Chicago has become notorious for its violence, and the neighborhood of Englewood on the city's South Side has more shootings than any other. So far this year, more than 260 people have been shot in this 45-block community. Forty-one of those people have died.
For more than a decade, I have been working in Englewood with at-risk youth who are involved in gangs and the juvenile justice system. For the past five years, I have lived in Englewood with my three children. Though almost every block belongs to a gang faction, I'm not at risk of becoming a target — though like everyone living here, I look out for stray bullets.
According to police, 80 percent of murders and shootings in Chicago involve youth and young adults in gangs. There is an epidemic here of young people dying on the streets or entering the juvenile and prison system, but it's not just happening in Chicago — it's happening in every inner city ravaged by drugs and violence.
Which is why we need to examine the answers to two important questions: What is it that causes young men to join and stay in gangs? And what is it that they are willing to kill, be killed, or go to prison for?
In 2003, I started interviewing gang members in Chicago's Harold Ickes Homes, then a public housing project home to a notoriously violent, highly structured criminal enterprise, and a place where gangs had control over entire buildings. Each time I asked a gang member why he stayed in the gang when he knew it would lead to death or prison, the answer always included two words — "love" and "respect."
I also observed a secondary emotional need the gang provided, something that was perhaps equally important: a purpose for living. When the gang members told me about their troubled childhoods, it was easy to connect the dots. If children mature in a home environment that doesn't provide these needs, they grow to become vulnerable to the lure of gangs, which fulfill not only those emotional requirements, but also provide opportunities to make money.
For less than $5,000 a year, young men stop working for the gangs and commit to changing their lives. It would cost $90,000 to incarcerate each of them for a year.
Chicago has more than 150,000 gang members. Say what you will, but the gang model works. So I realized the key to helping these kids and young adults — and, by extension, to helping reduce the amount of violence plaguing the city — was to duplicate the gang model. Just without the drugs, crime, and killing.
I had to first make the young men excited about it, so I surveyed many in Englewood in 2004 and asked them what would get them off the block. Boxing was the number one answer, and thus boxing became the first platform I used to attract gang-affiliated youth. Music eventually became the second platform. The model can be adapted to any activity or sport; the key is to stick to organic youth ownership and operation.
At Crushers Club, the pilot program and boxing gym we started, small groups of the youngest members are mentored by older youth, who are in turn monitored by young adult supervisors. We employ those leaders part-time for less than $5,000 a year, and they stop working for the gangs and commit to changing not only their own lives, but those of their peers.
It costs Illinois $90,000 to incarcerate a juvenile for one year.
The key is to provide that same sense of belonging, love, respect, and purpose that kept these young men in a gang — in other words, not just a paycheck, but access to a second family. And the commitment must be long-term; if we only have the young people for a couple of months or even a couple of years, they may stabilize during that time, but the gang will be waiting afterward.
Crushers Club redeems and employs high-risk and juvenile justice involved male youth to terminate them from and keep them off probation. We use the same motto as a gang: I live for you, I will die for you. Statistics show 85 percent of youth re-offend within 3 years in Illinois. But our early results show youth terminating off of probation, directing their time and focus to Crushers Club, and spending less time on the streets.
Sally Hazelgrove is the founder and executive director of Restoring the Path - Crushers Club. Follow Crushers Club on Twitter: @crushersclub