Not even a hot plate of eggs and hash browns can keep Sherwin DuPont’s eyes from glancing outside of Daley’s Restaurant on East 63rd Street on a sunny Saturday morning.

“Sorry if it seems like I can’t focus,” he says “You never know when something might come up on these streets – it could break out anytime.”

It’s serene inside, with people enjoying good food and company, but DuPont is talking about the reality of gangs and violence here in Woodlawn, a Chicago community about 20 minutes south of the Loop by public transportation.

Between bites, he points out members of a local gang, the Gangster Disciples, pulling into some nearby booths for breakfast. He estimates that more than three-fourths of 16-to-26-year-olds in Woodlawn are involved with gangs to some capacity.

Each week, DuPont gets four or five calls from contacts he’s worked to develop in each of the six major black street gangs in Woodlawn: Tension is escalating between rival gangs, and they need his help before it gets violent.

DuPont is not a cop and has no connection to Chicago police; he holds no degrees in conflict resolution. But he is a former area gang banger.

Armed only with the street credibility he has earned, DuPont’s job is to walk directly into the mix of guns, knives and hot heads to mediate and help diffuse potentially deadly conflicts between gangs.

“You don’t hear about those things on the news,” he says. “Those are the statistics you can’t measure. About the middle of September we had a war brewing out here, and it took us nonstop work to put it down. We were in their faces day and night until we solved the problem. Without us, these streets would be on fire.”

DuPont is an outreach supervisor for CeaseFire, a group of ex-gang members and thugs who spent years in jail for murder, robbery and drugs, but now devote their lives to end the violence wrought by gangs in the very Chicago neighborhoods they grew up in.

Hiring ex-gang members, who are chosen after a highly selective process, was the brainchild of Gary Slutkin, a sociologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. CeaseFire is an initiative of the Chicago Program for Violence Prevention, dedicated to decrease the numbers of shootings and killings by gangs.

“Our outreach workers have said, ‘I created this problem, but I want to help out now to end it’,” said Francisco Perez, CeaseFire’s chief outreach coordinator. “They have each made a sincere commitment to changing these neighborhoods.”

To succeed, outreach workers must gain the trust of Gangster Disciples, Four Corner Hustlers, Latin Kings and other hard-core gangs by leveling with, understanding, and showing they will literally die for them. Wearing orange and black jackets as identifiers, CeaseFire’s workers are recognized and respected on some of Chicago’s toughest streets.

“They can get out there and do things in the community that police can’t because of the trust factor and respect they have developed,” said Sgt. Jennifer Dowling of the Chicago Lawn community policing program.

More than 500 gang members in Chicago actively seek help on, and off, the streets from the 15 different city-wide CeaseFire branches because as DuPont says, “They want it – they want change.”

“No one has done more to help me than the guys here at CeaseFire,” said one 18-year-old Vice Lord.

He has been in and out of jail, but CeaseFire members are currently helping him earn his GED certificate and land a full-time job.

“I try to bring as many people in here with me, but this is about me because I know I want a change. I don’t care what anyone else around me thinks.”

No mayoral connection, academic thesis or social justice campaign can effectively combat gang violence like CeaseFire workers do, supporters say. That’s because it takes more than rhetoric, more than street demonstrations and more than police strategies, they point out.

“You gotta get in there,” DuPont explains. “We get right in there in the trenches and under tunnels with these guys. You’re not gonna get the alderman of any ward to do what we do.”

In doing so, they have become some of Chicago’s most important citizen leaders. They don’t talk about change; they work for it.

“We are more prepared than anyone for the battle because we are willing to put our lives on the line every single day,” said Husain Abdul Aziz, an outreach worker in Southwest Chicago.

“We can’t let ourselves become apprehensive because of what society does or does not do for us. When it comes down to it, these young brothers and sisters in gang life know the inherent difference between right and wrong.”

Two of CeaseFire’s busiest branches operate out of tiny offices on the east and west sections of 63rd Street. The 12 total outreach workers in these branches walk daily into the most dangerous areas of town unarmed, underpaid and even without life insurance plans in their contracts because they believe in the very people who are traditionally written off or scorned in their communities. Their stories tell a tale of hope that is often overshadowed in gang-ridden neighborhoods.

Walking their old gang turf

They could be training to become young athletes or artists, teachers or doctors.Instead, grade schoolers are playing tag around gas pumps at a station, middle schoolers are sitting on doorsteps and the mobsters, not far away, are standing security for one of the local gangs.

The youth of Southwest Chicago are talented, says Hugo Siguenza, an outreach worker and former Latin King, are talented.

“They are amazing artists and fine athletes, and they are smart, he says.”

Siguenza hands out flyers to residents that say, “Is your child in a gang? Find out before it’s too late.”

Unfortunately, he says, many end up like the two young 20-somethings nearby who are watching over the corner of 61st and Whipple streets. It is all they know. It is all they’ve ever seen.

