our questioner

Robert Beedle has mostly lived in old houses. His childhood home in the Cook County suburb of Riverside will soon turn 100 years old, he says.

It wasn’t just his personal history that made him mindful and interested in contamination. An older cousin died from an aggressive cancer that family members believe came from living near the now-shuttered Clark Oil refinery in Blue Island. (Illnesses and deaths related to contamination issues from the refinery led to a successful $120 million class action lawsuit, and the refinery was closed in 2001, according to the Chicago Tribune.)

Robert Beedle (right) visited the demolition site that inspired his question alongside  Curious City  audio producer Jesse Dukes (middle) and  City Bureau  reporter Jeremy Borden (left). (Photo: Manny Ramos).

Robert Beedle (right) visited the demolition site that inspired his question alongside Curious City audio producer Jesse Dukes (middle) and City Bureau reporter Jeremy Borden (left). (Photo: Manny Ramos).

Robert is a Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and he says the university has motivated him to become more curious and ask questions.

He says he’s learned a lot about how the city enforces the rules around demolitions.

“If there was a teardown happening next door or a couple houses away, at that point I really would be more concerned,” he says.

Robert’s concern isn’t just for himself, but for the future of the McKinley Park neighborhood, where he bought a home in 2015 that was originally built in 1888.

“I love this place and want to contribute to making it an even better city to live now and in the future,” he says.

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All black and white full-size photos by Manny Ramos. 

Grandmothers of Chicago’s Restorative Justice Movement

Grandmothers of Chicago’s Restorative Justice Movement

By Jenny Simeone-Casas and Sarah Conway 

Restorative justice, a mediation technique that uses peace circles to help people resolve disputes, is practiced in Chicago schools and has become increasingly popular in youth organizations. This fall, it’s taken its first step into the criminal justice system with the opening of the Restorative Justice Community Court in North Lawndale.

Many local organizations now embrace restorative justice principles, and most practitioners point at the work of two people in particular: Cheryl Graves and Ora Schub, who are described often as “the grandmothers of Chicago’s restorative justice movement.” Both women were criminal defense attorneys and clinical law professors at Northwestern University. In 2006 they left law to start the Community Justice for Youth Institute, an organization that runs restorative justice workshops and peace circle keeper trainings.

Ora Schub and Cheryl Graves (Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo)

Ora Schub and Cheryl Graves (Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo)

They recently sat down with City Bureau to discuss the growth of the movement and influential moments in their careers. Over shrimps and grits, unlimited biscuits and coffee, Graves and Schub tack between jokes and stories of peace circles past. They poke fun at each other and share the easy manner of two people who’ve known each other personally and professionally for a long time. Graves pulls out a talking piece—this one is a small silver disk, but they can be any object of personal importance—which is passed around the circle to signify who has the floor.

Here are some of the highlights:

On the purpose of holding a peace circle

Schub: If it works, the circle creates a safe space where you can be vulnerable. Cause we can disagree with each other on opinions but we can’t disagree on your story.

Graves: The thing is [peace circles] don’t need to be about conflict and issues. It’s about community building and celebrating, healing or grieving; it’s about relating to each other.

On keeping a peace circle:

Graves: Restorative justice, particularly circle work, keeps you humble because it’s not about me being the leader. Everybody’s experiences and stories, that’s the wisdom that makes the circle rich. It evens out the playing field. You don’t make decisions by vote, you make decisions by consensus, which is hard and messy, right? But nobody’s voice is discarded. Every voice matters.

Cheryl Graves carries this image in her purse everywhere she goes. The art was created by a young man she sat in circle with named Ty. “I think he did this piece about his mother,” Graves explained. “Because she dreams big dreams for him. It’s just like when you’re sitting in circle with people you don’t know. What’s the point if you don’t believe in big dreams, that things can change and be better?” (Photo: Jenny Simeone-Casas)

Cheryl Graves carries this image in her purse everywhere she goes. The art was created by a young man she sat in circle with named Ty. “I think he did this piece about his mother,” Graves explained. “Because she dreams big dreams for him. It’s just like when you’re sitting in circle with people you don’t know. What’s the point if you don’t believe in big dreams, that things can change and be better?” (Photo: Jenny Simeone-Casas)

Schub: Sitting in the circle, keeping the circle, one of the hardest things I could learn was giving up control so that other people could also become keepers in the circle and that’s the only way that a circle works. It doesn’t work if I try to make it work.

In a way, I owe so much of what my life is to this. For most of my life, I’ve criticized and complained about the way things are or were. This is one of the few things that poses some solutions, not just the criticisms.

On how Graves brought Schub into the practice “kicking and screaming”:

Schub: Cheryl was the one that introduced me to this, and I was like, “Bull shit. I’m here to represent my clients. Some things are right, and some things are wrong, what’s the point of discussing it?”

I was at a community panel and there was this little kid, about 10 years old, being charged with battery of a police officer. He was protecting his sister from her boyfriend who was beating her up. The cops were called and they came in and picked up the kid, and he kicked the cop in the balls. They charged him with battery. I was furious. At the panel, one of the people said to him, “You went to protect your sister and that’s really good and important. But you’re an African American young man and there are things you’ll learn about dealing with police.” I thought about how that would have never been acknowledged in court, and about the compassion and wisdom of the community. Eventually I thought, “there’s something about [restorative justice] that makes a lot of sense.”

On the importance of community buy-in:

Graves: I’ll never forget, I was in Austin at a community meeting talking about creating new programs to keep young men out of the system and bring them back to community. One man came up to me and said, “You work for Northwestern, one of those big, white institutions that does research on black people and we die.” I said, “Right now, it isn’t about doing research on black people and them dying, we are dying in the system.”

Now, he is getting an attitude and I’m getting an attitude. I remember thinking, “I’m a sister from the South Side, can’t you just go on the strength of the idea?” It was an awful experience but really important because he was saying, “We don’t know you and you aren’t asking us if we like the idea—you are telling us it is a good idea and that we should get involved.” He said I needed to talk to people and get to know the community. He was so right; it didn’t matter what I thought. They are the community and they are the people impacted.

(Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo)

(Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo)

I called [a mentor] crying and she said, “Cheryl, you are thinking juvenile justice but people don’t live in silos. Yes, my son is in the system but I have one that is sick and needs medical care, I have one that is not doing well in school, and I’m not sure how I am going to meet the rent this month. What you are talking about is important but it’s not the whole thing. People want you to recognize that they are dealing with the whole thing because they are whole people, and that you care about them, not just pushing your idea.”

She said, you show up, you come to meetings without any agenda. Just be there. That’s what I did, I just met people as people. That’s exactly what peace circles are: talking about relationships, not the issue at hand. You eventually get to the issue.

