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Big player in Chicago’s war on violence loses key funding

A promotional CeaseFire Chicago poster. Photo by Rasande Tyskar/Flickr.











By Amanda Quisenberry

CeaseFire Chicago has played a major role in helping the city reduce gang violence, but a loss of funding has jeopardized the future of the organization.

On Aug. 31, CeaseFire’s Lawndale office was forced to close after a $1 million grant awarded last year by the mayor’s office and distributed by the city’s Department of Health ran out.

Funding issues also have plagued CeaseFire’s Woodlawn office, which closed its doors for the final time at the end of September. The Englewood office will remain open for the time being, as it receives primary funding through state-issued funds.

Funding streams for CeaseFire have changed in recent years. Primary funding used to come from federal and state grants, as well as local foundations and corporations.

After receiving significant contributions in 2005 and 2006, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich discontinued state funding in 2007. In response, CeaseFire was awarded a $1.8 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the period between May 2007 and June 2012.

Representatives from the mayor’s office and Department of Health could not be reached for comment despite attempts made via phone and email.

The methods

CeaseFire focuses a bulk of its efforts on individuals identified as “high risk” — those who have gang affiliation or have demonstrated violent or illegal activity.

According to CeaseFire, 141 potentially fatal conflicts were mediated under the Lawndale grant and services were provided to 75 high-risk participants in the area. The grant also provided jobs for 42 high-risk individuals and contributed to a 75 percent reduction in homicides in the Lawndale neighborhood, according to the organization.

CeaseFire was established in 2000 as a violence-prevention program. It is administered by the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention, which was founded in 1995 by physician Gary Slutkin. According to Slutkin, violence is a “learned behavior” and, like other epidemics, can be controlled by changing community norms.

“Violence is like the great infectious diseases of all history,” Slutkin said in “The Interrupters,” a 2011 documentary about CeaseFire. “What perpetuates violence can be as invisible today as the microorganisms of the past were.”

In an interview last August, police superintendent Garry McCarthy said Chicago gangs are hierarchical. He described families in Chicago that have up to three generations of gang members.

CeaseFire aims to break such cycles by implementing the “Cure Violence” model. With this model, CeaseFire coordinates an evidence-based public health approach to reduce shootings and killings. The model prevents violence with three key strategies:  interrupting the transmission; identifying and changing the thinking of the highest potential transmitters; and changing group norms.

The defining characteristic of CeaseFire is its use of highly trained street violence interrupters.

Violence interrupters were introduced to CeaseFire in 2004. As described in the 2o11 documentary, “violence interrupters have one goal in mind: to stop killings. They are not trying to dismantle gangs, what they’re trying to do is save a life.”

Many of the interrupters are former gang members, which gives them street credibility. Interrupters are able to provide on-the-spot assistance to gangs and individuals when they are making potentially violent decisions.

Interrupters work the streets at night talking to gang leaders in an effort to mediate conflicts between rivals and curb the cycle of gang retaliation. The interrupters also talk with those who are positioned to initiate more violence.

Derek Brown is one such individual.

A former gang leader himself, Brown now works as a violence interrupter in North Lawndale and he founded the North Lawndale Boxing League.

He lost his job at the Lawndale office when it closed, but he remains dedicated to his role of interrupting the cycle of violence and mentoring the youth in his neighborhood and community.

“Right now I’m going to focus on the boxing, the kids and violence prevention…to stop our kids from becoming the next offenders,” Brown said. “We’re out here doing what we’re doing to help cure the violence.”

Violence interrupters focus on getting high-risk individuals into school, a steady job and working together collectively to clean up the community.

According to Brown, the crime rate in Lawndale is starting to increase and he believes this is a result of fewer interrupters working the streets since the Lawndale grant ran out in August. Brown is able to volunteer his time to being an interrupter despite any compensation, but other staffers must find work elsewhere in order to maintain a standard of living.

Brown said that “without guys like myself out there every day to talk to these guys…to find them jobs,” crime will continue to rise.


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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.