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.’”