On the challenges of using restorative justice in the court system:

Schub: The court system isn’t about healing or relationships. There are three questions always asked in the criminal law system: Is there a crime that was committed? Who committed it? What can we do to punish the person? In restorative justice we instead ask: Was there a harm? Who caused the harm? Who was harmed? How can we hold the person accountable? What can we do to make the community safer again?

When you look at a harm done, you need first to look at the four parts of a person: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. In our court systems, you just bring the mental and physical. In restorative justice you bring your whole self.

Courts take responsibility away from community, and that’s part of the problem. We see a problem, and instead of taking care of it ourselves, we turn it over to the so-called professionals. The best thing is to keep young people from getting arrested, and entering the system at all.

On measuring the success of restorative practices:

Graves: Say a young person hadn’t been going to school at all, and now is going two days a week. Does that matter? Or not at all because they’re not going all five?

Schub: It depends how we frame those [evaluation] questions. What it comes down to is, what do we want to accomplish? That should determine the questions we ask, and coming up with those questions should include everyone in circle.

On the title “grandmothers of restorative justice”:

Graves: That’s only because we’re old. Seriously.


This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Defender.

Communal Healing: Camesha Jones on mental health, violence, and innovation

Communal Healing: Camesha Jones on mental health, violence, and innovation

By Charles Preston

Camesha Jones was about to enter graduate school for a degree in social work when she began to experience symptoms of a mental illness. This “somewhat traumatic” experience with the mental health care system four years ago led her to found Sista Afya, a mental wellness organization for Black women, this year. She hopes the group can help others overcome the challenges she and her family faced while going through treatment.

Jones, twenty-six and living in Bronzeville, considers herself a social entrepreneur. Her group aims to destigmatize mental health and create a community of support by hosting events and providing online resources. On Veteran’s Day weekend, Jones and the Association of Black Psychologists co-organized Chicago’s first Black Mental Wellness Weekend, which included a series of panel discussions, a film screening, a reiki healing session, and a mixer for Black mental health professionals and potential clients. Several events were packed to capacity and Jones says she is eager to make it an annual event.

I sat with Jones before and after the inaugural event to hear her reflections on mental health in Chicago, Sista Afya, and the community model for black mental health. This is an edited transcript of our conversations.

Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo

Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo

What challenges have you encountered in working on Black mental wellness that led you to consider alternative approaches?

The way that mental health is approached is through behavior, which is not the best [approach]––particularly for Black folks. What we are experiencing is about way more than behavior. There’s so many factors: systemic, community-level, individual, generational family patterns. We have a long history of experiencing trauma.

I love Dr. Joy Degruy. She is known for [the theory of] Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome. She talks about how Black folks have never had a break to heal or develop in a way that they deserve and should because of the constant attack from white supremacy, racism, and other institutions.

With Black girls and boys, any time they are acting out or doing things outside of what makes people comfortable, it’s labeled as a “behavior problem.” What I understood working with young men is that they are expressing the pain they are experiencing in their communities.

What makes Sista Afya different from mainstream mental health care?

Sista Afya has a community support model that anchors mental wellness through community. Basically, no one is going through things alone. Whether it’s a support group or educational workshop, people are depending on each other.

Sista Afya pushes advocacy in our model as well—Black women being able to advocate for and amongst themselves for the wellness care they need. I’m still fine-tuning and developing this model.

I believe the people who are most affected by these conditions should be the leaders. I have a bipolar disorder, which is a very severe and serious mental condition. No PhD, no license can trump real experience. I believe that’s what makes Sista Afya a success. People hear my story and see where I stand today and go “Wow!” They understand I have bipolar but I maintain my mental wellness and practice what I’m preaching.

How does Chicago factor in what you see or work with daily? The city’s violence is always in the media and I wonder if that plays a role in mental health.

I’m not a Chicagoan. I wasn’t born here. But before I came to this city, I thoroughly studied its history. I’ve never seen a place where so many actions were taken to suppress Black people mentally through institutions. This affected family, then community, then individual.

The violence in Chicago is sensationalized. There is a good buck to be made off of violence and trauma. In the mental health field, people are making money off our pain. What better way to heal ourselves than to collectively come together, identify generational and community-level issues, and demand things from institutions that are complicit in our oppression?

What role do you think mental health plays in substance abuse?

Substance abuse is usually the expression of something someone is trying to avoid, something painful, or something traumatic. When someone uses heroin, they know that heroin isn’t good for them. When you think about the communities who have the most prevalent substance abuse, those communities usually don’t have the mental health resources or institutions that are needed to support full and healthy lives––things like a grocery store, jobs, and adequate housing. If you live in a community where you’re suffering from not having these things, you go to substances to sedate or express that pain.

Before the two-year Illinois budget impasse led to huge funding delays and other issues in the state’s health care system, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed six mental health clinics. Where can people go for assistance?

I’ll share a couple. Dr. Obari Cartman’s Association of Black Psychologists, Chicago’s Association of Black Social Workers, Breaking the Silence of Mental Health, Sista Afya, and Black Lives Matter Chicago Communal Healing are all partnering together to create a directory by the end of this year. People who live in Chicago can put in their ZIP code and find a Black practitioner in their area. I think that will help people to know what’s available. Someone can be providing mental health services right in your neighborhood and you may not even know it. Instead, you may think you have to go all the way downtown or outside of your community.

Of course, Sista Afya’s website is a resource: people can click on different topics that are particularly important to Black women and get an information sheet about resources that may benefit them. I would also say Psychology Today is another good resource for finding a therapist until we release our directory.

There are a couple of really good nonprofit organizations across the city such as Trilogy Behavioral HealthcareMetropolitan Family Services, and Thresholds. Those organizations are a lifeline for people who may not be able to afford insurance, providing high-quality mental health care. That’s a really big thing in our community. People don’t have insurance or they have Medicaid and cannot receive the best care they need.

Does the state owe us the mental health clinics and services? Absolutely. But we also know that history can repeat itself, and they can snatch it away at any time. We have to think about how we can rely on our own expertise and our own talents in our communities to make sure people are connected to resources to sustain mental wellness.

What would you like to see from the state? Can you think of new ways for the state to be impactful for community alternatives to traditional health care?

I think they failed already by trying to provide services through clinics that they can shut down at any time. We deserve and should demand that government fund mental wellness services, particularly through Black practitioners. But we also have to prepare when they don’t. This is the time for us to embrace something that will be long-lasting.

When I say “Sista Afya 2018,” what comes to mind?

Consistent presence. I think the first year of Sista Afya was a lot of figuring out the things people like and don’t like, while still staying true to what we want to provide to the community.

I want to make [Black Mental Wellness Weekend] an annual event, so every Veterans Day weekend people will know to clear their schedules. In the summer of 2018 we will be having the next Black Mental Wellness Expo. I’m also planning monthly events so people can stay plugged in through Sista Afya. Every month people can expect a workshop that is free or very low-cost.

