Photo by Isaac Joel Torres
This opinion piece was written by Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia and appeared in the Chicago Tribune on March 20, 2020.
Our Illinois state and local officials have been leading the nation in their response to COVID-19 by decisively shutting down restaurants, theaters and everywhere else people congregate and spread this new contagion. Yet, there is deafening silence when it comes to one of the vulnerable venues for transmission – our jails and prisons.
According to the Cook County, Illinois Sheriff’s website, as of March 18, 2020 there were 5,593 men and women held within Cook County Jail, most of whom have not been found guilty of a crime. Yet they are in jail and at risk for coronavirus; for many, this is simply because they can’t afford bail. The mayors, county officials and governors who are leading the charge on public health must also address what’s happening in our correctional systems, where social distancing is not an option.
The risks are enormous. Preventive measures such as frequent handwashing with soap and use of hand sanitizer are difficult practices to implement given the high number of people in custody. Personal protective equipment is limited among the general population and correctional facilities are no exception.
Many incarcerated people have chronic medical conditions, increasing their vulnerability. Any rapid spread of the virus within an institution poses a significant threat to communities as law enforcement and first responders return home to their families. And just as we have extended our compassion to families unable to visit older relatives, we should do the same for children with incarcerated parents.
It is within the power and expertise of the Judiciary to expeditiously review the cases of all pre-trial detainees being held within jails on bonds they cannot afford to pay and determine if they can safely be released, as was done in Travis County, TX and being planned in Clark County, NV.
With this in mind, it is unclear why we can’t provide similar efforts to preserve the public welfare in this time of crisis. Further, it is in the best interest of the public to review the cases of men and women housed in the Illinois Department of Corrections to identify all who are eligible for early release. The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with other County agencies, has already begun a similar process by releasing individuals housed within the jail who are eligible for release due to their extensive medical needs and low-level threat to community safety.
For the men and women who will continue to live and work in these facilities, personal protective equipment must be made available in critical areas. Soap, hand sanitizer and CDC-approved cleaning agents must also be made readily available throughout the institutions.
Officials at the state and local levels have demonstrated that they are thoughtful leaders who care about the people they serve, responding to the voices of millions. Let us not forget about the voices that are muffled by concrete walls.
Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, a clinical psychologist, is the former warden of the Cook County Jail and the current Leader in Residence at Chicago Beyond.
Thank you to our moderator, Britton Picciolini, and presenters Shanté Elliott and Brian Hill!
Chicago Beyond’s inaugural Tech on the Block Series event included a packed house of civic technologists, social entrepreneurs, funders, nonprofit professionals, and curious Chicagoans. The Education Edition examined the implications of inequitable access to and usage of education technology.
We heard from Shanté Elliott, the Founder of Tassleturn, and Brian Hill, the Founder of Edovo – both entrepreneurs who are challenging the status quo for diverse populations – from foster-involved youth to those who are incarcerated. The evening was moderated by Britton Picciolini, Regional Manager of Google for Education.
ACTION: WHAT WE HEARD
Below are a few quotes from the evening that captured ways you might think about getting involved or building your own knowledge base.
- Shanté Elliott, TassleTurn: “For us, it is always an educational session, growing the narrative of foster-involved youth. We know that these kids rise to the level of expectations that adults have for them. And I think that if we begin to expect more, we will receive more in return.”
- Brian Hill, Edovo: “If you haven’t read anything or don’t have a base level knowledge of criminal justice in America, do that, try to learn. Connect with somebody who’s incarcerated and begin a conversation, and very quickly, you will find out what you should do.”
- Britton Picciolini, Google for Education: “Technology has the potential to be the great equalizer. But it is just a tool at its heart, and it is people like Brian and Shanté, who wrap their arms around that technology and build something amazing with it, that really makes it sing.”
What’s next? Come back for our next conversation on leveraging technology for social justice. Please save the date for Tech on the Block: Workforce Edition on Wednesday, April 1, 2020 from 5:30 – 7:30PM. Doors open at 5:30PM, and the program starts at 6PM.
Seth Green, Founding Director of the Baumhart Center at Loyola University Chicago will moderate the panel. Speakers include David Douglas, CEO of Yolobe, a LinkedIn for Chicago’s youth; and Amir Badr, CEO of Upkey, the world’s only student incubator.