Too often, they don’t find out what they could have been until they’re in jail, as was the case with Siguenza, who got 12 years for attempted murder and carjacking.

“These two guys are holdin’ security for their boys,” he explains. “No doubt; and they’re packin’ guns, too. See how they got their arms up in those big coats and sweatshirts?”

“What’s up, guys?” he asks them. He gives them just a quick confident stare and moves on, passing out more flyers. No need to confront them tonight, he says. It’s better to talk to gang members when they are away from the mob and willing to listen to him. Most are willing, he says.

“Those guys ain’t even smart,” says Siguenza , shaking his head as he moves down the block. “They don’t even know what they’re doing out here. What they’re packin’ is so far up those big sleeves that if a car drove by and started shooting, it would be ‘pop pop pop!’ before they could even pull out their hands to shoot back.”

Before getting back in his car to drive back to the office, Siguenza approaches three youngsters sitting on the stoop in front of a house. He is upset they are outside. It is drizzling rain and biting cold as dusk approaches.

“What are your interests?” he asks them frankly.

Without hesitation, the two boys, probably seventh or eighth graders, respond, “Football, man, we love football.” The girl says she likes drawing. Siguenza gives them his business card and says to call him.

CeaseFire is will host free movie nights on Fridays starting soon because winter’s coming, and it’s too cold for these youngsters to be sitting outside.

“Man, these kids got interests, but they got nowhere to go,” he says as he walks away. “Those kids were receptive and they were polite. But you know what? They’ll be the next guys on security on the corner. Just give ’em a few years. They got nowhere else to go out here.”

Gang members reaching out for help

Sherwin DuPont did not hit rock bottom when his mother was murdered by a rival gang member with a single shot to her head.

It was two weeks later, when he realized what he would have done had the police not gotten first to the man who killed his mom.

“I went crazy. I slept two hours in two weeks looking for that cat,” recalls DuPont, the outreach supervisor for CeaseFire’s Woodlawn team. “I had a soundproofed basement ready for him. I was going to torture him, and it was not going to be quick.”

Just as DuPont was about to take his own action against his mother’s killer, he saw the man being dragged out of a house by Chicago Police. It was then that he knew he had to confront a confounding scenario for many gang members – he had to change.

“I realized that even if I murdered 10 or 20 guys, it wouldn’t bring my mother back,” he says, “and it probably would have landed me in the same position she was in.”

DuPont added, “Nope, I’ve never forgotten her, but I’ve never looked back since that day.”

In recounting his story, DuPont shocked the collection of Gangster Disciples and Vice Lords sitting around a table chatting in a meeting room at The Woodlawn Organization.

“Man, I don’t even know,” says one 20-year-old GD, who paced in and out of the room after hearing the story. “I can’t imagine that – someone doing that to your Mama.”

DuPont says someone did do that to his Mama, and the same types of activities the guys gathered in the room are into could lead to similar fates for their families. DuPont, though, just hopes more gang members enlist the help of CeaseFire and others who believe in them before they hit their own rock-bottom.

“How would you start?” one GD asks sharply. “You tell me and I might go that way. We are men out here; people in the neighborhood. They know this is all we know and we’re all we got.”

DuPont said dozens of gang members stream in and out of CeaseFire offices every day seeking direction and help. Sometimes he and other outreach workers give them little jobs around the office or have them promote CeaseFire’s mission on the streets and pay them out of their own pockets.

One time, a Vice Lord came into the Woodlawn office and said he wanted to take a girl to a movie, but didn’t have enough money. The CeaseFire guys had him clean the bathrooms in the office and gave him money for a date and bus fare.

“They’re hungry for a change out here, but they need to eat, and if we don’t have anything for them, we can’t blame them for going back to the street,” DuPont says.

Over the summer, Woodlawn’s CeaseFire team gave them all they could. DuPont said the outreach workers scrounged up $4,000, and CeaseFire’s main office matched that amount. With that money, they employed 20 total representatives from six different gangs. Those who showed up to work did so because they were committed to changing their lives and getting off the street.

Bitter enemies by tradition, they found their goals in life are similar.

“Half the time, they don’t even know what they’re fighting about,” DuPont explained after the gang members had left.

With Chicago gangs, where you are born often determines which mob you run with and what course of life you choose.

“It just happens,” said Ulysses Floyd, another former gangster-turned outreach worker in Woodlawn. “I could be a Vice Lord if I lived three blocks down, or a Gangster Disciple if I lived three blocks east.”

During the summer, though, they all worked, ate, watched movies and chilled out with each other. They did their jobs and collected a paycheck.

“That was the first job I ever had,” said one Vice Lord. “These guys listen to me, see I want to change and give me a chance. It was all business over the summer; we had no problems working with each other.”

Floyd said it was an unprecedented accomplishment in the history of Chicago gangs.

“We had members from every mob in Woodlawn,” he said. “They got a chance to interact with guys they don’t go around with, guys they have beefs with. Some of them hadn’t even been off their blocks before.”

And it all went over smoothly.