I will also say, innovation. This year we tried to creatively think of ways that we can bring people together around mental wellness that is not intimidating, but fun, caring, and supportive. This will be another year of innovation.

Do you believe that we are getting better identifying mental health issues in our community?

Yes! I think the future’s very bright. Chicago has so many talented people that can address our community’s needs. People are talking about it.

When I first started Sista Afya, people would come up and say to me, “Well, what are you going to do about the stigma? How are you going to get people to come to your event?” So I thought about my own experience, about what pulled me into caring about mental health. I started to think, how can I make mental health fun, simple, accessible, and centered on us? Once you do that, people feel comfortable.

I think in Chicago people have been waiting for a movement, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.


This report was produced in partnership with the South Side WeeklyListen to an interview with Camesha Jones and Dr. Obari Cartman on the November 7 episode of SSW Radio, the Weekly’s radio hour on WHPK.

Who Are Assata’s Daughters? A Q&A with Founder Page May

Who Are Assata’s Daughters? A Q&A with Founder Page May

By Resita Cox

After Colin Kaepernick donated $25,000 this year to Assata’s Daughters, a Chicago-based organization, conservative news outlets across the country were quick to denounce the group that they said was named after a “cop killer.” Lost in that outcry was an examination of the two-year-old group’s actual activities: Kaepernick’s announcement stated that $2,500 would go toward the Cop Watch program, another $2,500 for a garden, $5,000 for a library and $15,000 for teen workshops.

Page May started Assata’s Daughters in 2015. After borrowing space from the University of Chicago, the group moved last month into its own building in Washington Park. May says the building is far from perfect—it still needs heating and has more construction to be done—but it is something they’ve never had, a home.

We caught up with her to talk about the group’s programming, approach and how it helps young people power the movement for Black lives.

Assata's Daughters founder Page May (Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo)

Assata's Daughters founder Page May (Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo)

What was the thought process that led you to create Assata’s Daughters?

I became aware of how important it was for young people to be able to participate in the movement for Black lives after organizing with a group called We Charge Genocide [which promoted youth voices in its work to bring attention to police violence against low-income community and young people of color]. There wasn’t an intentional space for young people to get involved with the movement that really centered their needs. So that was the idea.

Some call you a violence prevention group; some call you a Black liberation group. What do you do?

Assata’s Daughters is an organization that seeks to support and engage young people. It provides them with a political education and leadership development that is necessary for them to achieve the things that they want to see in their community.

What is your approach?

We meet young people where they’re at and then push. Young people need a lot of support and in order for them to be able to participate meaningfully in social change. We are connecting them to resources from expunging their record, to accessing housing and shelter, to help with getting a job.

Secondly, we believe in political education and that people have to get woke before they can get organized. We’re trying to help ground what many young people feel as frustration, rage and alienation by this world and in this city, and giving a historical context to those feelings.

Briefly explain the core programs of Assata’s Daughters

We have our juniors program, Akerele, which means one who is strong in spite of being small. That is our weekly political education program for Black girls, ages 6 to 12. Then we have Assata University, our year-round political education program for teens. Topics include environmental justice, Black history and the principles of Black feminism.

We have our leader circle: young people who meet weekly to work on organizing events for the community, organize parts of Assata’s University, do fundraising and also help organize and lead campaigns. Also, we have two community gardens and hopefully more next summer.

 You’ve mentioned that abolitionist politic is woven into Assata’s Daughters. What does that mean?

Right now we have a justice system where, when something goes wrong, your options are to call the police or do nothing. If you call the police, the best you can hope for is an answer to these questions: Who did it and how do we punish them?

Under abolition, we are fighting for a transformative justice model that asks new questions: Who is harmed, how do we help them and how to make sure that this never happens again? Those aren’t questions that get answered in our current system.

How do you make change happen?

Imagine our people, and let’s say they are stuck under a mountain. Let’s call that mountain slavery, or Jim Crow, or Chicago. No single person can move that mountain, but we are all stuck under it. We shake and we shiver, and then you get Harriet Tubman and she shakes it, and you get a small crack, and every single person that goes through her makes the crack bigger and bigger. It’s regular people putting tiny fractures into a mountain until it falls—that is how change occurs.

Assata Shakur, your group’s namesake, was a member of the Black Liberation Army who was convicted—some say wrongfully—of shooting a state trooper in 1973. What does her name mean to you?

Assata has a very important role in movement for Black lives. To me, she represents the radical struggle. She’s angry, she’s pissed off and she doesn’t trust the U.S. in ways that resonate with a lot of us. She fiercely loves her people and she is a political prisoner and a target because she is so powerful. She resists, she survives, she escapes and that is really important for Black people to know, that people have been able to do that.

The name of our group is trying to acknowledge a direct link to history, that the movement for Black lives is not new, neither in terms of the problems we are seeing nor the resistance. We get a lot of flack for it because people are ahistorical and afraid of Black liberation.

This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Defender.

Justice, Restored? New North Lawndale Court Aims to Change Punitive System

Justice, Restored? New North Lawndale Court Aims to Change Punitive System

By Jenny Simeone-Casas, Sarah Conway, and Resita Cox

North Lawndale native Derek Brown is walking on his old block on 18th and Avers on a balmy August evening. He passes the spot where he and two of his best friends wrote their names in wet cement. He points out the apartment where his grandmother was evicted when he was 8. He’s stopped every few minutes as people shout out warm greetings.

Most days, Brown is a restorative justice facilitator with St. Agatha Catholic Church. The main part of his job, like most restorative justice work, is running peace circles: voluntary group conversations, often in response to a disagreement or conflict. The circle is a safe space where all parties can discuss what happened and why, without interruption, in hopes of reaching a resolution together.

Mondays and Wednesdays he runs a boxing program out of his garage for roughly 15 neighborhood kids, also using peace circles and other restorative practices to help them avoid conflicts.

Members of the North Lawndale Boxing League line up arm-lengths apart before practice on August 9, 2017, in front of Derek Brown's garage. "I've got all the bad kids in the community, the so-called bad kids. Of course everyone want to learn how to fight especially in this environment. Young men have a harder time because of the trash they walk intoÓ Brown said. But they don't just learn how to fight. They learn how to respect themselves." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

Members of the North Lawndale Boxing League line up arm-lengths apart before practice on August 9, 2017, in front of Derek Brown's garage. "I've got all the bad kids in the community, the so-called bad kids. Of course everyone want to learn how to fight especially in this environment. Young men have a harder time because of the trash they walk intoÓ Brown said. But they don't just learn how to fight. They learn how to respect themselves." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

Brown knows that restorative justice works—it helped turn around his own life—but he’s skeptical about a new criminal court opening in his neighborhood that will use those practices to help people atone for their crimes and reintegrate into the community. He, along with other long-time North Lawndale residents, say the court organizers have not done enough to reach out to people who have lived in the area their whole lives.

