Rebuilding the village, one corner at a timeBy La Risa R. Lynch | Last updated: Jun 5, 2014 - 11:30:32 PM
CHICAGO - The corner of 79th and Cottage Grove on the city’s South Side is a haven of crime.
Since the beginning of the year that corner has seen 31 incidences of crime, ranging from battery, criminal sexual assault to burglary and drug transactions, according to Chicago police crime reports. And the surrounding blocks that make up Sixth District Police Beat 624 have had more than 600 incidents including two murders for the same time period.
The village takeover is an organic movement for the people, by the people to just “love on the community,” said Rev. Jedidiah Brown, co-founder of Young Leaders Alliance, a growing national grassroots group that put on the Village Take Back march and rally.
“We are igniting hope and the fire in the residents to see that coming together and being unified we could address any issue,” Brown said.
YLA, which started last year, plans to hold village takeovers every two weeks on crime-ridden street corners like 79th and Cottage Grove. This was the second event in May.
Amid a liquor store, a currency exchange and two beauty supply stores—businesses that typify much of Chicago’s South Side—those gathered sang hymns, heard testimony from former gang members and prayed.
A mix of community, religious leaders, activists and residents took to a bullhorn urging people to be more than just bystanders. Thomas Hibbler, a hip hop outreach minister, took his message straight to the “brothers,” who he says contribute to crime plaguing the area. He’s been there and knows there’s redemption.
“For all my bothers out here shooting … selling … gangbanging, I understand because I’ve been there, but you are not too far gone for God to redeem the time you lost. Save somebody. Save yourself,” Hibbler said.
Willie J.R. Fleming brought his son and grandson to the event. He urged Black men to step up and understand their rightful place in society.
“We as Black men must stand up to take back our streets, take back our community and we must do it with pride and dignity,” Fleming said. “It don’t take a lot of economic resources. It takes hearts and will power.”
Afterwards, the marchers took to the streets chanting “Stop the Violence!” and “Power to the Village!” Some stopped at nearby businesses to speak with owners and leafleted the area about upcoming events and youth-related activities.
The noise brought Norma McCaskill out her home. She wanted to see what was happening and then decided to join the marchers. McCaskill understood the group’s message. Her 17-year-old grandson, Lucian Dreux, was killed on 79th Street and Drexel just a few blocks from her home two years ago.
“I am totally with this,” McCaskill said. “We are having too much violence in our area. It’s nothing at 12 and 1 o’clock for us to hear gunshots. I’ve seen a lot of these kids I’ve watched grow up get shot down in the streets.”
Shakti Sankofa and her six-year-old son also came out of their home to join the procession. This action, she said, promotes a sense of community. Without it, she said, violence festers.
“Families aren’t intact. Fathers aren’t with their children and children are not being raised with morals and values for human life,” Sankofa said. “It doesn’t have to be like this. There’re thousands of communities that don’t deal with this problem. This isn’t our nature.”
The concept of the village takeover was imbued over lunch at a downtown Panera Bread restaurant among 20 church-going friends. They were fed up with violence plaguing the city that affected many of their friends and relatives. They wanted to address violence from a faith point of view while empowering people to be their own solutions to the violence.
“We wanted to start helping each other solve issues in our own communities even though we didn’t live on the same side of the city,” Brown said.
YLA has two chapters in the city and is forming two more. The group has expanded nationally with chapters in Virginia, New York, Georgia, California and is looking to expand in other states.
YLA’s mission is rooted in the African proverb it takes a village to raise a child. Similarly, Brown said it takes a village to combat some of the social ills affecting the community not just the violence. Violence, he added, is symptomatic of a lack of jobs, opportunities and political representation.
“When we were growing up, it took a village to raise a child, so why can’t it take a village to stop the violence?” said YLA co-founder Chasity Brownlee, 36, a member of New Beginnings Church. The church’s pastor, Corey Brooks, famously camped out on an abandoned motel’s rooftop to raise funds to demolish it and turn it into a community center.
“We are looking forward to changing our community, but it has to start with us. It can’t start with the police. It can’t start with the mayor. We have to stop what’s going on as the people,” said Brownlee, a mother of four.
“We believe we shouldn’t have to fight the power. We are the power because we control and are responsible for where we live,” Brown added
An early supporter of the group’s vision was St. Sabina Pastor Father Michael Pfleger, Brown said. The Catholic priest has garnered a reputation for his head-on approach in addressing gun violence plaguing Chicago’s Black community.
Pfleger, who is White, opened the church’s facility for the group to hold a summit on violence in April 2013. Since then the group has hosted town halls, chapter meetings and smaller rallies that eventually morphed into the village take over.
“We’ve seen little changes, because people who were not engaged are now engaged,” Brown said. “A lot of the individuals and young men in the street are starting to become part of Young Leaders Alliance and believe they could do something different.”
Sustained by membership dues, YLA consist mostly of young adults. Brownlee said it is important for young people to get involved since they are blamed for most of this violence. This group shows that not all young people are “tearing down” their community, but actively working to improve it, she said.
For Brown, it is about creating a space that welcomes young people who felt there wasn’t anyone representing their interests.
“Another part is that we felt like we were very disconnected from the older generation,” he said. “We did not feel like they heard us or wanted to allow us at the table… So we created our own table.”