Regenay Bridges lives within walking distance of Garfield Park, on the corner of Homan Avenue and Madison Street in East Garfield Park, but the 14-year-old admitted she rarely frequents the green space. That’s because the park is hardly a place for teenagers, even during a sunlit early summer evening.
“People be up here — crackheads and stuff,” Bridges said. “There are no kids here. Not really.”
On Sept. 13, however, Bridges made an exception. She and a small group of friends gathered within the park and made small talk while Marvin Gaye blasted through loudspeakers and smoke wafted from a nearby grill.
Since 2017, the nine organizations that are members of Communities Partnering 4 Peace (CP4P) have conducted Light in the Night — an anti-violence outreach strategy that involves lots of people swarming areas similar to Garfield Park in low-income communities across the South and West Sides.
“This is part of an effort to reclaim safe spaces for the community,” said Yolanda Fields, the chief program officer for Breakthrough — a nonprofit based in East Garfield Park that offers a plethora of programs and resources designed to enhance the quality of life for residents in low-income areas of the city.
“We’re out here every Thursday, Friday and Saturday across nine neighborhoods on the South and West Sides,” Fields said. “We started the first weekend in July and we usually go to September. We start at around 5:30 p.m. and go until around 10 p.m.”
Fields said that the variety of activities at the events are designed to cater to different age groups. Things like face-painting start earlier in the evening to cater to the younger crowd while music and dancing stretch into the night. Fields said that Breakthrough has been doing similar outreach activities, such as sponsoring basketball tournaments, on its own for at least a decade.
The Sept. 13 Light in the Night event in Garfield Park was the last one that involved all nine CP4P member groups and that took place in all nine communities that those groups represent. Among the eight other Light in the Night events happening simultaneously with the one in East Garfield Park were ones at Columbus Park, 500 S. Central in Austin and Tilton Park, 305 N. Kostner in West Garfield Park.
Along with Breakthrough, the nine members also include the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago in West Garfield Park, UCAN in North Lawndale, the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago in Austin and Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Back of the Yards.
“Across the entire city, we’ve had over 160,000 people participate in these events and so that’s pretty significant,” Fields said.
Alex Cesario, Breakthrough’s director of development and communications, said that the reclaimed spaces are particularly unique because they’re so intergenerational.
“You can bring your whole family,” said Cesario, cradling her infant daughter. “People of all different backgrounds can come out and share a meal. This is reclaiming space in a very productive way.”
Feet away from Fields and Cesario, Natedine Williams, 24, sat in the shade while watching her young daughter played in a nearby bounce house.
“This is helping the kids, because they can run around and play,” said Williams, who lives on the West Side, when asked what brought her out in the park on a Friday night. “I usually don’t really see nobody in the park like this.”
CP4P was founded in 2016, when more than 2,300 shootings and more than 400 homicides hit the city by the Labor Day weekend that year.
“Since then, there has been a steady downward trend, with 1,448 shootings through this year’s Labor Day weekend, resulting in 291 homicides,” according to a statement released by CP4P last week.
“We know what works and we have been careful to document what is being done,” stated Vaughn Bryant, CP4P’s executive director. “Much of the funding for our initiatives is coming through foundations and other private philanthropic entities. But in order to reach the level needed for real change, the state, county and city governments will have to step up and do more to fully fund this work. Now is the time.”
Father David Kelly — of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, an organization that specializes in conflict resolution and restorative justice — said that the Light in the Night events are designed to engage people like Regenay Bridges, who said that she spends most of her free time indoors at places like her aunt’s house (“there’s too much going on”).
“What violence does is make people pull back,” Kelly said. “They stay in their homes. These kind of events bring them back out.”