Day: July 9, 2018

Chicago Sun-Times: Initiative seeks to interrupt prison pipeline, help kids of incarcerated parents

“Without those supports, we start to see our young people go into these cycles, which makes what we’re doing so critical and imperative.”

This article and video appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 9, 2018. 

Ask those fighting intractable violence in some South and West Side Chicago neighborhoods, and they’ll tell you. With resources — education, jobs, mentoring or trauma counseling — youth can transcend any dysfunction.

It’s what activists like the Rev. Michael Pfleger, whose decades-long crusade against violence led to the weekend shut-down of the Dan Ryan, have long hammered.

Two women launching a new volley in that crusade are saying that as well.

But while naysayers might argue with solutions demanded by others, there’s no arguing with Liz Dozier, former principal of Fenger High School, and Nneka Jones Tapia, former executive director of the Cook County Department of Corrections, who have walked the path of the youth they are now targeting and climbed to professional peaks.

“Our primary focus is on children with incarcerated parents. That comes from my personal experience, as well as what I saw day in and day out at that jail,” Jones Tapia said.

The clinical psychologist was recently selected to head the inaugural “Leadership Venture” program of Dozier’s two-year-old organization, Chicago Beyond. It involves research and implementation of best practices supporting mental health of children of the incarcerated.

Statistically, some 2.7 million children nationally are separated from parents in prison, with one in nine African-American children separated from incarcerated parents, vs. one in 17 white children.

“The demand is so great,” said Jones Tapia, who as a child was separated from a father who did several prison stints for drugs.

“Those numbers are just the prison population. A lot of work is being done in prisons, but little is being done in jails. We don’t really know how many children are impacted by jail incarceration.”

Jones Tapia, who was warden at Cook County Jail until resigning in March for field work, is charged over the next 18 months with investigating the programs and capacity of organizations serving such youth, to help expand successful models and develop new ones to fill unmet need.

“It’s essentially a fellowship on steroids,” said Dozier, who left the Chicago Public Schools in 2015 to lead the organization supported by private investors, which funds organizations focused on youth education and safety, then partners with them to help them grow.

“Our Leadership Venture is an opportunity for an incredible leader to have not just monetary resources, but the full resources of Chicago Beyond behind them, to work on a problem that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention,” she said.

Chicago Beyond has invested $30 million in 12 community groups to date, partnering with the University of Chicago Urban Labs and other research organizations to measure impact, and share and expand best practices.

The Leadership Venture will now also fund the youth work of innovative individuals.

This first project is personal. Until the age of 5, Dozier too was separated from a father in prison, and drug addiction would take him out of her life again at age 13.

“My first memory of him is driving down with my mom to Joliet on weekends to see him. It wasn’t until he was released that I got to experience what it was like to have two parents in the home. Before that, I thought everybody visited a family member in prison on weekends,” she said.

“But I had my mom, my grandmother and my uncle, who provided this like wrap-around support,” added the educator who was thrust into the national spotlight in 2009 with the fatal beating of 16-year-old Derrion Albert outside Fenger, a video that went viral and brought the city and its school district international notoriety.

But it also brought a four-year federal grant that helped the new, young principal turn the school around — the drop-out rate going from 19 percent to 2 percent, and the graduation rate from 30 percent to 80 percent — in her six-year tenure.

“A lot of my students had parents who were incarcerated, but not every child had that family support. I saw firsthand the sense of loss that can be coupled with depression, sense of shame. There’s all these things that can be residuals,” she said.

“Without those supports, we start to see our young people go into these cycles, which makes what we’re doing so critical and imperative,” Dozier added.

And it’s those cycles that feed the school-to-prison pipeline, said Jones Tapia, who spent 11 1/2 years in the county corrections division. Sheriff Tom Dart drew national attention in appointing her warden in 2015, underscoring his complaint the jail had become “the largest mental hospital in the country.”

“The very people Liz was helping in their younger years, I saw matriculating into the criminal justice system,” Jones Tapia said.

“Any time we separate children from families, it’s traumatic to say the least. So building a strong support system for those youth is critically important, as is maintaining an ongoing bond with the incarcerated parent,” she said.

