Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said…
PEACE IS NOT JUST THE ABSENCE OF TENSION. IT'S THE PRESENCE OF JUSTICE.
At the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago, we aim to be a source of justice in our city.
In 2012, Chicago led the nation in murders and people all around the city and throughout the country were beginning to take notice. Then in 2014, following the murder of Laquan McDonald, which occurred shortly after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, Chicagoans started paying even more attention to violence in the city, to the communities it was impacting the most and to the trauma it was causing in individual lives. While Chicago had been experiencing a shift in its attitude toward violence in the city for several years, this event sparked a concerted effort to find ways to create more justice and peace.
In October 2015, amidst this new tension in the city, Teny Gross, our founder and executive director, moved to Chicago to start The Institute for Nonviolence. Justice work wasn’t new to Teny. Prior to founding the Institute, Teny spent his career working in nonviolence around the country. He was an outreach worker in Boston and CEO of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence. He paired what he learned from these experiences with the teachings of Dr. King to form the backbone of The Institute for Nonviolence Chicago’s beliefs and practices.
In 2016, the Institute for Nonviolence began its work in Austin, Chicago’s neighborhood most impacted by violence. By implementing comprehensive services for victims and nonviolence trainings, all on the basis of Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence, we started working toward our mission of bringing peace to our city. The work began to expand to Back of the Yards and West Garfield Park, and additional staff were hired, made up of a diverse group of people, including former gang members and former prosecutors. Despite the varied experiences of the staff, what we could all agree on was that it was time to make a change in Chicago. And we began working together to make that change happen.
In 2017, Nonviolence Chicago officially added the West Garfield Park neighborhood to the communities we serve. The funding community, local government and many non-profits came together to develop large-scale strategies to reduce violence through the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities. Nonviolence Chicago played a significant role in this process and continues to actively deepen the collaboration in Chicago’s emerging violence reduction strategy. As the lead agency in Austin and West Garfield Park and a partnering agency in Back of the Yards, Nonviolence Chicago grew significantly in 2017. Through our participation in Communities Partnering 4 Peace (CP4P), we increased our capacity to serve residents of Austin & Back of the Yards and expanded geographically into West Garfield Park.
Another driver of expansion was the READI strategy, providing subsidized employment training & cognitive behavioral therapy for high-risk men in Austin and West Garfield Park. In partnership with Heartland Alliance, we offered needed employment opportunities to young men who were otherwise considered unemployable. Nonviolence Chicago continues to provide the Outreach component of this strategy in Austin and West Garfield Park.
Building off the momentum of the reduction in violence in Austin we saw between 2016 and 2018, Nonviolence Chicago continued to deepen our impact in the Chicago community throughout 2018. Partnering with Chicago CRED, we participated in a pilot of the 7/15 FLIP (Flatlining violence Inspires Peace) program where we provided a stipend to participants in Austin to act as peace ambassadors on blocks most prone to violence. We trained them in Nonviolence and conflict mediation, and closely supervised by Nonviolence Chicago Outreach Workers, these ambassadors were able to significantly increase the peace in their neighborhoods. We saw a 52% reduction in homicides; a 40% reduction in non-fatal shootings; and a 41% reduction in number of shooting incidents from the same time in 2017 in the areas where FLIP workers were stationed. This program was so successful it has been expanded for 2019 to include more neighborhoods.
For the third year in a row, Chicago saw double digit percentage decreases in shootings and homicides. Nonviolence Chicago and the collaborations we helped forge with CP4P with Metropolitan Family Services, Rapid Employment and Development Initiative (READI) with Heartland Alliance, and FLIP with Chicago CRED have been key players in these reductions. By building and maintaining strong partnerships with philanthropic, government, corporate and law enforcement partners, Nonviolence Chicago was able to increase the programs and opportunities we offered participants in 2019. As an example, Nonviolence Chicago added a 16-week Workforce Development program that incorporates the principles of nonviolence along with teaching participants both soft and hard job skills necessary to enter the workforce or to continue to other educational opportunities. Two unique components are a mental health addition that addresses PTSD in participants and opportunities to intern with job training programs before graduation in hopes that they will have a better idea of what they would like to do with their future.
Since the COVID-19 Shelter in Place order took effect in March, Nonviolence Chicago has been working harder than ever to spread education and resources, all while continuing to mediate conflict, respond to shootings, provide trauma-informed care to victims and keep the peace. Our continued support is more essential than ever at this crucial moment to keep our communities safe amid the dual public health crises of COVID-19 and gun violence. Not only does violence not stop under quarantine—but so far in Chicago, over 70% of the reported deaths have been African Americans from disinvested communities like the ones we serve. To step up to our new challenge of keeping our communities safe during the pandemic, we are collaborating with our CP4P partners as well as other community organizations to distribute hygiene kits, supplies, and groceries to our communities. Nonviolence Chicago also worked with Chicago CRED and the City of Chicago to produce and distribute flyers with COVID-19 and gun violence safety tips to hotspots in our areas and educate our communities about both of these public health crises.