At 16th Street and Harding Avenue, he stops to shake hands with a lanky guy in his twenties named Bollo. To illustrate his point, he asks if Bollo has heard about the court, and the younger man says no.

“He’s not aware of the restorative justice [court]—and he’s in the community every day,” Brown said, pointing to Bollo. “This is the community right here.

It’s an ongoing problem for the court organizers, who have tried working with neighborhood groups to bring North Lawndale residents into the process. They say it’ll be a boon to the community to have a less punitive, more productive way of addressing crime, compared to incarceration or fines. They want to shift the way neighborhood residents and key players in Chicago’s criminal justice system think of justice. But even as the court begins taking cases, it faces two major hurdles: authentically engaging North Lawndale residents and raising enough money so that the court can serve them well.

The Challenges

The phrase “building the plane while it flies” has been used by numerous organizers to describe the opening of Illinois’s first Restorative Justice Community Court. Progress has come in fits and starts since planning began in 2014, thanks to problems finding a location for the court, losing and replacing key staff and ideological disagreements between court organizers. After delaying the planned opening earlier this year, the court set up shop on the UCAN campus on August 31. That first day, there were no cases on the docket.

“We’re trying to do something very different. You can’t just jump from doing same-old, same-old to something completely different,” said presiding Judge Colleen Sheehan on the anticlimactic opening after three years of planning.

What’s so different? The court will hear cases for low-level crimes (non-violent misdemeanors and felonies) for defendants ages 18 to 26 from the neighborhood. Instead of facing a trial and a prison sentence, they sit through a peace circle with a facilitator, the victim of the crime and other North Lawndale residents, to talk about what happened and why. Together they decide how the defendant can remedy the harm he or she has caused in the community—for example, through a drug rehabilitation program, a GED program, or job training. People who successfully navigate this court will have the charges wiped clean.

In the court’s second week, Sheehan heard two drug possession cases. Both defendants agreed to participate in the court and will be entering the private peace circle process in the coming weeks. On week three, Sheehan dropped both defendants’ electronic monitoring and invited them to join a court alumni board. There they could offer guidance to newer defendants. “I’m really interested in what you think,” said Sheehan.

Now open every Thursday, the court was designed so there’d be no separation between judge, court personnel and defendants—everyone sits around the same table. There are no jail cells where people await judgment, no one arrives in handcuffs, and everyone at the table introduces themselves before proceedings begin. Defendants are given time to ask questions and meet with their lawyers for legal counsel. There is no physical barrier blocking defendants from their family members and loved ones.

It’s a far cry from the high tension and rushed proceedings of the Cook County Criminal Court at 26th and California. Still, it’s hard for some long-time restorative justice practitioners to swallow. Restorative justice, they say, is about figuring out what people feel and having everyone move together toward a solution. Getting charged with a crime is not supposed to be part of that process; it changes the nature of the situation, creating disparate levels of power that are anathema to peace circles.

“The rush to set up the court has [shortchanged] the process of building trust between a system and a community that’s been hurt by that system,” said Elena Quintana, the executive director of Adler’s University’s Institute of Public Safety and Social Justice. Quintana and her team monitor and evaluate a network of North Lawndale organizations using restorative practices (better known as the Restorative Justice Hub). “They really need more time to build a relationship, goodwill and vision between those two entities,” she said.

Fred Cooper has seen the community engagement efforts and planning meetings firsthand at St. Agatha, where he’s worked for three years as a peace circle facilitator.

“Honestly, I just think we’re not all on the same page here. It’s all over the place,” Cooper said of the court’s launch.

Some St. Agatha staffers are working with the court, but Brown and Cooper have stayed on the periphery.

“[Restorative justice] means too much to me,” Cooper said, adding that he doesn’t think it can operate freely within the criminal justice system. With this court, he feels the peace circles become “mandatory,” since defendants will choose it as an alternative to incarceration, regardless of whether they want to repair the harm they’ve caused.

Community Involvement

Over the past three years, court organizers tried to reach out to North Lawndale residents to get them involved in setting up the court. Employees of the Lawndale Legal Christian Center ran a door-knocking campaign to spread the word, held community meetings and focus groups, trained residents in circle-keeping and hired liaisons who already practice restorative justice in the neighborhood.

And the court has community partners, like Cliff Nellis, executive director of the Lawndale Christian Legal Center (LCLC) who joined the effort early as a main organizer. They also reached out to community leaders, like Pastor Phil Jackson, who were too busy with their own programs to get involved. The founder and executive director of the Firehouse Community Arts Center, Jackson sees the court as a second chance for people who are arrested for small-time crimes, who would otherwise end up incarcerated. “There are people who really, really need it,” Jackson said, adding that the court needs more consistent engagement to win over a skeptical community.

And while Jackson is not involved, he’s helped the court find a case for last year’s pilot program: 21-year-old Manny, a North Lawndale resident, avid chess player and aspiring accountant.

Manny displays his hands for a portrait on September 5, 2017 after work. An ex-boxer in his youth, he considers himself more of a chess player these days. "Chess makes you think about the situation you are in and what you can do to get out," Manny said. "It makes you think ahead. You can't just go off top and do the wrong move because it can hurt you." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

Manny displays his hands for a portrait on September 5, 2017 after work. An ex-boxer in his youth, he considers himself more of a chess player these days. "Chess makes you think about the situation you are in and what you can do to get out," Manny said. "It makes you think ahead. You can't just go off top and do the wrong move because it can hurt you." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

Manny met Jackson when he got involved in after-school programs at the Firehouse when he was 17. Last year he was arrested on a weapons charge and spent four months in Cook County Jail until Jackson connected him and his family with the LCLC. (His lawyers asked to omit his last name to protect his privacy.)

Manny doesn’t use the phrase “restorative justice” when he describes his experience in the pilot, but he appreciated the peace circles. “We talk about life and what’s going on, what you can do to be yourself and make you better,” he said. “Peace circles teach lessons. I learned not to be cool, don’t go off top, think before you move, just like chess.”

Now, Manny is on probation, working a job that he found through the LCLC. While he wouldn’t have qualified for the now-launched court (his weapons charge is considered a violent crime), he thinks it’s a positive addition to his community.

“[In regular criminal court,] the state is against you, they’re trying to get you locked up, they ain’t trying to help you because they’re getting paid off you coming to court every day,” Manny said. “At the Restorative Justice Court, they’re trying to help you, they want you to do peace circles and whatever the victim wants you to do.”

“[But] the state’s still making money off you,” Manny continued after a pause. Despite their better intentions, the court is still a court, and it’s still part of a criminal justice system.


Quintana, one of the court’s biggest supporters, says another monumental challenge for the court is to get enough funding.

