Alfred Lewis, Staryell Wright
Contributor: Kristin Heinichen
Nurturing communities and educating minds were once at the core of some Chicago-based gangs. The founding fathers of these gangs drafted literature that spoke of love for family and community nearly 40 years ago. But over time, these organizations became fractured and began to promote illegal activities. While the original defining characteristics of gangs might be lost on most members, it isn’t for one man. And he endeavors to make his knowledge known.
“I go to gang meetings. I understand their program literature,” Javier Anaya said. “Half the battle is getting them to listen.”
But his street credibility is undeniable, and this eventually gets their attention.
“I’m a product of these streets,” Anaya said. “They know who I am.”
Anaya was once a high ranking member of a notorious gang. He’s familiar with what the inside of a prison looks like, and it’s not something he cares to talk much about. His misguided past earned him a sentence of 19 years behind bars. Since then Anaya has become a model citizen, having started his own real-estate business as well as opening a facility intended to empower ultra high-risk youth.
“Violence is contagious…you eventually fall into those ways. But so is being righteous,” he explained. “We go straight to the veins…give them that dosage of righteousness.”
Just off the corner of Western and Division lies “Both Sides of the Park Empowerment Center.” Anaya opened his doors nearly one year ago, but has worked for nearly a decade on refining the platform in which to deliver his message.
“I’m trying to educate them,” he said. “I ask them ‘What’s your purpose? What legacy do you want to leave behind?’”
Before recruiting them to his center, he shares the tenets of gang literature. He explains that not all gangs started out as an organized group of criminals. Instead, it was more of a dignified system set in place that “could petition any government system.”
Anaya wouldn’t disclose the gang or its founders, but her chose to let the literature speak for itself. It read that the organization began as a “tool” in providing “progress” and “education” as a way to prepare for the realities of their “struggle.”
The preface begins as follows: “Strive to approve income limitations that are present at that moment that future generations will confront.” It then goes on to inform about the organization’s “past existence:”
“After realizing and acknowledging our central beliefs and their values we and our allies set out to bring about political power. Better working conditions, better housing communities and peace and harmonies throughout our Latino communities,” it states. “In conclusion one must remember that this organization has an unquestionable duty to listen, to live life in a greater and more positive manner.”
Anaya knows all too well that “working together” towards a productive “common goal” is no longer the future direction of today’s gangs. That said, Anya replicates elements of this literature into his center, and hopes to broaden understanding that community trumps gang.
“I show them love. I educate them like a big brother would do,” he said.
Countless folks come through his doors, and of those he is closely working with a dozen. His program gives them a five-year plan which provides them with alternatives. But in the end, change is up to them.
“Ninety percent are gang affiliated participants,” he said. “ I try to give them a sense of responsibility, a lot of love, a lot of respect and a lot of education.”
As gang wars in Chicago rage on, Anaya works to change the tide of gang activity in his community. He believes it’s more effective to invest rather than incarcerate, which is why he put his own money into gutting a building and rehabbing it into a safe place. Both Sides of the Park is equipped with a learning lab upstairs and a weight room downstairs. It’s designed to model the five key components of his program:
1) Realize Their Purpose
2) Educate Their Minds
3) Strengthen Their Bodies
4) Channel Their Emotions
5) Truly Believe in Self and Ultimately set a Positive Legacy
Kenny Velez, 22, has been with Anaya from the start. Anaya paid him a worker’s wage to rehabilitate the space. This has given Velez something he has never experienced, a sense of ownership.
“It feels good to be part of something,” he said. “Some people need help and don’t know how to ask for it.”
Velez was considered an ultra high-risk youth when Anaya began recruiting him a few years ago. It was Anaya’s calm temperament and plain speaking that won him over. Velez is now in the process of disassociating from a gang with the help of Anaya. While many still recognize him as a Cobra, Velez refuses to participate in their activities. And some of his old buddies realize that he has chosen something better.
“I call this home,” Velez said.
Without Anaya, the center is just a place. He has become a father figure for Velez. Someone who has risen above it all.
“The center, how he makes himself part of the community, trying to help his own, trying to help me,” he paused, fighting back tears. “I admire everything he does.”
Velez is starting to become the face of the center. He, like Anaya, is seeking harmony within a dangerous community. He too approaches gang members. And if he’s well received, he’ll let them know what the center has to offer over the streets.
“If I can see that he’s reaching out, I’m gonna shoot my shot,” Velez said. “ They’re not thinking community-wise. They just think about drugs and killing people.”
Velez lived with his grandparents for the first 14 years of his life. There, he learned morals and how to treat people. But that became less of a priority once he moved in with his mother. While living with her, he got his first taste of money and gang violence. His mother was a member of the Cobras and he wanted her way of life. But he ended up incarcerated, not wealthy and powerful.
“Jail changed me, I knew it wasn’t for me,” he said.
He has no doubt that without Anaya he would be in a bad place.
“Sometimes you need tools in life. Javier is my tool,” he stated.
Velez gives his loyalty to Anaya and to his new family; the Cobras are no longer part of the equation. Currently, he’s looking for a job and working to get an apartment for his girlfriend and 2 year-old son, Kenny Velez Jr.
“Now I care too much. Everything I do affects my son,” he concluded.