To continue to adapt our response during this time, we launched our summer violence reduction strategy early. Through our partnership with Chicago CRED and CP4P, we are giving a stipend to some participants to keep their own corners safe. This Summer Hotspot Strategy gives our participants the tools to keep their neighborhoods, which are hot spots for violence, safe. Each participant is given a uniform, trained in conflict mediation, Nonviolence and COVID-19 safety and will join the front lines of gun violence and COVID-19 prevention. Nonviolence Chicago has been on this front line since we learned about the virus and we will continue our work which is essential to the safety and security of the community for as long as it takes.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, in late 2020 Nonviolence Chicago officially expanded our services to Brighton Park. Programs and services for these residents are based out of our Back of the Yards office, which neighbors Brighton Park.
In the summer of 2021, we grew our FLIP program, making it our largest ever implementation. Nonviolence Chicago recruited and trained 112 high-risk youth to be ambassadors for peace on their own blocks. This expansion included partnering with New Life Centers in Brighton Park. Specifically in Nonviolence Chicago service areas, FLIP workers conducted 105 conflict mediations and established 13 non-aggression agreements between opposing street groups.
Also in 2021, Nonviolence Chicago completed a rigorous strategic planning process that will guide our organization for the next five years. As a result, we identified key areas to focus our efforts. Based on findings from The Northwestern Neighborhood and Network (N3) research, we determined we need to scale to reach the many individuals in our service areas who are at extreme risk of perpetrating or becoming a victim of gun violence. According to N3, “for every 1 participant in a CP4P program, there are 3 others in the same neighborhood without comparable services.”
Recognizing that community members are often under-utilized as street outreach partners, we collaborated with Hope Community Church to train Austin community members in Nonviolence Principles and Steps to better prepare them to engage in peace-building activities and build relationships with street outreach workers and high-risk individuals in their communities, encouraging greater inter-generational social cohesion. We have also engaged faith communities to hold events designed to engage the community and bring resources to those who need it most, resulting in increased support and services for those in greatest need. In our first year, we trained over 250 participants from 6 different congregations.
Additionally, during the creation of our new strategic plan, the health and wellness of our staff, particularly our frontline workers, became a top priority. Many of our staff members still carry the weight of their past trauma, as many have either been victims of or lost someone close to them to gun violence or were involved in street organizations. Now in their professional roles, they must relive past trauma as they intervene in ongoing community violence. As an organization, we have a moral responsibility to take care of our frontline workers or to heal our healers. In 2021, we began to secure funding so we could provide wellness services to our teams.
To address the need to scale, we hired more executive staff and promoted several staff to supervisor and manager positions. We also hired more frontline workers to reach more individuals in need of direct Nonviolence services. To address our commitment to our frontline workers’ health, safety, and wellbeing, we created our new Behavioral Health and Wellness program, thanks to a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois. This is an in-depth program with multiple phases of implementation that will take place over the next three years.
With increased staff and a stronger focus on behavioral health, we were able to expand our Workforce Development program to all three of our office locations. We revamped our Reentry program, now known as Reentry 2.0, to include Cognitive Behavioral Interventions training focusing on emotional regulation and building problem solving and conflict resolutions skills. Finally, we introduced "Cultural Mentoring & Identity Trips" designed to expose, educate, and empower participants and staff in building the Beloved Community. Groups travel to new locations participating in wellness activities, acts of service, and learning about their culture.
In 2023, we began to offer staff the opportunity to pursue a bachelor’s degree by partnering with College Unbound, a higher education institution for nontraditional students who have commonly faced barriers to educational achievement. Staff can now use their lived and professional experience as credits towards a degree. Two cohorts of 10 staff are currently enrolled.
Focusing on the wellness of both staff and participants, over 40% staff have been trained in Cognitive Behavioral Interventions, and we have added CBI to all our program curriculums. To insure intentional coordinated programs and services for participants, we established the Helping Our People Excel (HOPE) program—a unique collaboration between outreach, victim services, and our behavioral health and wellness teams.
As a result of our continued focus on going to scale, we have again increased both direct service and administrative staff and implemented the FLIP program to be year-round. To accommodate our growing needs, we moved our Austin main office to a more modern facility with ample space for our expending services and numbers.