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Before entering the alley that leads into a vacant lot off in North Lawndale, Robert "Rock" Calhoun Sr., 64, stopped to read a mural he helped paint on the adjacent building: "It is easier to build strong children than to repair a broken man."
Once just empty spaces, these two lots near the intersection of 15th Street and Homan Avenue have become a safe place where people can gather, play games or watch a movie projected against a nearby building. There's a playground for kids, and last summer a free children's camp was hosted here. The road to reclaiming the space has brought together a group of men, some who say their past offenses have given them a desire to create something beautiful for the neighborhood.
"It started out as dominoes," Calhoun said, looking toward a makeshift wooden table in one of the lots. "We played dominoes from sun up to sun down sometimes. It got cold, we dug a pit, [and] we burnt wood to stay warm… A group of men joined up with us, there was 36 of us at one time."
Crowds of people from the neighborhood would gather to observe the game and listen to their banter, jokes and spiritual discussions, he said. Calhoun and Charlie Wilson, close friends since the childhood they shared in the neighborhood, realized they had an opportunity to make the domino games something more.
"We said, you know what, we need to stand up and show people there are men in our community who are willing to stand on the front line," Wilson said. "So this organization was a great tool for men to come together to change their mindset. It begins to take fear out of the minds of the people in the community."
That's how Men Making a Difference, or MMAD, was formed. Founded in 2014, the group's mission is to combat violence and to build programs to "restore" people to the community, based off the principles of restorative justice. Calhoun speaks often about putting the word "neighbor" back in "hood."
MMAD has garnered the support of many community leaders, including Alderman Michael Scott of the 24th Ward. "It's important that we have exactly what the name is: Men attempting to make a difference in the North Lawndale community," Scott said. "We read articles about African American men being pictured as the perpetrator … It's great to work with men in this community who want to step up for not only their own children but for many children."
He called the group a "cure to a greater ailment" in the neighborhood, praising them for cleaning up the lots and keeping them safe.
Calhoun said, "We would get up every Saturday and clean up both lots. The community would come out and watch, talk to us about what we were doing, what and why."
A major part of their work has been maintaining a relationship with the local gangs. "We have decreased the gun violence in our little area between the two gangs that have been killing each other from the early 2000s up to the time we went in to talk to them," he said. "We said, the drug thing, we know y'all got to live, so do your hustling. But stop killing each other, because you got a brother who lives on Homan, that's got a cousin that lives on Christiana, that's got aunties over here—and the strain you're putting on these families, shooting at each other, what is the gain?"
According to Calhoun, the gangs understood the request and have steered clear of the lot.
How did he get them to listen? Partly because of his own connections to the neighborhood, he explained.
Like most of the older men in North Lawndale, Calhoun has spent much of his life in the area. Long before he was hosting kids' summer, he had been arrested for a whole litany of crimes: drugs, battery and assault, kidnapping, he said. He sold drugs throughout North Lawndale for more than 10 years and struggled with drug addiction as well.
In the mid '90s, Calhoun was convicted for drug possession with intent to sell and spent four and a half years in prison. He said the time away allowed him to reflect; he realized the crime he committed didn't only affect him, but everyone who lived in North Lawndale. By the time of his release in 1999, he said wanted to change his life.
"I try to repair the damages that I may have caused—well, not 'may,' I did cause a lot of damages in my community, in my youthful age, with what I was doing," Calhoun said.
Calhoun's is a story told over and over in North Lawndale, true for many people. It's what led him and those like him to the empty lots sprinkled throughout the neighborhood—they've become something of a magnet, pulling those with similar pasts and giving them a chance at renewal.
'It was too big for just us'
Since its birth in the South Homan lot, MMAD membership has shrunk from 36 to about 13, some due to simple attrition, some who didn't quite realize how much work the group would require, according to Calhoun. The remaining members have become more organized and expanded their programs. They teach dominoes and chess in North Lawndale schools, using the game to show kids the value of patience and thoughtful decision-making.
"The men in that organization know where our kids are coming from, and they can reach them in ways I cannot, and so they have just been an amazing partner," said Genessa Schultz, academic dean of Community Christian Alternative Academy, where MMAD has been working this year.