“Over the last three to five years, there has been huge growth in this group,” says Unmi Song, president of the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, at one of the meetings of women who run foundations in Chicago.
More Than 20 Women of Color Lead the City’s Foundations
Every two or three months, nearly two dozen women gather after work in one of their homes in Chicago. Over takeout and wine, they discuss one another’s challenges or questions, they offer advice and contacts, they talk about issues that are important to them.
It’s a kind of professional networking gathering, but for a unique group — 20 or so women of color who run foundations in Chicago.
“Over the last three to five years, there has been huge growth in this group,” says Unmi Song, president of the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, which has more than $189 million in assets.
Fifteen years ago, when she left her job as a program officer at the Joyce Foundation to take this position, Song didn’t think there would be so many other women of color in leadership positions in Chicago. “It’s a surprise, even to me,” she says.
Despite intensified concerns about the lack of diversity at nonprofits and foundations, Song is right to be surprised. People of color rarely rise to become leaders of philanthropic institutions. The Council on Foundations’ 2018 “Grantmaker Salary and Benefits Report” found that 90 percent of foundation CEOs are white.
Chicago has outpaced the nation in terms of people of color in leadership positions in philanthropy. Forefront, a membership group in Chicago for foundations, nonprofits, and government agencies, says that of its 18 foundation members with assets of more than $100 million, five (28 percent) are run by women of color. None of the large member foundations have men of color at the helm.
“We have a really interesting mix of places people are running, and asset sizes,” says Sharon Bush, executive director of the Grand Victoria Foundation, a $130-million organization that receives proceeds from a casino to finance charities in Illinois. “We’re not just running small places, which is typically how it works.”
For a person of color, taking up racial-equity issues presents challenges that are different than for a white person, says Helene Gayle, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust.
Conversation Around Race and Equity
It’s unclear why trustees at Chicago foundations have promoted so many women of color into positions of leadership.
In part it may be a reaction to the city’s sharp increase in gun violence and to a number of high-profile police-brutality cases in recent years, issues that have brought the city’s historical and continuing racial inequities to the forefront. “The spike in gun violence was a wake-up call to a lot of people,” says Song.
Foundation board members have been an important part of the discussion about ways to curb racial bias in Chicago, says Helene Gayle, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, with assets of $3.2 billion. She is a physician who worked for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 20 years, as well as at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She was CEO of CARE and of the McKinsey Social Initiative before she was recruited to the trust.
“It’s really palpable, this conversation in Chicago around race and equity,” Bush says, “and it is a hot conversation within the philanthropic sector.”
Because of such issues, foundation boards are likely to continue to focus on diversifying their ranks, says Na’ilah Suad Nasir. The scholar of race and education was on the board of the Spencer Foundation, which has assets of more than $530 million, before she was recruited as president in 2017. “There is a discourse about the need for boards to better reflect the populations the foundations serve,” she says. “That is really important.”
Another reason for the surge in leaders of color is a changing of the guard, which is coming about as baby boomers retire. Many have been deliberate in seeking successors who are not white.
Bush, for example, was a senior program officer at the Fry Foundation when she was recruited, in 2013. The director soon promoted her to managing director with the idea that Bush could move into the leadership position. “Her goal was to have a person of color replace her,” Bush says. She took over that role in 2018.
‘Try New Things’
Bush says her colleagues are making a real mark on their institutions.
Under Bush’s leadership, the Grand Victoria Foundation has begun a review of the entire organization, with a focus on what it is doing internally and through its grants do to promote racial equity. It now requires a diverse pool of applicants for job openings, and is seeking a firm owned by people of color to manage its investments. The board has been learning more about racial equity, and Bush is searching for diverse board candidates through her own networks.
The foundation is also reviewing its grant making to ensure that its grants tackle the areas of highest need.
Gayle, of the Chicago Community Trust, says her CEO peers are likely to have have a different perspectives on the world than would someone of a different gender or racial background. They may have closer connections to people living and working in neighborhoods with the greatest challenges, and they may prioritize funding in a different way.
“When you have organizations that are led by folks that have not traditionally been powerholders in their field, you get people willing to try new things, to think differently,” says Nasir, of the Spencer Foundation.