“While my father was incarcerated, my mother had to work two and three jobs. But I had the support of that village, and thankfully, my mom made sure we maintained that connection with my dad. With those two things, you can overcome many obstacles. So today, we’re saying to those youth, ‘You’re not alone. Many people want to see you succeed. We’re here. And we’re coming.’ ”

Chicago Beyond Launches New ‘Leadership Venture’ and Taps Mental Health Leader To Drive Change

Names Dr. Nneka Tapia as Inaugural ‘Leader in Residence’

Chicago Beyond today announced its newest initiative, the Leadership Venture, a fellowship for high-potential community leaders, focused on tackling significant challenges facing Chicago’s youth. The inaugural Leader in Residence is Dr. Nneka Tapia, a psychologist and the former Executive Director of the Cook County Department of Corrections. Throughout her career, Dr. Tapia has been driven by her own life experiences and passion for increasing mental health wellness for all people, especially those whose lives have been impacted by incarceration.

Over the next 18 months, in partnership with Chicago Beyond and the communities it serves, Dr. Tapia’s primary focus will be on young people whose parents have been incarcerated and what can be done to reduce the intergenerational cycle of incarceration, among other efforts. The venture will give Dr. Tapia the freedom and opportunity to leverage her expertise to create an impact for Chicago’s youth.

“There is power behind a woman who has left an indelible impact on the lives of those she serves – especially when she has walked in their shoes,” said Liz Dozier, Founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond. “Throughout her career, Nneka has applied creative and original thinking around solving complex challenges, and that is exactly the kind of ambition Chicago Beyond seeks to lift up in order to improve the life outcomes of our youth. Chicago Beyond is proud to invest in Nneka, an empathic and driven leader, to help build upon the important work of our community partners and improve mental wellness for young Chicagoans.”

Dr. Tapia is an experienced psychologist who is passionate about mental wellness, criminal justice reform, and supporting young people who have experienced trauma. Prior to joining Chicago Beyond, she served as a Senior Fellow with the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and as the Executive Director of the Cook County Department of Corrections. As the leader of the jail – an institution that has been called “the largest mental hospital in the country” with more than 2,000 inmates diagnosed with mental illness on a given day – Dr. Tapia spearheaded several bold strategies to promote wellness and reduce recidivism. One of her legacies is the Cook County Mental Health Transition Center, a program Dr. Tapia developed in 2014 in partnership with Sheriff Tom Dart that has helped hundreds of detainees successfully re-enter their families and communities and has become a model for correctional institutions nationally.

Dr. Tapia’s personal experiences have significantly influenced her life’s work.  She has seen loved ones struggle deeply with mental illness and as a young child was separated from her father when he was incarcerated. Dr. Tapia credits her family support network that helped her build resilience during difficult times, and she has dedicated her career to ensuring others have similar opportunities to fulfill their potential. 

“There is incredible work happening around mental wellness in our city, yet there is still so much we don’t know about the far-reaching impacts of trauma and family separation,” said Dr. Tapia. “As Chicago Beyond’s inaugural Leader in Residence, I am humbled and thrilled to have an opportunity like this — to step back, connect with the community, and think creatively and proactively about how to support our young people. Chicago Beyond is putting a stake in the ground on supporting the mental wellness of our youth, and I look forward to building on that momentum with their thought partnership and support.”

Chicago Beyond believes that in order for all  young people to have equitable access and opportunity to fulfill their human potential, a greater emphasis must be placed on promoting mental wellness in Chicago.

“As a country we’re starting to appreciate that mental illness can affect absolutely anyone, and it has hidden yet deep impacts on families and loved ones,” said Alexa James, the Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Chicago. “For our city to thrive, we must continue to innovate around how to tackle this issue. Nneka has such intimate experience and expertise around mental health, especially with those affected by separation, and I am grateful that she and Chicago Beyond will be focused on promoting wellness in our Chicago communities.”

Chicago Beyond is a youth equity platform that fights to give young people the opportunity to achieve their fullest human potential. Since launching in 2016, Chicago Beyond has invested $30 million in local organizations working to improve life outcomes for young Chicagoans. Beyond funding, Chicago Beyond works hand-in-hand with its partners to help them ultimately reach their goals. From strategic planning, to development, branding and communications supports – Chicago Beyond designs unique investment plans to help its partners grow their impact. The new Leadership Venture goes beyond investing in organizations, and gives extraordinary individuals the opportunity to leverage their background to explore and address challenges facing young Chicagoans.

Find out more about Nneka joining Chicago Beyond from the Sun-Times here and WTTW’s Chicago Tonight here