“There’s so much will to do restorative justice work—as long as it’s tiny and isn’t funded properly,” she said. “It’s like someone saying, ‘I’m going to fund all of the drywall and wood and I want you to build a house.’ And you end up building a shell of a house because you don’t have the nails, or the wiring, or the paint, or the roofing. That’s what we are doing with this Restorative Justice Community Court.”

The LCLC’s Nellis, a court organizer, said it would cost about $2 million to operate at full capacity for the first year. A month later, though, after the court had opened, Nellis walked that figure back, noting that it would depend heavily on the number of defendants and the types of services they need. Though the court received a $200,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant awarded through the Center for Court Innovation last year, Nellis is still fundraising.

“The grant is not much. It doesn’t fund [peace] circles, wraparound services, the judge, the state’s attorney, the public defender, none of the staff,” Nellis said.

Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Timothy Evans, explains his plans to bring Restorative Justice to other South Side communities. Accredited as one of the pioneers of the Restorative Justice Community Court, Evans explains the need for an alternative court, "I have to admit that the system that the larger community has embraced in the past has not worked," he said. "We've tired arresting these young people, prosecuting them, they have been convicted, incarcerated, but the recidivism rate does not go down. We need something new." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Timothy Evans, explains his plans to bring Restorative Justice to other South Side communities. Accredited as one of the pioneers of the Restorative Justice Community Court, Evans explains the need for an alternative court, "I have to admit that the system that the larger community has embraced in the past has not worked," he said. "We've tired arresting these young people, prosecuting them, they have been convicted, incarcerated, but the recidivism rate does not go down. We need something new." (Sebastian Hidalgo)

The grant funded the salary, travel and evaluation of the court’s first coordinator. For everything else, the court has had to rely on other sources, like the Steans Family Foundation, which funded consultants to establish a steering committee, a practice and procedure manual and part of the pilot program, to test collaboration between local nonprofits serving the court, Nellis said.

Cook County also pitched in a $100,000 to help fund the pilot program, but it could not commit to funding the actual court, Nellis said. But the county funds the personnel (like the judge and court reporter) who would be employed by the court whether or not the restorative justice program was in place.

Cook County’s Chief Judge Timothy Evans, one of the driving forces behind the court, hopes to absorb its costs into the Cook County budget eventually, and expand the model beyond the West Side—if the first year goes well.

“This is just the start,” Evans said to a crowd of court personnel and media gathered for the press conference announcing the court back in July. “Englewood, we are on our way! Roseland, we are on our way!”

But the court’s opening reveals a cautionary tale. If North Lawndale is an iceberg, court organizers say they have only grazed the tip. To go into new neighborhoods, the work increases exponentially.

The greater goal, ensuring that ownership shifts away from organizers to community members, is even harder, according to Father Larry Dowling, a pastor at St. Agatha and a member of the court’s steering committee.

“From Derek [Brown]’s perspective and my own, it’s like, how do we get people who we wouldn’t normally see?” said Dowling, adding that the court has operated at a shallower definition of “community.”

“But the deep dive? We’re not there yet. It is that deep dive that we need to do.”

This report was produced in partnership with the Chicago Defender.

Seeking a Home, Without a Country

Seeking a Home, Without a Country

Amina and her children (Daniel Rowell)

Amina and her children (Daniel Rowell)

By Sarah Conway

Asylum seekers occupy the uncertain ground between outsiders and refugees. Unlike refugees, who are pre-screened by the government and can access public assistance upon arrival, asylum seekers find their own route to the U.S.—sometimes illegally, sometimes by visa—and are ineligible to receive any government assistance while awaiting a decision on their cases.

The denial of federal benefits, such as food assistance, paired with long delays and denials of the right to work leaves the United States alone among developed countries in its treatment of asylum seekers, according to a 2013 Human Rights Watch report, “At Least Let Them Work.”

Many arrive with little to no savings, and it can take up to three years for asylum cases to process, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; it used to take just six to eight weeks. The delay is the result of a perfect storm that has clogged the U.S. asylum system since 2014: an influx of Central American immigrants and an ongoing global refugee crisis driven by the Syrian Civil War. Even acquiring the right to work can be a struggle: Asylum seekers in the United States are prohibited from working until at least 180 days have passed (150 days after filing and 30 days of filing) since they submitted the asylum application, unless they are granted asylum sooner.

“Our system is inhumane,” laments Melanie Schikore, the executive director of the Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants in Mount Greenwood. “It leaves an asylum seeker with the choice between homelessness while their case processes, or working unauthorized which can jeopardize a pending case,” says Schikore. For just over three years, her organization has provided housing and support to asylum seekers and refugees through the Marie Joseph House of Hospitality for Women in Hyde Park as well as a men’s home in Cicero.

Asylum seekers from Africa have been hit especially hard in Chicago. They disproportionately make up seventy percent of all participants at centers like Heartland Alliance’s Kovler Center, which predominantly serves asylum seekers with active cases in Chicago. Over fifty-five percent of Kovler Center’s clients are homeless at intake, and four out of the top five countries of origin are in sub-Saharan Africa.

These are three stories of Africans caught up in the asylum seeker housing crisis.

Names and certain details of these stories have been changed to protect the identity of asylum seekers with active cases.

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Amina is an asylum seeker from Somalia living in West Ridge. She’s been waiting six months for her work permit to arrive so she can work to pay her rent.

I want you to know that an asylum seeker is someone that is forced out by circumstance. No one leaves their home without the fear of what’s behind them. Somalia had no peace, and there was a different kind of suffocation in the refugee camp in Djibouti. The trauma from your past is baggage you bring with you to America, too, and it finds a way to creep back into your life.

I came to Chicago during a cold December in 2016 with my two children, ten-year-old Mohammad and eight-year-old Zahra, with nothing. We didn’t even have coats. We floated from sleeping on the streets in West Ridge to staying with Somali families who would throw down a mattress for us in their basement laundry rooms during the winter. Every week we would move to a new place, and sometimes that was outside. For me, that feeling of being alone in the darkness of the laundry rooms where we slept triggered my memories of what I ran from in Somalia.

I didn’t anticipate the problems I faced here. I knew no one, but I thought at least I was coming to a country run by a developed government. But there was no help from the government. I found myself on the street roaming from place to place.

This had an impact on my children. Every day I would walk Mohammed and Zahra to school, but with no steady place to live, their grades would drop. At the same time, I wasn’t allowed to work to get money to provide for us. This stress took a toll on my mental health and morale.

In the beginning I was so depressed. In my heart, I would ask myself, “Why aren’t people helping me?” But today, I realize there are so many good people who have helped me along the way—you can call them good Samaritans. When I moved into this basement, it was empty with just two mattresses on the ground. Now, it is furnished. Just yesterday, volunteers were here visiting me. These people really changed how I view my life now in America.

