For some children, heading back to school is about more than saying goodbye to summer, stocking up on school supplies and deciding what to wear the first day of school; it’s about returning to violence. Last year, 39 Chicago Public School students were murdered. Local teen violence made national news when 16-year old honor student Darrien Albert was beaten to death during a gang fight on his way home from school. The entire incident was filmed and posted on YouTube, which put Chicago on the map as a hotbed for youth violence.
Like many of the city’s worst health problems—from food deserts to alarming rates of diabetes—violence is most common in neighborhoods where the majority of residents are black or Hispanic, poor and uneducated. Although violence has many root causes, some experts have attributed it to the city’s demolition of existing housing projects, like Cabrini Green. Eliminating these tenements has encouraged gentrification of formerly blighted areas, but these initiatives have also displaced numerous residents and put more violent offenders on the streets. Absent alternative housing, these individuals have had to relocate to other segregated, high-crime areas, increasing friction and violence among existing gangs.
South Side resident Rev. Torrey Barrett, Youth Pastor of New Life Community Church, works in one of these at-risk neighborhoods—Washington Park. Despite the odds, he is passionate about protecting and healing his community: “They’re targeting State Street and Garfield Boulevard as the second-worst crime area of the nation. We’re just three blocks East of that. Just West of us is Englewood. A lot of the violence…spills over into Washington Park, and we want this to be a place where residents can feel safe.” Barrett founded non-profit K.L.E.O. Community Family Life Center in order to bring peace to his community. Through after-school educational programs, affordable housing initiatives and conscious events, K.L.E.O. is strengthening families and providing a safe haven for residents impacted by violence.
Barrett’s passion for bringing peace to Washington Park began with the early death of his sister Kleo in 2007, a young woman who was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend in a brutal murder-suicide. At the time, Barrett and Kleo—who ironically, was a police officer—had just begun renovating the building that is now the home of the center. The renovation was only half complete when she died. Instead of giving up, he named it K.L.E.O., which stands for “K.eep L.oving E.ach O.ther,” to keep his sister’s spirit alive and bring hope and faith to the community.
Each year, K.L.E.O. hosts a Peace Festival and Back to School Rally. The Peace Fest is a free event for the neighborhood offering free food, a live DJ and open-mic performances. Each student receives a backpack filled with school supplies and a free hair cut. Local businesses, government agencies and non-profits are given vendor booths to highlight and promote their pro-peace initiatives. Unlike other anti-violence events, Barrett sees Peace Fest, now in its second year, as more affirmative: “It’s not an anti-violence action, it’s a peace rally,” he says. “Instead of promoting anti-violence, we promote what [we want to create]—actual peace.”
In addition to Peace Fest, K.L.E.O. hosts Friday Night Live each Friday from 6-10pm. In the tradition of American Idol, the event features a weekly contest that gives neighborhood kids a place to hang out without being on the streets, while showcasing their talent for rapping, singing and dancing. The winner is awarded a $50 cash prize and unlimited bragging rights. Each week, over 250 members of the community attend. According to Barrett, it helps kids “squash their beef on stage as opposed to using guns and weapons to fight each other,” and violent crimes on those nights have gone down in the neighborhood since the program launched.
Barrett’s not stopping there. He recently won a two-year, $1.2 Million dollar contract with CPS to create a Violence-Free Zone with the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise at Englewood’s Robinson High School. He’s also spearheading a working group that is developing a Peace Plan for the entire South Side of Chicago, and is now petitioning the city to fund the expansion of K.L.E.O. into a larger, 1,000-seat venue. Through these innovative initiatives that are promoting peace—“the change we want to see”—Chicago will begin to see more love, and less violence, on its streets.
K.L.E.O. is supported by The Washington Park Consortium, a program sponsored by LISC. To learn more, visit kleocenter.org
- As first published in Mindful Metropolis