“To call it useful is an understatement,” says Liz Dozier, founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond, about conferring with other women of color who run foundations. “It helps influence the direction of the work we do.”
Safe Space for Questions
The group, which informally calls itself WOC (for women of color, pronounced “woke”) continues to grow. Four new people attended its July meeting, including one who recently started her job and another who will start in January. And it continues to be a source of support, advice, and connections for its members. They can find out whom their peers are contracting with for services, discuss challenging management issues, and have a safe space to ask questions.
They have discussed the challenges of taking up racial-equity issues, something that Gayle says can present different challenges for a person of color than a white person. They also discuss the intersection of race and gender, which carries its own challenges.
Bush says they discuss the expectations that come with being a person of color in leadership. Often these women are expected to be the ones in their organization leading discussions of race and equity, something that can pigeonhole them and leave them feeling like one-dimensional leaders, she says.
“It’s just a chance to meet with a group of colleagues over a meal and have frank and open conversation and get good advice,” says Song.
For Liz Dozier, founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond, which gave out $30 million in grants over the past three years, this group has been an important resource.
She was a high-school principal who left education to start the grant making organization. About six months ago, she was about to release a report but was unfamiliar with how to promote it.
The group spent an entire meeting working on a strategy with her. “To call it useful is an understatement,” says Dozier. “It helps influence the direction of the work we do.”
Having such a close-knit group of women of color in such positions of power makes Gayle feel optimistic about the future of philanthropy in Chicago. “It is high time that we have more diverse leadership,” she says. “I am very hopeful that Chicago can be a real beacon for how to address these issues of equity.”
Our Steps to Support the 37,000 Silent Victims of Incarceration in Cook County: Children.
Chicago Beyond, The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, The Chicago Children’s Museum and The Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie Children’s Hospital Launch Program to Support Youth Whose Fathers are Incarcerated
“At the core of this initiative are the silent victims of incarceration: more than 37,000 children in Cook County alone who have been impacted by parental separation caused by incarceration in the last six months. This is the first program of its kind in the nation that applies a trauma-informed lens to promote healing from the shame and stigma associated with having an incarcerated parent and specifically focuses on fatherhood. Our hope is that with this groundbreaking pilot, we can support the children of incarcerated parents with safe visitation opportunities that are conducive to strengthening families and their relationships as the parents await trial.”
– Chicago Beyond, The Cook County Sheriff’s Office, The Chicago Children’s Museum and The Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie Children’s Hospital
Nationally, more than five million children have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood. In Cook County alone, more than 37,000 children in the past six months have experienced losing a parent to incarceration.
Black children and children from poverty-stricken families are more likely to experience parental incarceration, and the overwhelming majority of incarcerated parents are fathers. Losing a parent to incarceration can impact children’s mental health, social behavior and academic achievement, increasing their risk of future involvement with the criminal justice system. The emotional trauma that may result from parental incarceration is often exacerbated by the social stigma that youth may face.
Research shows that the preservation of a child’s relationship with the incarcerated parent is beneficial to the child, the incarcerated parent, and society as a whole. This relationship can reduce the possibility of the child experiencing mental health issues, increase the likelihood of the successful reentry of the incarcerated parent to society and lower the odds of recidivism.
Very few programs exist to support these bonds and heal these relationships. Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart has been working to change this reality by exploring ways to improve safe visitation practices that are guided by the latest research and experts in this field.
That’s why, expanding on the work of other correctional institutions, such as Riker’s Island and Topeka Correctional Institution, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office partnered with Chicago Beyond and the Chicago Children’s Museum to initiate family-friendly, child-centered visitation experiences for children whose parents are incarcerated, their incarcerated fathers and their caregivers.
This initiative is the first-of-its-kind in the nation to focus on the father-child relationship, and with the support of the Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie Children’s Hospital, apply a trauma-informed approach throughout the visit to support all participants and staff. Planning took place over the course of one year and included learnings from the Riker’s Island and Children’s Museum of Manhattan visitation program as well as the Topeka Correctional Facility and the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center program.
Additionally, extensive training, collaboration, and planning meetings occurred over the course of eight months to ensure the safety of all involved, particularly the children. On August 12, 2019 the partnership of the aforementioned organizations supported six children and their caregivers as they were allowed to reconnect with their fathers in a healthy environment and reduce the lasting impact of the trauma caused by family separation.