But the biggest thing I can celebrate is the therapy and medical treatment that I have received at Kovler Center. It’s helped me regain my faith in humanity. Once I get my work permit, I will be able to provide for my own children. I dream of studying very hard and becoming a nurse. That’s my goal in America: to educate my children and myself.

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rowell asylum 2.png

Paul left his country of Congo Brazzaville twenty years ago after his parents disappeared. After he settled in Canada to pursue his PhD, his wife was deported from their home due to a visa renewal delay stemming from a university strike. Paul says his wife’s deportation triggered his past trauma of losing his parents to state violence. Paul, who is now in his forties, sought asylum in the U.S. and spent nine months in an Uptown homeless shelter with two young children and an infant.

Always I saw the only way to make my life better was to study. So I kept studying and working to achieve my two master’s degrees in chemistry and biochemistry of natural products, then I moved on to acquire my PhD in Canada.

Everything changed when I started to struggle with my PhD scholarship. Because of issues outside of my control, my wife was deported to Congo Brazzaville from Canada. A particular judge decided that she had to be deported because of issues that arose from my student visa. It was a black situation.

I’ve always carried the trauma of my parents’ disappearance; I spent twenty years without my family, so I had tried to create a new family with my wife, and then government was again shattering everything that I had built, only this time it was in Canada. In my mind, I thought, this is a cycle. I arrived in Chicago with a baby, a five-year-old, and a seven-year-old, with no mother. Imagine your kids asking, “Where is Mom?” 

For me, the asylum process has been a jump into the unknown. There you are floating around in the darkness, looking, but every possible door feels blocked. You don’t have a work permit and you don’t have housing. You have nothing.

At first we stayed at a hotel downtown, but at $300 a day I realized we couldn’t stay there, and the only option was to go to a shelter. I heard to head to Uptown for temporary housing. I remember arriving there on a Friday, and on Monday I had a meeting with the case manager who said we could stay for a few months.

For me it was great, but for my kids it was crazy. They lived in better conditions in Canada. All we had now was a single room with four beds and one space for baggage and clothes. They would say, “Dad, are you sure we are in the right place? Why are we in a small room with many beds and everyone around us is screaming and making noises? It’s like they are sick.”

You see real life in a shelter. It’s a place where you can see every level of society, and their struggle.

Everything changed when I met a man who had heard about my qualifications. He called me one day and said, “Oh my god, you are not in a good place. The U.S. should really want you here with your skills.” I said, “No, sir, I’m really here in the shelter.” He discovered that I have more than fifteen years’ experience leading labs, and I was researching cosmeceuticals, a sort of marriage between cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, in Canada. He told me, “I have the money and you have the brain. Let’s start a business.”

Now, I live in a home with my children and I’m a cofounder, principal scientist, and the doctor of our lab in the northwest suburbs. I have Americans working for me, and I pay their salaries. I’m doing cosmetics and I’m working with the FDA to make natural products. I love this work.

I’m waiting for my asylum interview these days. After I get asylum, I will apply for my wife to come. When she is here it will be the best thing for everyone. For my kids, and for her, too.

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Imam Ousmane Drame

rowell asylum 3.png

Ousmane Drame is an immigrant from Mali and the imam of Masjid Al Farooq, a mosque that has served African immigrants and African American in Calumet Heights since 2002. As a community and spiritual leader, he has provided emergency housing for asylum seekers predominantly from West Africa for the past ten years.

We had no plan in mind to host asylum seekers. It just sort of happened. The houses were intended for people coming from the prison system who were struggling at finding housing and reintegrating into the community. Although the reasons behind the problems of these two groups might be different, at the end of the day they are facing the same issue: they have no place to live.

If someone has West African blood, any mosque in the city will tell them to go to Imam Ousmane on the South Side. Our first asylum seeker found me in 2007. She was running from government persecution in the Ivory Coast, and I thought to myself, we can’t turn her away, so I found a space for her.

Asylum seekers are often nervous and scared. Many of the asylum seekers we have helped are running from oppressive governments, slavery, female genital mutilation, and forced marriages.

I’ve seen with my own eyes the massive delays in the asylum system. It went from nine weeks to two or three years to get your call. We tell asylum seekers they have six months here so they don’t feel too comfortable, but in the end, we would never ask them to leave. Where would they go?

The housing helps them to some extent, but it isn’t the same as if they had a professional therapist or psychologist. At the end of the day, I’m an imam and I can treat the spiritual aspect, but there is a lot of mental trauma too, just like our brothers from the prison system.

Now, I’m overseeing six houses with about twenty-six formerly incarcerated Muslims and eleven Muslim asylum seekers about four blocks from the mosque. All this housing was funded by Muslims in the Chicago area.

Nine out of ten times, when they get asylum, they get work and they move on. It makes me feel good because at least we were able to help someone become self-sufficient.

This report was produced in collaboration with the South Side WeeklyAdditional reporting by Timna Axel and Ryan Cortazar of the Police Accountability Collaborative.

A Taste of West Africa on the South Side

A Taste of West Africa on the South Side


For many West African immigrants, neighborhoods like Chatham, South Chicago, and Bronzeville are becoming a home away from the North Side nucleus of the African immigrant community. Five West African immigrant business owners share how food is a bridge to preserve their culture and build new homes on Chicago’s South Side.

Mariam and Ade Lala, owners of Southside African Restaurant

Mariam and Ade Lala, owners of Southside African Restaurant (Sarah Conway)

Mariam and Ade Lala, owners of Southside African Restaurant (Sarah Conway)

Restaurant owners Mariam and Ade Lala are determined to live the American Dream without sacrificing their Nigerian identity. “I feel American now, I really do, but at the same time at home and in my restaurant, I’m one-hundred percent Nigerian,” explains Mariam as she sits with her husband Ade in a bright orange booth at Southside African Restaurant, with the sounds of ping-pong and customers chatting in Yoruba in the background. “The generosity and love of our culture is something we are trying to bring with us to South Chicago.”

Business isn’t just about selling food they love: they want to build community. “During the summertime, we are all out in the parking lot next to the restaurant grilling, playing Nigerian music and just making people feel comfortable in their own spaces,” explains Ade.

But it wasn’t always that way. “When I was opening this business, I didn’t have a lot of money to start but I wanted to take a chance that the neighborhood would love our food,” Ade said. It seems to be working: now, most customers are locals looking for a taste of the African diaspora on a plate, he said.

Nigerians make up the bulk of catering orders for naming ceremonies and birthdays, and they often visit for grilled suya, a spicy shish kebab, in the adjacent parking lot during the summer. With more and more West African families moving to the South Side, Mariam and Ade feel this growing community needs more unity. “Look at the journey from here to Africa. How can we migrate out here and not be together?” said Mariam.

Southside African Restaurant, 8311 S. Baltimore Ave. Monday-Saturday, 10am-10pm. (872) 666-5588.

