Every week, Vaughn Bryant takes a deep look at the number of shootings and homicides that have occurred across the city. For the 51-year-old executive director of Metropolitan Peace Initiatives (part of the nonprofit Metropolitan Family Services), the statistics are more than just an indication of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. They offer a window into where his violence prevention team needs to focus its resources. If Chicago is going to become one of the safest cities in America, as promised by elected officials, community outreach groups like Bryant’s have to be an integral part of a long-term strategy, he argues.
How does an organization like yours go about reducing violence?
When we see these numbers, it allows us to say, “Hey, where are these conflicts coming from?” We may then try to establish some sort of nonaggression agreement between organizations that are feuding. We have to make sure we are tamping down that exchange and retaliatory shootings in order to make some progress. We are trying to build what we call a civilian infrastructure for public safety. That’s one part of the strategy. We hire people who are credible and have a license to operate in these communities. Then these case managers try to proactively engage people who are most vulnerable to [being involved in] gun violence. They try to build relationships with them, and we put resources around them, like access to free health care, free civil legal aid. We have job readiness training. We have a pilot we just completed with City Colleges where we are getting folks credentials in manufacturing.
Who do you target for outreach?
We look at people who are historically street-involved with crews and cliques. The average age is around 27. Most don’t have a GED, never had a job. That’s our sweet spot.
How do you go about actually pulling these people out of the street life?
Having people work with them who come from the same environments, typically from the same street organizations, who can relate to them — that builds a solid continuous relationship. There’s a level of trauma they’ve experienced that has to be healed. And to heal trauma, you need consistent loving adult relationships. That’s what oftentimes a 24-year-old who is disconnected doesn’t have.
Have you seen this work successfully?
We have a number of success stories of people who pushed us off for a long period of time, then something happens in their life where they call us and say, “Hey, I’m ready to engage now.” They may go to our two-week job-training program and get a job. Now they have been employed for a year-plus and feel like they are going in the right direction. One thing we have to be mindful of is, when you’re disconnected for so long — let’s say you stopped going to school in sixth grade — there’s anxiety around getting back in the classroom. That’s where the consistent support comes in.
How do you get community organizations to work with the Chicago Police Department, when there is often tension there?
We created the Metropolitan Peace Academy, where we go into the police districts and train community members in outreach work. But we also train officers in community policing so they can learn about the communities in which they are policing from a community perspective and not just a law enforcement perspective. Blending those groups in training has created more trust. We know that with CeaseFire and Cure Violence, CPD was skeptical. While we may not have 100 percent of officers believing in what we do, we are much better off than we’ve ever been in terms of them seeing our value and our role.
You’re opening a permanent home for this academy in Pilsen in October. Tell me about that.
We’ve trained about 400 outreach workers, over 100 police officers, close to 50 case managers across the city in 40-plus neighborhoods. It’s one of the jewels of our work. It’s created a network of peacemakers across the city, where they collaborate. Violence travels. Because of the success and demand, we knew we needed to move into a physical location so that we could increase our capacity.
You grew up middle class in Detroit and played football at Stanford and in NFL Europe. Your background is much different than that of the people you are trying to help. How do you relate to them?
My dad was a police officer. My mom was a social worker for the state. But even if you’re middle class, being Black in America, you’re one step away from the work we do and the people we serve. I tell people a story: Catty-corner from where my grandparents lived was a school, and we used to play in that playground. One day, a car drives up and some guys get out and chase one of the guys playing baseball with us. He runs across the street, through the houses and an alley, comes back toward us. We see somebody swinging a meat hook trying to get him. We were frozen. And I say that to say, even being middle class, I still was in an environment vulnerable to violence.
New York and L.A. have seen a decrease in violent crime. What is hampering Chicago’s progress?
We didn’t make the early investment. The outreach work has been around longer here than in New York and L.A., but they invested long term and significantly. Here, the city, county, and state are now funding the work by community outreach groups in significant numbers, but because we were late to innovate and push that, it’s going to take us some time.
So many weekends, the violence stats can be disheartening. How do you remain optimistic?
At the end of the day, I know I’m not in control. God is, and that sort of faith, that I’m doing the right thing, is what I lean on. If I’m doing what I need to do, we will see change over time. This is not short-term work.