Niambi Smith and Shane Calvin
“Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?” While this is a pithy lead-in to a more poignant truth about overcoming the laws of nature written by Tupac Shakur, it has also become the punchline for a young man on the path of personal growth. And his name couldn’t be more fitting.
Meet Iris Hawk, 22, a young African American male who is from the diverse community of Roger’s Park. Hawk currently tends to multiple gardens in his neighborhood through Above Ground Urban Agriculture, a youth organization under the banner of A Just Harvest, meant to assist young people in their social transformation. Though for Hawk, these are new waters he’s navigating. In his younger years he was affiliated with an undisclosed gang he refereed to as “the brotherhood.” He dropped out of high school his junior year and continued on a course of self-destruction which landed him in Vienna Correctional Center in southern Illinois where he served 22 months for a drug charge.
“I was careless. I had no feelings,” Hawk recalled. “Now I’m generous and compassionate.”
Hawk is not just reaping what he sows from his gardens, he is yielding a better future for him and his three-year-old son, Aries.
“I’m a part of my environment, so I see the change,” he said. “Ain’t no winning in this [gang life]. We gotta do something right man in order for us to live.”
Hawk has begun to find a voice in his community. But many youngsters are still left feeling a disconnect to the area in which they live. According to Antione Day, outreach director at the Howard Area Community Center, poor communication is a recipe for senseless behavior.
“There are no social skills in our community,” Day said. “Gorillas don’t even go through this in the jungle because they have social skills.”
Day remarked that he’s seeing the negative effect of social media and technology within his community. That the less human connection we have the more alienated we become.
“Too much of anything ain’t good for you. You can use social media as a tool but you have to have a physical body in place,” Day explained.
In this community, it’s very difficult for minorities to rise above all of the negativity, especially when the violence is hidden from the public.
Roger’s Park, a neighborhood located in the 49th ward on the northeast corner of Chicago, Illinois, is known for its diversity, sprawling beaches, classic architecture and Loyola University Chicago, Lake Shore Campus.
Roger’s Park is also known for its increasing gang violence, but somehow it’s rarely reported in the news media.
“I feel the media should have a connection to what goes on in this area other than police reports,” Day said, explaining that the media hasn’t brought attention to the violence. “Somebody is pulling the strings for the media.”
But recently a journalist who has maintained a homicide database since 2009 came to a similar realization as Day, and set out to publish a feature-length spread on the trends and sentiments in Roger’s Park.
“I noticed that Roger’s Park has seen an up-tick in killings. So, I wrote a profile of the community area last month,” explained Tracy Swartz, a RedEye reporter.
The RedEye is a daily publication put out by the Chicago Tribune geared towards 18 to 34-year-olds. RedEye strongly emphasizes pop culture and entertainment news. Wanting to deviate from the usual flash, Swartz looked to the serious side.
“I feel like the media should dig deeper into all stories pertaining to violence. It is one of the most controversial topics in Chicago right now,” she concluded.
On one hand media has the capability to be a watchdog for the community, but for certain groups social media is being used as a platform for lawlessness.
“I feel a lot of [the problem] is social media relations, and it’s getting out of hand,” said Angalia Bianca, an implementation specialist for CeaseFire Illinois in Chicago. “I know for a fact gang banging is happening on Facebook…They’re disrespecting each other and eventually it gets to a boiling point.”
CeaseFire, known worldwide as Cure Violence, is a global organization that’s aimed at reducing street violence by using outreach workers to interrupt potentially violent situations. There are 23 CeaseFire sites in the state of Illinois. Sixteen of these sites are located in the Windy City, or what has more recently come to be known as “Chiraq.”
Statistics show that in 2012, CeaseFire had 960 successful interventions that would have turned to gun violence. In 2013, they had 679 successful interventions that would have turned to gun violence. And from January 1, 2014 to September 25, 2014 they have helped diffuse over 466 conflicts.
Having worked in the field as a Violence Interrupter at CeaseFire Illinois, Bianca understands all too well that it’s not guns that commit violent acts, it’s people. But underlying contributors don’t help.
“Communities that deal with violence end up becoming immune to violence,” she said, citing poor educational and work opportunities are factors that can lead to criminal behavior. Or worse yet, gang involvement.
There’s a strong gang presence in Roger’s Park; the ones that have been identified are the Latin Kings, La Raza (a Latino Folks gang), Gangster Disciples, and Stones. Gangs are fighting over YouTube videos and disrespect over social media.
Bianca excels at her job because she has experienced the thug life. Though backgrounds may vary, she understands the individual.
Before she became a member of the Latin Kings, started a Heroin addiction that lasted 36 years and spent over a decade in jail, she grew up in a privileged home were she was spoiled by her parents. From a young age Bianca’s only interests consisted of getting high and partying. Her ultimate fantasy was to have a boyfriend who was a drug dealer.
In 2010 while imprisoned, her beloved father passed away. This was her wake up call.
“I believe that God saw a negative situation in my life and turned it into a positive,” she stated.
After being released from prison, she lived in a rehabilitation facility that focused on reconstructing the lives of ex-felons.
After receiving help, she was employed at CeaseFire in the Roger’s Park community where she then extended the help she received.
“We [at CeaseFire]use a public health approach to cure violence,” she said.
CeaseFire uses their personal stories to change the mindset of high risk minorities. They also use their voice in attempts to educate lawmakers.
“I still feel there’s hope in Roger’s Park. We can always turn it around. Forget the half, the glass is full. The residents need to step up. These youth need jobs, they need money,” Bianca explained. “The underlying cause is money and [lawmakers] are leaving our youth behind.”
Hawk agrees that education is the best solution in breaking the generational curse of violence and despair.
“They need after-school programs that are fun, so when they get out of school they can have fun and learn. I learned a lot of things [while in prison]. I didn’t come out the same person I went in. I’m getting older. I can’t let nobody hold me back,” he said. “I’m not trying to fall back into the same lifestyle.”