We spoke to Derek Brown at St. Agatha Catholic Church on Dec. 28 for a story in this week’s issue on a Kwanzaa ceremony convened there by numerous community groups. Brown, a restorative justice coordinator at St. Agatha, also runs a program called Boxing Out Negativity. He talked about how he joined a gang as a child and what him decide to turn his life around to become a role model for others. 

On joining a gang

It’s like the blind leading the blind. I remember being a kid and all I wanted to do was to be a drug dealer, a gang banger. I was 12 years old when I joined. I was a Vice Lord. I sold drugs right here on 18th and Hamlin. I did a lot of evil things.

On what made him decide to get out

[I went] through a lot of hell. Between the ages of 12 and 19, I was in and out of juvie. [After that] I spent half of my life in jail. I’ve been shot at. Most of my friends are dead, some of them have been incarcerated. And as I got to be a grown man, I wanted out. And God wanted me to give back.

Father Larry Dowling [of St. Agatha’s] has been helping me in my transition from the street. After my transition from the street, I started a boxing program. A lot of the youth on the street have been conditioned. I can talk straight to them and be an example.

On restorative Justice

I’ve been doing circles my whole life. 2016 was the first time I did a circle and really got something out of it. The circles I did back in the day weren’t so peaceful, but the circles out here help people. They help solve a lot of issues in the community.

[Restorative Justice] is actually one of the best things for the North Lawndale community. Here at St. Agatha, we hired [around 80 young people]. We also go back to the Cook County Jail to talk to [inmates] and help them once they get out. We help them get IDs, get back to school, get jobs.