This program builds off of the work of Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, Chicago Beyond’s inaugural Leader in Residence. Nneka is a psychologist and former warden of the Cook County Department of Corrections. Since Nneka joined the team at Chicago Beyond in 2018, she has been working to improve the mental health of young Chicagoans by developing initiatives to influence and support the development of a trauma-sensitive city for Chicago’s youth including those whose parents have been incarcerated.
Parental incarceration is personal to Nneka, as she experienced it herself at a young age, losing her father for a number of years due to drug charges.
“I was fortunate that both of my parents made sure I still had that bond with my dad,” Nneka told WTTW in an interview last year. “I recognize now as an adult, had it not been for the support system … that I could’ve very easily fallen prey to some of the risk factors that children with incarcerated parents often experience.”
You can read more about Nneka and Chicago Beyond’s Leadership Venture here.
For more information, please contact email@example.com.
“Inequities have existed for so long that sometimes we believe that innovation is impossible. That’s not true. We only limit ourselves by our imagination.” – Liz Dozier, Founder & CEO of Chicago Beyond
In the fight for youth equity, it is important to challenge institutions and systems that perpetuate inequities. To not take the status quo for granted, but to question it and find creative ways to deconstruct it. When Chicago Beyond’s Founder & CEO Liz Dozier encountered OneGoal during her time as Principal of Fenger High School, she saw its program doing exactly that.
OneGoal’s mission has always been clear: close the college degree divide and ensure all young people can achieve their postsecondary dreams. Its model moves students through a three-year program that begins their junior year of high school. Participating high schools have a teacher, called a Program Director, who teaches one credit-bearing OneGoal class a day. Fellows take this class through their senior year, developing skills to increase their GPA, study for the SATs, apply to colleges, and develop skills and mindsets to support their success after high school. The program continues through their first year of college, where they receive remote coaching from their Program Director who supported them during high school.
Through this model, OneGoal helps about 25 Fellows in each class, and the results are staggering; the average Fellow at the beginning of the program has a 2.7 GPA and an 840 on the SAT.
Fellows who have completed the program, 81% enroll in postsecondary education, and 86% of those who enroll persist one year later.
But what always struck OneGoal leadership—and Liz– was an urge to make OneGoal available to more students. What if breaking the inequity barrier to accessing college meant giving all students access to the type of supports that OneGoal offers?
That’s why Chicago Beyond invested in a partnership with OneGoal in 2016: to impact more students. Since our partnership began, OneGoal has innovated on its traditional model and piloted a Full Release model, which “releases” Program Directors at participating high schools to teach a full day of OneGoal classes.
Innovation requires imagination—so in our partnership, we challenged ourselves to be imaginative. We started thinking outside the box: Imagine if a school put supports in place to give students their best shot at success. Imagine if a school cleared as many obstacles as it could from its students’ paths so they don’t need to jump through more hoops than necessary on their way to higher education. Imagine if schools had programs like OneGoal built into their curriculum, so college is within reach for every single student.
Those hypothetical thoughts led to tangible changes in OneGoal’s program. It instituted new ways for the Program Directors to support students in their third year, offered students college visits and simulated college assignments and discussions to ease their transition after graduation.
Imaginative approaches to equity are crucial to seeing quality of life improvements in not only Chicago, but beyond. How far does your imagination go? What inequities in your day-to-day life do you take for granted, and how can you creatively challenge them?
To learn more about our partnership with OneGoal, watch the video above. To learn more about OneGoal’s programming, go here.
On the Southwest Side, refuge comes in the form of a simple red-brick bungalow, with leather couches, a flat-screen television and an Xbox in the basement. The men who live there escaped neighborhoods in which a moment on a porch or a sidewalk could be a last moment lived. In those neighborhoods — Englewood, Roseland, Little Village, and others — they’re enmeshed in a world in which on any given day they can find themselves on either side of a gun.
The Tribune’s Madeline Buckley wrote about the sanctuary that the bungalow, jointly run by a nonprofit called Chicago Beyond and the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, provides to individuals entangled in South and West side street violence, with no way out. Some men, such as Talib Garner, 25, have witnessed violence from the time they were small boys.
Garner was 4 when he watched two people get gunned down. Two years later, he could load a gun. By 14, he had joined the Latin Kings street gang.