Alioune Diagne, owner of Mandela African Caribbean Grocery

Alioune Diagne, owner of Mandela African Caribbean Grocery (Sarah Conway)

Alioune Diagne, owner of Mandela African Caribbean Grocery (Sarah Conway)

Alioune Diagne is often on the phone bouncing between his native Wolof and French, taking orders for fresh baguettes.

“French bread is very important for West African immigrants because of the influence France had during colonialism. It’s become a regular part of our diet, and for Malians, Senegalese, or Cote d’Ivoirians living on the South Side, my shop provides it fresh,” says Diagne as he hands a large fresh loaf to a Togolese customer at his African grocery on 79th Street.

He says almost all his customers are West Africans living in the area looking for specialty items like Dutch Calvé mayonnaise. “It has this very particular taste that they are missing from home, and at the end of the day I’m in the business of selling items that make people feel like home,” says Diagne. His two-room shop is filled with popular items like dried baobab fruit, tangy gari flour, and dried hibiscus leaves.

Food is a bridge for memories and traditions from West Africa; Diagne says: “You can immigrate to a new country but there are foods that are a part of you.”

Mandela African Caribbean Grocery, 722 E. 79th St. Monday-Saturday, 9am-8:30pm. (773) 723-2111.

Boyede Sobitan, co-founder of OjaExpress

Boyede Sobitan, co-founder of Oja Express (Sarah Conway)

Boyede Sobitan, co-founder of Oja Express (Sarah Conway)

“How do you tell if your yam is good?…You check the ends, feel for any brown soft spots, and cut into the middle to make sure they aren’t spoiled,” says Boyede Sobitan as he eyes a mound of leathery Ghana yams in the back corner of La Fruteria grocery in South Chicago.

Yams aren’t cheap, and he only wants to select the best for OjaExpress, his grocery delivery app that specializes in African and Caribbean ingredients, largely sourcing from local shops like La Fruteria. It’s an endeavor Sobitan co-founded in 2015 to help African families find cherished food items like ground ogbono seeds or palm oil on the South Side.

Coming from a Nigerian immigrant family himself, Sobitan grew up frequenting the city’s multicultural groceries that allow African families to prepare traditional food like egusi stew at home. Though these stores are a “happy place” for him, he says they aren’t always accessible for busy moms or professionals who don’t have time to drive to the far north or south of the city.

With OjaExpress, Sobitan says the growing African and Caribbean population no longer has to scour the polar ends of the city for ingredients to make the dishes they love.

Order online at 472-1180.

Adama Ba, owner of Gorée Cuisine

Adama Ba, owner of Gorée Cuisine (Sarah Conway)

Adama Ba, owner of Gorée Cuisine (Sarah Conway)

Before Adama Ba opened Gorée Cuisine, his airy restaurant with honey-colored walls in Kenwood, he already served the Senegalese community as a tailor and clothing store owner.

“Imagine fitted, elegant clothing in unique cuts with brilliant colors,” Ba says, referring to the Ankara maxi skirts and other contemporary Senegalese styles that he still sells at a storefront next to his new restaurant.

Last December, Ba opened Gorée Cuisine, serving up bold dishes like chicken yassa and tiebu djenne, the national dish of Senegal made of rice, yams, cabbage and fish. His inspiration comes from his home on Gorée, a tiny forty-five-acre island just two miles from Dakar where roughly twenty million Africans were sold into slavery. The island, now popular as a pilgrimage site for diaspora tourists, was a natural bridge to Ba’s new life in Chicago.

“When I moved to the South Side, I felt that I already had this deep connection from Gorée island,” he explains. “For me, I see the South Side as a beacon of Black culture and art, and Gorée was the last part of Africa that many African Americans experienced before the journey to the Americas.”

There’s a growing Senegalese community on the South Side, Ba says, from hair braiding shops to restaurants. With two storefronts in Kenwood, he hopes he has planted a seed for a community center. “I would love for a Little Africa to be on 47th,” Ba says. “Maybe it will happen one day.”

Gorée Cuisine, 1126 E. 47th St. Monday-Sunday, 8am-10:30pm. (773) 855-8120.

It’s Been One Year Since Mayor Emanuel Put a “Down Payment” on Police Reform

It’s Been One Year Since Mayor Emanuel Put a “Down Payment” on Police Reform


One year ago today, a scathing report on the state of the Chicago Police Department was released to the public. Among its many explosive findings, the mayor-appointed Police Accountability Task Force found that “CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”

A week after that, Mayor Rahm Emanuel proclaimed that the city was placing a “down payment” on police reform—committing to 25 of the 126 recommendations made in the report—but, according to members of the task force, legal experts, and other local leaders, that payment has not been made in full.

Of the 25 items Emanuel promised to implement “immediately,” nearly half have been put into play, according to an analysis by City Bureau, a nonprofit journalism group. Some critical changes have shown success, but many have been stymied.

The city acknowledges the completion rate doesn’t look great, but emphasizes that it is committed to a sustained effort. “I think you could look at this and say ‘barely half are implemented,’ but what you want to look at is that the from the very beginning, [we’ve been] committed to engaging on these reforms and making them happen,” Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp said. “If you look at the body of work, a significant number are implemented, the majority of the rest are underway and there’s been a clear commitment to get them done.”

Below is a synopsis of where the city has made substantial progress, where it has failed, and where it is stuck in limbo, collected from City Bureau and Invisible Institute’s “One Year Later” Tracker, an annotated version of the mayor’s 25 proposed reforms that is open to public comment.

Now in Play

Progress within the department’s Crisis Intervention Team training (to help officers approach mental health situations) is “encouraging,” according to Alexa James, the executive director of National Association on Mental Illness and a former Police Accountability Task Force member.

“They’re taking the [Department of Justice] report seriously,” James says. “People may be frustrated because training has slowed down, but it’s because they’re not doing a Band-Aid fix just to get numbers up. They’re building a foundational team.”

That team includes a new leader, 16-year CPD veteran Lt. Antoinette Ursitti, more sergeants, more community partners, and more officers engaged with the program on a volunteer basis. But when it comes to the raw numbers promised by the mayor in April 2016, James says the department’s 30 percent certification goal is unlikely to be met by the end of 2017.

Three other items that are either implemented or underway include expanded use of body cameras, the development of an Early Intervention System to find and retrain officers that are likely to commit misconduct, and the recording of all Bureau of Internal Affairs interviews, according to Karen Sheley of the American Civil Liberties Union and the CPD’s March 2017 “Next Steps for Reform” report.

Likewise, Chicago Survivors executive director Susan Johnson says that “things are going extremely well with CPD” when it comes to providing relief for Chicago families affected by homicide through the nonprofit’s support and training.

“We prize our relationship with the CPD,” she adds. “I’d call it a good and complex relationship. I think we’ve been making some good progress.”

