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Sarah Conway

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.”

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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.

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.

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

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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.

Inside Englewood’s Best Corner Store

Inside Englewood’s Best Corner Store


If Sami Deffala had more access to capital, he would swap out his simple bins of cabbage and sweet potatoes for real refrigeration units to carry more produce like mushrooms, mustard greens, and mangos.

“I would turn myself into a mini Whole Foods and customers would love it,” he says of his dream to reshape his shop, the Morgan Mini Mart, in the likeness of the newly arrived organic powerhouse chain.

Deffala, a South Side native who has been working the counter in Englewood corner stores for three decades, opened his own two-room shop on the corner of Morgan and 66th Street in 2003. Always dressed in untucked plaid button-downs, the 47-year-old usually stands behind his elevated counter—sometimes politely serving new customers, other times roasting regulars to a chorus of laughter as a steady stream of shoppers comes through. Other times Deffala leaves the register to prune disorder in his nearly immaculate shop; he adjusts a crooked box here, restocks cans of green beans there.

Corner stores, often portrayed as the heart and soul of the South and West Sides, were once vibrant community centers when they monopolized the grocery market after the flight of big box stores in the 1960s and 1970s. Residents became dependent on smaller stores, which later became notorious for having limited fresh food options, higher prices, and unpleasant environments.

Though Englewood often makes headlines for its gun violence and entrenched poverty, some residents see signs of a rebirth for the once-bustling economic center. Many corner store workers in the Englewood community say the glistening 18,000-square-foot Whole Foods embodies the change in shopping habits they have witnessed slowly over the years: less dependence on corner stores, higher expectations for quality service and products, and a slight shift toward healthier living.

“There are misconceptions about Englewood, as a whole, in Chicago,” says Deffala, who was born in Back of the Yards and worked for years at his father’s corner store, just a eight blocks north of Morgan Mini Mart. “Outside the neighborhood, most people think it is just a crime-ridden community and the people residing in it are just up to no good and don’t want anything positive in their lives. But that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” he says.

Now, more than ever, the neighborhood wants more out of life—and groceries, he says.

Sami Deffala, 47, has worked in Englewood corner stores for three decades.

Whole Foods arrived in September after planting stores in lower-income corners of cities like Detroit and New Orleans since 2013. Despite creating nearly 200 new jobs and attracting new businesses, like Chipotle and Starbucks, the $20 million Englewood Square development that contains Whole Foods still has some residents torn on whether the project will be positive for the community in the long run.

Most shoppers at Morgan Mini Mart said they had not visited Whole Foods, despite being just a 10-minute walk away. The same was true for customers interviewed at about a dozen other local corner stores this winter. Some harbored mixed feelings about the organic giant’s prices, in a community where 46 percent of households live below the poverty line, according to the 2015 American Community Survey. Though prices are significantly reduced from the numbers at, say, the Lincoln Park or West Loop location, they are often still higher than the nearby Aldi, which has operated in the neighborhood for 25 years and garnered a lot of shopper loyalty.

While Deffala’s customers recognize the benefit of having a high-end grocery store in a neighborhood that some consider a food desert, outreach to change the hearts and minds of an average Englewood customer has been lacking.

“I don’t know what the purpose is of Whole Foods opening here, but it’s not for the people,” says George Cruthird, a regular at Morgan Mini Mart who visited the Englewood Whole Foods and found himself disappointed in prices. Like many other residents interviewed, Cruthird believes the store is more of a trophy for Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his fight against the city’s food deserts than a community partner that will help Englewood grow.

Cruthird pops into Morgan Mini Mart several times a day for coffee, groceries, and conversation. “Sami is a witty guy and he means what he says, says what he means, and stands by his word—he is like me,” says Cruthird, whose friendly relationship with Deffala is a rarity in a neighborhood where there’s often tension between African American customers and predominantly Middle-Eastern, Muslim corner store owners.

While some Englewood corner stores are doing a great job, others can perpetuate vices in the neighborhood, slinging lottery tickets and booze, says Perry Gunn, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, a neighborhood nonprofit focused on improving the community’s quality of life. Common complaints about stores predominantly owned by Muslims from Palestine, Jordan, and Yemen, are that they only provide low-quality food and don’t take any ownership over their role in the community. “The reality is that Englewood is changing, and if you don’t improve your model, in time you will go out of business,” says Gunn. 

Customers say Deffala, who hosts a summer block party for his neighbors each year, is Englewood’s corner store king.

Customers say Deffala, who hosts a summer block party for his neighbors each year, is Englewood’s corner store king.