“If I stay in the ’hood, I’m going to kill someone,” Garner told Buckley. “Or someone will kill me.”
At the bungalow, Garner gets not only a respite from the gang wars that overshadow life in Little Village, but time to figure out what direction he wants his life to take. He has a 4-year-old son who lives in Villa Park and, perhaps, one day could be an anchor in his life. “I always wanted a family,” he tells Buckley.
There’s no cure-all for what ails the South and West sides. Fixes need to be multifaceted, and they can’t rest solely on the shoulders of law enforcement and the courts. Better schools, more jobs and reinvestment in neglected neighborhoods are top-shelf priorities. Providing a temporary refuge to pull at-risk youths out of corrosive environments is also a different, meaningful act. It’s nothing less than an extraction — a lifesaving rescue.
We’ve written often about youths cut down before they could escape. There was drive-by victim Jaylin Ellzey, the 15-year-old Roseland boy whose only wish was to, as his uncle said, “live another day.” And Jonathan Mills, 26, a North Lawndale basketball standout on his way to a career in international leagues when he died in hail of bullets in 2016.
And, as Buckley wrote, there’s the person whose death preceded the bungalow idea — Jason Barrett, 24, shot to death on the Far South Side in 2017. Barrett had been featured in the CNN series “Chicagoland” and was trying to turn his life around, with the help of former Fenger High School Principal Liz Dozier. Dozier founded Chicago Beyond, the nonprofit that two years ago linked up with Inner-City Muslim Action Network to buy the Southwest Side bungalow.
“There are how many hundreds of Jasons already this year,” Dozier told CNN in 2017, “and the sad thing is there will be how many hundreds more.”
Today, there’s always a waiting list to get into the safe house. That’s a sign of the program’s promise. But it also suggests that, if there were more bungalows, more at-risk individuals could be rescued.
This article appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on August 8, 2019.
Mustafa Hawthorne tosses a spare house key into the air. “Please don’t lose it. You need to get it on a keychain.”
Talib Garner snatches it and stuffs it into one of the socks he wears with sandals. “It won’t get lost.”
The men have an easy rapport, despite the difference in their ages. Hawthorne, born Steven Hawthorne, is 52, and Garner is 25. Both lived intensely hard lives before winding up at this red brick bungalow on a quiet Southwest Side street that serves as a unique refuge for those seeking shelter from street violence.
Their housemates include a young man from Englewood whose mentor was shot and killed and a 24-year-old man from Roseland whose former principal found him this place after his best friend was slain in 2017.
“This is a safe house,” explains Hawthorne, who manages the home. “The house is designed to give them time to breathe.”
And maybe the break they need, something Hawthorne didn’t get when he was young. At 16, Hawthorne shot and killed two men and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was released in 2017, after serving 33 years, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such sentences for juveniles was unconstitutional.
Hawthorne’s job at the house is to enforce curfews, generally keep the peace and offer any advice he can to people like Garner.
Garner was born and raised in Little Village. He says he saw two people shot dead outside his house when he was 4, could load a gun by the time he was 6 and was pulled into gang activity when he was around 14. He joined the Latin Kings street gang after losing his brother to gang violence.
“If I stay in the ‘hood, I’m going to kill someone,” Garner says. “Or someone will kill me.”
The men live together through a pilot program that houses young men in need of emergency lodging, a safe place to land, somewhere they can plan a future and maybe line up a job.
In other circumstances, they would have little to do with one another. But together under one roof, there is some sense of stability. Some slip back to their old lives but return after an arrest.
The house is furnished with leather couches, a dark wood dining table and a coffee table adorned with a vase of flowers. The men watch Hulu and Netflix on a large flat-screen television. They play “Call of Duty” on an Xbox console in the basement. They sometimes squabble about small messes around the house.
The young men are referred by outreach and caseworkers. They fill out an application and undergo an interview to see if they are a good fit. A bed or two is kept open for emergencies.
There is a constant waitlist.
‘You’re up next’
The idea for this safe house took hold with a chance encounter at a funeral.
Early in 2017, Jason Barrett was gunned down on the Far South Side by someone who stepped out of a silver SUV. The 24-year-old had been featured in the CNN series “Chicagoland” a few years earlier as someone who was hoping for a second chance and got help from his former principal at Fenger High School, Liz Dozier.