The group spends every Monday and Wednesday at the school. They divide the students up based on experiences and which members can relate the most to the specific group of kids. They sit in peace circles with the students, along with members of the 10th District Chicago Police Department.
"The kids are looking for an adult in their lives that they can relate to. Rock and the men in the group, they've all been black teenagers in Chicago with fear of the police or being judged. Our kids deal with it on the daily, and they bring wisdom to the table in a way the kids receive it and understand it," Schultz said.
The peace circles with the police and students are small, organized and intimate talks. It's a part of CPD's Bridge and Divide program, which aims to create trust between cops and community members, which is one of the other goals of MMAD. Emmetria Perkins, a senior at CCA, said meeting with police officers and MMAD felt strange at first, but it is now something she looks forward to.
"Sometimes we see things differently because of age, but it's easy because they've been through it already and they can tell us what they've experienced and the same thing they experienced is the same thing that we're going through now," Perkins said.
She said the MMAD men have changed her perspective on a few things, including how she views the police, and she credits that to the weekly circle talks.
The relationship between MMAD and the police department isn't without its critics. MMAD members said they've been called "snitches" by people in the community. Due to a long history of police brutality and lack of accountability in the department, as officially documented in the U.S. Department of Justice's damning report issued last year, many North Lawndale residents feel unsafe around police. But MMAD knew from early on that it needed partners to accomplish its goals
"In order for us to make this work as an organization, the Chicago Police Department had to be involved. It was too big for just us," MMAD member Willie "Bo-Bo" Johnson said. "We had a big idea, a big plan, but we knew we had to have help."
That's why MMAD members decided to attend their first Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy meeting, or CAPS.
"I think it was about 25 of us, the men, we walked into the meeting, we went downstairs, they looked up and they didn't know what to say," said Wilson, MMAD's cofounder and current president. "We said we are here to do whatever we can to bring our neighborhood back, in whatever way we can. The sergeant was very impressed, so we began having dialogue with them."
Since then, MMAD has made a point to work with the police department, and in fact, even holds its weekly meetings at the 10th District police station. It's a factor that's both hindered and helped the group's community outreach. For instance, MMAD held a Thanksgiving meal giveaway last year which served more than 200 people. It was hosted at the police station.
"It was amazing when people started seeing the MMAD men with police. Here is an ex-stick up man, ex-drug dealer, all these other bad guys and look at them, they're going to the police station like nothing happened," Calhoun said.
One of the volunteers working the event was Kenny Smith, a young mentee of Calhoun's who said he doesn't trust the police. "When I come in to the police department, I don't want to be in here, because when I first came in here, I was going in the back to jail," Smith said. "If it was up to me and I had a decision, I wouldn't have come [here]."
But Calhoun, whose daughter is a police officer and brother is in the FBI, thinks it's important for people like Smith to work with police. The group believes a stronger relationship with the cops will prevent instances of police brutality and racial profiling.
"They teach all police are going to kill black kids, that's not true," he said, "or all black kids are gang bangers, that's not true. So somewhere that bridge had to be brought back together … how else could it be done except with a community group that's working along with the police department?"
Their own authorities
Despite its successes thus far, MMAD sees a challenging future ahead.
"Finances is always going to be one of the main things," Wilson said, "but we have been very fortunate for the years that we have been in business, we never took on nothing that was too big for us to afford ourselves."
The men often fund their own programs, like last year's Thanksgiving meal giveaway. They've also received donations from community members and political leaders such as Alderman Michael Scott and the late Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele. Local shops such as Fine Fair Food & Liquors (3357 W. 16th St.) lend money and supplies when needed.
One thing the group hasn't done, despite is 501c3 nonprofit status, is apply for grants from private foundations.
"I don't like no one coming in and trying to tell us how to do something that we know how to do," Calhoun said. "When you get grant money, you are subject to them telling you how you're supposed to be spending their money."
Still, the group plans to continue its school mentorship, holiday drives and summer camp programs into this year. MMAD may even adopt a few more vacant lots. With enough funding, it will look into renting or buying a building or office to call its own.
"We feel if we had a true home base, we could do more because more people would be willing to come in," Calhoun said. "If it was like a community service building, they wouldn't be looked upon so bad, and the guys off the street could come in, too."
This article was produced by City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab. Learn more and get involved at www.citybureau.org.
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