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Sebastian Hidalgo

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.

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.