Stalled or Unknown

According to two members of the Police Accountability Task Force who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak on the issue, many of the city’s promises on increased oversight, transparency, and rebuilding trust within communities have lagged.

The reason, the task force members say, is due to an apparent drop in federal pressure and employment turnover within the department, including the unexpected departure of Emanuel’s handpicked reform czar, Anne Kirkpatrick, in January.

A clear example is the CPD’s third-party misconduct hotline that would allow police officers to make anonymous complaints within the department. Though the hotline is ready and was supposed to go live on April 3, it is currently awaiting CPD approval, according to former task force member Inspector General Joe Ferguson: “At CPD’s request, we have invested months into creating a completely anonymous hotline. We are waiting for CPD to tell us when they are ready to go live,” he says.

CPD says it’s looking ahead despite the setbacks. “The reforms we have made over the past year are built on the principles of partnership and trust between our residents and our officers, and they laid the foundation for the 2017 reform plan we outlined just a few weeks ago,” says CPD spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. “Reform is in our self-interest and that is why Chicago has been, is, and always will be committed to reform.”


Since promising to issue quarterly progress reports, the city has failed to update Chicago residents on a number of changes within the department, including those that will be influenced by this summer’s union contract negotiations.

But it’s not just the public that’s been left out of the loop; despite convening the Police Accountability Task Force in 2016, Emanuel hasn’t reconvened the full group since it released its report, according to one unnamed task force member, who is surprised that the mayor did not approach the group to discuss best practices, considering the amount of time and effort put into researching the report.

When it comes to the mayor’s reform promises: “There were a lot of omissions. For example there’s nothing [there] relating to the various collective bargaining agreements, which the mayor continues to be silent on,” task force chair and Chicago Police Board president Lori Lightfoot says.

(Still, Lightfoot says it’s important to look beyond the mayor’s 2016 list to see where the city has made major changes to the police department, including the creation of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which passed City Council in October.)

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Internal Affairs, which reviews the majority of police misconduct complaints, “remains a big black box,” Lightfoot adds. “One of the problems is [that] BIA puts out so little information publicly. CPD is going to produce an annual report, but what about BIA? It should be putting out info on a quarterly basis just like [its civilian counterparts] will be doing.”

Also of note, the Trump administration’s decision to ”pull back” on civil rights probes of police departments, including Chicago, decreases the external pressure for CPD to make substantive changes. CPD produced its 2017 roadmap for reform but “it’s unclear what the timelines are and who’s responsible for deliverables,” says the aforementioned task force member who asked not to be identified. Without that “we’ll run into the same problems… We need ownership, as in these are the deliverables and here are the benchmarks we’re going to hit.”

As the other unnamed task force member puts it, the most important failure has been the city’s lack of transparency, which “makes it so difficult for citizens to know where progress is being made.”

This report was produced in collaboration with Chicago MagazineAdditional reporting by Timna Axel and Ryan Cortazar of the Police Accountability Collaborative.

Northwest Incinerator Focus of Deep Reporting

City Bureau reporters are seeking community participation as they explore neglected industrial site

By Martha Bayne

Our team of four City Bureau reporters (Martha Bayne, LaCreshia Birts, Darien Boyd, and Amber Nuñez Colon) is focusing this spring on the site of the former Northwest Incinerator and the neighborhoods surrounding it.


We are intrigued that, despite the great deal of attention focused on the incinerator while it was active between 1971 and 1986, and its proximity to residential neighborhoods, community knowledge about this industrial site on the border of West Humboldt Park and Austin is so fractured. What it was once, what it is now, and what it could be in the future is, to many we spoke with, a source of mystery, confusion, or simply ancient history.

This spring we're meeting with local groups and other stakeholders to explore not just the site itself, but what it means to shape future development, who gets that access, and how it might be expanded. To start off we'll share five things we've learned so far.


1. The incinerator was a big deal at the time.

Opened in 1971 at 740 N. Kilbourn, the Chicago Northwest Waste-to-Energy Facility, aka the Northwest Incinerator, only operated for 25 years, but was, for a time, the largest incinerator in North America, capable of burning 400,000 tons of garbage a year. It was shut down in 1996, thanks to both pressure from local environmental activists, who responded in force after the incinerator failed Environmental Protection Agency testing in 1993, and the repeal that year of the controversial Retail Rate Law, which had provided a financial incentive to private incinerator operators. With that incentive gone, the cost of upgrading the incinerator to meet Clean Air Act standards proved prohibitive, and the facility was closed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

2. People lauded how environmentally friendly it would be.

When it opened, during the long tenure of Mayor Richard J. Daley, incineration of solid waste was believed to be an environmentally sound alternative to landfills, and the pollution-mitigating technology of the facility was state of the art for the time. But according to witness reports, the smoke from its chimneys often smelled extremely foul. Says Marie Henderson, longtime owner of Out of the Past Records at 4407 W. Madison, "I didn't notice when it shut down, I just noticed that the air got better." According to DePaul soil scientist James Montgomery, who visited the site in 1993, a visible layer of soot coated the ground and windows around the incinerator.

3. Lead contamination levels are extremely high in the neighborhood.

A study by the Center For Neighborhood Technology reports that in 1994 the facility's smokestacks emitted 17 pounds of lead per hour, and a health screening in Austin at the time found that 1,638 children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. We are still seeking information about lead levels in the soil around the incinerator site, but soil testing in the neighborhood the early '90s showed levels of lead high above EPA standards of contamination. Whether the lead came from the incinerator or from, say, lead paint chipping off nearby houses, is not known. We do know that lead levels in water fountains at nearby Orr Academy High School tested at 16 percent above EPA action levels last year; water at some area parks has tested as high as 100 percent above action levels.

4. The future of the site is in limbo.

Activists' hopes for the creation of a comprehensive recycling or composting facility on the site never came to fruition, though for a time the site was used as a sorting facility for the short-lived Blue Bag recycling program. Today the site is owned by the city, and used as a waste transfer station contracted to Marina Cartage. As recently as 2016 proposals were reportedly circulating among West Side business owners for possible mixed-use redevelopment at the site; the status of those plans is to date unknown.

5. It's sort of become a landmark.

The incinerator building itself was demolished in 2015 (see above video), but its towering twin 250-foot chimneys remain a striking local landmark. Said one area business owner we spoke with, "Those chimneys just say 'West Side'."

Intrigued? Get in touch.

What else should we know about the incinerator site? What would you like to know about it?

Share your memories of the Northwest Incinerator, and tell us what questions you want answered about its past, present and future: Text the word NORTHWEST to 312–697–1791.

On June 8 from 6-8pm, we'll host a public event at Inspiration Kitchens, 3504 W Lake St, aimed at reimagining the Northwest Incinerator site through community input. Join us.

This report was produced in partnership with Austin Weekly News.