“If everyone could just be one solid gang there would be a lot of hope,” said a GD. “At first in the summer, we looked around and said, ‘Are we really gonna get this close to each other without hurting each other?’ But then they got us playing baseball and basketball together and you know, the friendship kind of grows, and you start thinking, ‘man, I don’t want to hurt you!'”

Reversing the gang trend

The lack of facilities and activities for young people in Southwest Chicago is appalling, says Rafi Peterson, a CeaseFire outreach supervisor and a member of several community planning boards in the area.

According to numbers taken from a Census tract by the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, 88,000 young people aged 6-to-21 live within a two-mile radius in Chicago Lawn.

In that area, Peterson said there’s just one recreational facility: an old YMCA building now being run by the Southwest Youth Collaborative. There is also one bowling alley.

“We’ve got no Boys Clubs, no Boy Scouts, not nothing,” Peterson says. “How can people continue to stand for this?”

Until everyone in the community gets together and makes it a priority to offer their time and talent to guide young people into positive activities, gangs will continue to thrive, Peterson says.

“Chicago has some of the most incredible and effective youth organizing, probably world-wide. Unfortunately, most of it is done by the Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples,” quipped David McDowell, a senior organizer at Southwest Organizing Project on West 63rd Street. “They’re out everyday organizing and providing activities for our youth. They are brilliant organizations, and we’ve got to figure out how to match them.”

Architects have drawn up blueprints for what a youth recreational facility would look like in the Chicago Lawn area, but there is no timetable of when something might be done.

According to McDowell, planners were taken aback as the large number of young people from the area discussed ideas for recreational facilities.

“If you planted all those kids in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois, they would form the 10th-largest city in the state,” he said. “This is not just a matter of building a youth recreation center. This is going to involve the entire community getting together and saying, ‘This is a problem that we need to solve together.'”

McDowell said even building a facility to serve 3,000 young people would raise the number served in that area only slightly.

Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th) has worked fervently against the gang problem in her ward, which includes Woodlawn. She said she’s called for more youth recreation opportunities and facilities across Chicago.

“There is a lot of talk about inequity and a lot of interest in providing for more park programs to provide a counterweight to gangs,” Preckwinkle said.

Peterson understands that planning takes a long time, but he questions why city leaders leave so many young children in poor areas of Chicago – most of whom are minorities – and so vulnerable to negative activities.

“Developers do whatever they do downtown in their high-rises, and it takes a long time – I get it,” he said. “But in the years before a facility is built, how many thousands of youth are we going to lose to the streets?”

It’s simple, according to Peterson. Peterson explains: give youth something to do and somewhere to go. Get them interested in exploring their talents before they get into gangs. Keep kids outside with nothing to do and there is no hope.

“I’ve got all this stuff,” Peterson said, pointing to a closet in his office. “I’ve got an XBOX, basketballs, board games, soccer nets, punching bags and a full weight set. I’ve even got one of those pool tables that you can reverse and play Ping Pong on. But I’ve got nowhere to put it. We’ve got nowhere where our youth can come and do something positive.”

Peterson said mobilizing the community is as important as anything he can do as a member of CeaseFire. By making the community aware of what causes gang activity, Peterson hopes more people will take action with their own unique talents and ideas.

“My bosses sometimes get on me asking why I’m on all these community planning boards,” he said of his vast community involvement. “They just don’t know because they haven’t been on these streets and seen what allows gangs to continue. It starts with the youth, and right now there’s nowhere else for them.

“I’ve heard PhD’s and other people with long titles talk about gangs, but I know more than they’ll ever know because I’ve lived that life,” he added. “They wouldn’t survive even one day on the street.”

It must be a concerted effort to convince gang members, and youth who might become future gang members, that there is a better way.

“We need the churches, the schools, the mosques. We need everyone in the same room in agreement that this is a major problem in our community,” said McDowell.

Essentially, DuPont and Peterson said CeaseFire workers are a few guys giving their best every day with the resources they have. They’ve been successful cutting down on shootings and killings, but it’s going to take much more than their willingness if gangs are ever going to be uprooted.

It’s not going to happen overnight, and it’s not going to be easy, the workers insist.

“We’re not saying we’re going to change the whole society,” said Peterson.

“We’re fighting generations of gang heritage out here – that’s what we’re up against.”

Even if they give youths a chance to get off the street for a few hours by letting them swing by the office or giving them a job, Peterson said his employees are saving lives.

“It’s about helping the weakest ones,” he said. “We are making the community more aware than ever before that this can happen.”

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How CeaseFire is funded

$6.25 million from the state of Illinois in 2006

$900,000 earmark from the federal government to be used over an 18-monthperiod.

Approximately $1 million from foundations like the McCormick Tribune Company and the Chicago Community Trust

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently contributed $3 million to help more start up branches of CeaseFire in different cities and states

$0 from the City of Chicago

The 15 CeaseFire branches in Chicago receive $250,000 each Outreach workers are paid approximately $27,000 per year