After an overnight mass shooting injured at least 15 people in North Lawndale on Oct. 29, a number of community partners and city agencies stepped in to coordinate services for victims and their families.
The Chicago Police Department on Oct. 31 opened an emergency service center at YMEN’s facility, where police and community organizations provided on-site support to victims and their families. Among them was UCAN, a nonprofit providing an array of services for at-risk families, children and youth across Illinois, including violence prevention and gang intervention. UCAN coordinated with other service providers to provide behavioral health services, counseling, children services, domestic services, therapy dogs and if needed, emergency relocation services to victims, among other services.
Yet, their work in community violence goes beyond that by working to prevent more violence. They leverage relationships and connections in the communities where they are embedded. After the shooting, UCAN’s street outreach team was tasked with mediating to prevent retaliation, part of the nonprofit’s strategy to prevent more violence from harming the community. The team is formed by about 140 community violence intervention workers who are credible messengers in their communities. They have relationships with individuals active in street involvement, who are at the highest risk of being a victim or perpetrator of violence, said Edwin Galletti, vice president of violence intervention and prevention services.
“In instances such as this we’re able to mediate and put in place a non-aggression agreement to ensure that there’s no retaliation,” he said.
One of these messengers is Michael Thomas, who was born and raised in North Lawndale. Thomas, 48, works as UCAN’s program manager for street outreach and violence.
He chose to join UCAN about four years ago because he doesn’t want to see his community harmed by violence – and he has some connections to groups likely to start violence.
“I actually know a lot of the groups in the community,” Thomas said. “I know the majority of the people in the groups or whatnot.”
For years, he has tried to prevent violence by interrupting violent acts or violent cycles. When he sees young people getting into a fight, he intervenes. After a shooting, he mediates “peace agreements” that prevent more bloodshed.
His relationships help him know what is happening in the community and anticipate any events that could start violence.
Unlike other incidents, the street outreach team did not know about the party because it was rescheduled to the venue on the 1200 block of Pulaski Road at the last minute, he said.
In this case, the Chicago Police Department reported the arrest of the offenders on Oct. 30, so it is unlikely there will be any retaliation. If the responsible individuals were still on the streets, it would be different, Thomas said.
As a mediator, Thomas talks to the individuals involved in a violent incident to try to reach a peace agreement. If a rivaling group targets someone from a group, the group could seek to retaliate against them or family members, causing more violence, he said. In his conversations, he recognizes someone who was shot or attacked is upset, but the main thing is “to get them to focus on the consequences,” and talk to them at the “right time.” He then shares there is another way – from giving access to resources like a gym to release stress to referring them to employment programs. The lack of resources is what often drives individuals to be involved in street activities, he said.
“We just take a time to sit back and just think of the consequences,” Thomas said. “You know, you might do jail time, you might have family, you might have kids… Just take a step back and don’t react, think before you react.”
He has earned respect from groups in the neighborhood, he said. Having lived in North Lawndale all his life, people know he is neutral and does not work with or for the police. They also know he is affiliated with a particular street group.
“They know the work that we do in the community, they know we mean good,” he said.
Thomas and his team’s presence around the neighborhood also serves as an example of change, one he knows is needed long after tragic violence incidents occur.
“We got guys who used to be involved and that’s not involved no more,” Thomas said. “And they look at the change and they’re like ‘Man, if this guy can change, I know I can.’”