But there are two Englewoods—for some people, the corner store is all they have, says Shamar Hemphill, youth & organizing director of the nonprofit Inner-City Muslim Action Network, which works closely with corner store owners to improve community relations through a program called Muslim Run. IMAN’s research shows that about half of Englewood’s population visits a corner store daily.

“Without a doubt, there are people who are dependent on corner stores for food,” Hemphill says. People sometimes won’t travel too far for fear of getting caught in the neighborhood’s gun violence, fear of getting stopped by police, not having access to cars, as well as the simple convenience of proximity, he says. They’ve told Hemphill, “I don’t want to take two or three buses,” or “Three people just got shot down the block and I want the air to clear out a bit before I go to a new store.”

Of the 64 corner stores that are part of IMAN’s Muslim Run program, Morgan Mini Mart is the best, IMAN officials say.

Deffala’s loyal customers agree—they say he is Englewood’s corner store king—but the Palestinian American owner says he sees the writing on the wall.

Fewer customers are coming in to make big purchases, he says, so Morgan Mini Mart no longer has large grocery carts. More people are coming in to grab single staple items like a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread.

Though business is still good, these are all clues that his customers no longer rely on him for their primary source of groceries, Deffala says—but that’s not a bad thing. He knows that obstacles of space, capital, and financial risk hinder small family-owned corner stores from offering a healthy selection comparable to big box stores.

Deffala says IMAN’s Muslim Run program has helped him not just do better business but be a better Muslim, a faith that he says prescribes him to treat others fairly in both life and in business. “What we are trying to do as part of their program is let the customer know it’s OK to change old, unhealthy habits,” says Deffala, who holds a weekly cooking demonstration at his shop.

Muslim Run focuses on improving stores’ food and service, as well as their customer experience, he says. Deffala’s well-lit, 3,500-square-foot shop is often filled with incense. There is no cash register glass panel, a safety measure that Englewood residents say is frustratingly common. The street outside has garbage cans for customers. His biggest victory? Keeping away loiterers, a problem at many local shops, where patrons are uneasy about walking past groups of unfamiliar young men—female customers especially appreciate this courtesy, Deffala says.

“We have become not just like friends, but family,” says Deffala, who sometimes lends credit to customers who don’t have enough money to buy food for the week. “You feel good about helping that person. You feel bad about losing the money, but there are greater things at stake than money.” He even hosts a summer block party, something of a neighborhood customer appreciation day, where he grills up unlimited burgers and hot dogs while neighborhood kids enjoy rainbow-hued bounce houses and giant inflatable slides.

Despite the changing neighborhood, customers like Tiara Stewart, 19, and Delisha Reeves, 31, say they will keep coming. One December afternoon, they pass up several stores before darting into Morgan Mini Mart to grab tacos for lunch. Though they depend on Food 4 Less on Ashland and 71st Street for groceries, Morgan Mini Mart is still their choice for conveniently grabbing a few items.

Stewart and Reeves don’t shop at Whole Foods, but they love other new chain stores in the neighborhood, like Chipotle and Starbucks. “It’s the convenience of having everything you want and need now in one neighborhood. This just makes you feel proud of living here,” says Stewart.

Others say they will continue to depend on the corner store for the sense of community it provides, in a neighborhood where poverty, violence, and fear have severed many of the ties that bond people together. Sheila Prince, a 49-year-old Englewood native, says Deffala’s shop provides comfort and intimacy, in a space where the employees know her name.

“Sami is loved because he respects people. It’s all about respect in Englewood. We feel he isn’t just here to make a profit, but he is part of the community,” Prince says. “You really can’t find that everywhere.”

This report was produced in collaboration with Chicago Magazine.

Chicago's Cajun Connoisseur Serves Deliciousness and Opportunity

Chicago's Cajun Connoisseur Serves Deliciousness and Opportunity


Kyle Kelly is the co-owner and head chef of The Cajun Connoisseur. He's a self-taught Cajun chef starting out his second winter in the “deliciousness business” of Chicago’s food truck scene. With his crew of family on board, Kelly serves grits, jambalaya and po'boys, makes plans for his brick-and-mortar restaurant, and offers opportunities to young people from his Englewood neighborhood. But his mantra of good food and forgiveness can't prevent gun violence from touching his business and his life.

This story was produced as part of new collaboration between CHIRP Radio and City Bureau, a Chicago journalism lab. City Bureau reporter Sarah Conway worked with CHIRP producer Dan Epstein to create this day-in-the life radio portrait as part of City Bureau's fall 2016 cycle on Englewood's food desert. All photos by Sarah Conway.