At Barrett’s wake, Dozier saw a young man lingering by the door of the funeral home. He was a former student and one of Barrett’s best friends. He had not yet made it inside the room where his friend’s body lay.
He was there when Barrett was killed. He knew he might be next. Dozier reconnected with him that day and they exchanged numbers.
“There were a couple of other people that had gotten killed up to Jason,” Dozier said. “You’re up next, let’s just keep this real,” she told him.
Dozier said she had helped other teenagers and young men escape the streets. Sometimes it meant helping parents send them out of town to stay with family members.
But in this case, the young man needed to get out of Roseland but had nowhere to go.
After leaving Fenger, Dozier had founded Chicago Beyond, a nonprofit that invests in organizations that “are fighting for all youth to achieve their fullest human potential,” according to its website.
Searching for housing opportunities for men like Barrett’s friend, the nonprofit teamed up with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network that works on the South and Southwest sides.
IMAN already provided housing for men reentering society after serving a prison term, but it did not supply shelter for high-risk youth. Together, the two groups bought a small bungalow on the Southwest Side. It opened two years ago.
The house is funded by Chicago CRED, an organization founded by former Education Secretary and Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, and Chicago Beyond, which uses funding from private backers.
The groups are now working on the next phase of the pilot program: a safe home for a whole family so the men don’t have to leave children and other loved ones behind.
‘Certain things stick with you’
Rami Nashashibi, executive director of IMAN, remembers one of the first young men who lived in the home. He had barely survived a shooting on the West Side.
“For the first two to three months in the house, he was literally recovering his health,” Nashashibi said.
Earlier this year, the organization took on a young man after a man he looked up to as a mentor was killed. The young man had been a high-ranking gang member in Englewood but was a recent graduate of IMAN’s job program and was working to broker peace in the neighborhood, Nashashibi said.
The young man’s father pleaded with him to get him away from the block. “It was only a matter of time that he was drawn into the retaliatory circle,” Nashashibi said.
Now, living in the house, the man is working toward his GRE and participating in a weekend program that offers credits at City Colleges of Chicago.
One of his housemates is the man Dozier spotted at the funeral. He has lived in the house on and off since it was established. He recently returned after spending time in Cook County Jail for a misdemeanor domestic battery conviction.
On a recent evening at the house, the man tossed a basketball at a hoop as the sun sunk in the sky. He still struggles with memories of the day Barrett died.
“Certain things stick with you,” he said.
He has some goals, like learning a trade. But mostly he is thinking in the short term, like saving some money so he can live on his own. He hopes to build a life away from the streets.
“I kind of feel like I ain’t going to give up on that,” he said. He still worries about his safety and did not want to be named.
‘I was tired of watching people die’
Garner was born with the name Gregory but changed it to Talib when he converted to Islam. He is using his time at the house to plot his way forward.
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office recently dropped a felony cocaine possession charge against him, giving him a fresh start. He visits his 4-year-old son and hopes to someday have shared custody.
His life now is markedly different than three years ago when he was at his lowest. He had spent the Memorial Day weekend in jail and had sunk into a depression after years of trauma.
When he was 4, his son’s age, he saw two men get shot and killed outside of his house. The men had been at a gang meeting at his father’s house. They were friendly with him, sometimes watching television with him. He remembers his uncle grabbing him from the window and his father dragging the bodies out of his view.
“It plays in my head,” he said. “Sometimes I dream about it.”
He recalls learning how to cook crack cocaine and load a gun at 6 years old and remembers spending days only eating small caramel candies. “I had four rotted teeth after that.”
He has good memories from school. He loved social studies, especially the story of Paul Revere’s ride. He gravitates toward learning about civil rights and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.
Garner’s aunt eventually gained custody of him and moved him and a sister to Aurora. But as a teen, he would tell his aunt he was going to a party in the suburbs, and instead, drive back to the Little Village neighborhood where he was comfortable.
After his brother was shot and killed by his own gang, Garner joined the rival Latin Kings. He attended what seemed like a long string of funerals.
Then one day, it was too much. He was sitting on a swing at a Southwest Side park after being released from jail and saw a man with a kufi, a cap worn by some Muslim men. He asked where the nearest mosque was and encountered IMAN.
Eventually, he secured a spot in the house. “I was tired of watching people die,” he said.
Now, he is focused on building a better life for his son, who lives in Villa Park. He’s glad his son lives outside the city, though he wants the boy to someday know how he is privileged to be raised differently than he was.
He has rough patches, days when the old neighborhood seems to call him back, and days when pent-up anger builds. He feels he wasn’t protected as a child.
But he feels hopeful, too, finding peace in his relationship with his son. “I always wanted a family.”
The Chicago Beyond and Chicago Blackhawks Leadership Exchange Series
“1 in 3 black men will go to prison in his lifetime. 67% of black children grow up in a single parent home. 85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes.”
These statistics appear in rotation on the homepage of Chicago Beyond’s partner The Dovetail Project, and they tell the story of the cycle that plagues fatherhood nationwide; when a child, particularly a black child, grows up with an absent father, they are lacking stability in the home, a consistent male role model, and are often times at high risk of incarceration.
In 2016, Dovetail was one of three winners of Chicago Beyond’s inaugural Innovation Challenge, which sought innovative, early-stage ideas from nonprofits backing the fight for youth equity. In the past three years Chicago Beyond has watched Dovetail double its reach and impact the lives of hundreds of young fathers. Chicago Beyond invested in Dovetail for its triple bottom line: impacting young fathers economically changes the trajectory of their lives, their children’s lives, and ultimately strengthens the entire community ecosystem.
Dovetail is an organization that gives young black fathers the skills and resources they need to fortify relationships with their children. Throughout its 12-week program, designed by founder and Executive Director Sheldon Smith, Dovetail’s curriculum teaches its participants how to be present, through felony street law education which helps them avoid incarceration and stay in their children’s lives; how to be a provider, through financial literacy and job interview preparation; and how to be a parent, through basic and individualized parenting skills. Beyond the curriculum, the fathers receive holistic support from Dovetail’s case managers.
Each class of Dovetail participants is called a “cohort,” with each cohort made up of about 50 fathers. Dovetail recruits its participants by sending a team consisting mostly of Dovetail alumni go into communities around Chicago, clad in bright orange shirts. They strike up conversations with young men on the street, asking if they’re fathers and inviting them to Dovetail.
“They’re meeting these young men where they are. They’re bringing together men from different cliques, different blocks, but when they’re together as a cohort, they’re all Dovetail dads,” said Chicago Beyond’s Director of Growth Nichole Wilson. “They’re coming together to be there for their kids, and they’re realizing for the first time that they’re not alone.”
Sheldon’s goals for Dovetail transcend race, class and neighborhood; according to him, the problems that fathers face are universal.
“Fatherhood is not just a black issue,” he said. “It’s not a white issue, it’s not a brown issue, it’s not an orange issue. It’s a people issue. It’s a global issue. It’s a national issue. It’s an issue that we all need to pay attention to. It doesn’t matter what color you are, what background you come from, we all have those issues within our family, and family is everything.”
On June 13, the Spring 2019 Dovetail cohort graduated, which marks the fourth cohort since the Dovetail Project and Chicago Beyond partnership started.
“You see this room?” said Sheldon at the graduation ceremony. “We call these young men mythbusters. [The Dovetail Project has] been in existence now for 10 years. This is our 20th graduation. We’ve graduated 476 young men. And it’s a major accomplishment. I never thought at the age of 21 when I launched the Dovetail Project that we would be here today at this moment.”
Sheldon also surprised Chicago Beyond with an award to show his appreciation for Chicago Beyond’s investment in fatherhood, and for the approximately $1 million investment made into Dovetail.
“This philanthropic organization believed in the mission and vision of [Dovetail],” he said about Chicago Beyond. “We would not be able to serve as many fathers as we serve, we wouldn’t have the three campuses across the city, we wouldn’t have been able to scale up to 18 staff across the board– none of these things would have happened without that initial investment into our infrastructure.”
In its three years of working with Dovetail, Chicago Beyond has supported four cohorts of young fathers through the program, and partnered with them on strategic initiatives. As Dovetail works to disrupt and change those rotating statistics on its website, Chicago Beyond is excited to enter a new chapter of our partnership with them and find new ways to continue working together to empower young fathers to reach their fullest potential.