Chicago ‘violence interrupter’ visits Mpls to show how it’s done
By Yvette Griffea-Gray
The old adage “Tomorrow is not promised” may be a saying that young people know all too well these days, as evidenced by the following excerpt written by Chicago teen Latrell Williams, whose cousin was murdered last Thanksgiving weekend.
It broke my heart when I heard the news, early Sunday morning.
As my day progressed reality kicked in.
I didn’t just lose my cousin, I lost my first friend…
Cuzo you’ll never slip my brain
& if I live to have children my first son will have your name.
“If I live?”
A few hundred miles away in Minneapolis, a conversation takes place between a Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) staff person and a young man coming to visit the park:
“Why do you take the bus all the way from the North Side to come to Central Gym?”
“I don’t want to get shot.”
“It makes me sad that you have to make decisions like that.”
“It is what it is.”
In an attempt to address this growing feeling of resignation among our city’s youth, the Community Outreach Department at the MPRB hosted on April 23 a screening of The Interrupters, a documentary that follows a year in the life of three individuals who work to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they once participated in.
The park board also invited cast member and Ceasefire Violence Interrupter Cobe Williams to facilitate a follow-up discussion on the movie. MSR caught up with Williams to discuss his visit to Minneapolis.
MSR: What is Ceasefire?
Williams: Ceasefire is a campaign to stop the shooting and killing. Ceasefire works with the target population of [youth ages] 16-25, and our main thing is that we view violence as a learned behavior that spreads like a disease. So it is our job as interrupters and outreach workers to interrupt the transmission, change the norms, change the thinking, and help youth get to the next level.
MSR: You used to be a part of the problem that we are discussing. What was the turning point for you?
Williams: I kept going back and forth to jail, and I wanted to be a father to my son. While I was in jail I was thinking, there are young kids being killed, mamas and grandmas can’t sit on the front porch or walk up and down the street, kids can’t jump rope or go to the park and play basketball. I was looking at it and I said, “Man, this s**t ain’t right,” and I was part of it.
My grandmother kept getting on me telling me I could do better. I was listening but I wasn’t listening, and I kept getting in trouble. So I started telling myself I don’t want to keep doing this. I want to raise my son. I want to make a difference in the community.
MSR: Why is it important for places like the Minneapolis Park Board to host events like the one held last Monday?
Williams: It is super important so that you can get the word out, but mostly because parks are where young people go to hang out and be themselves. It’s needed because we are always talking about meeting people where they are at — young people are at parks. Really, that is the first event I have been to where a park district hosted. It was great, and there were a lot of young people present.
MSR: While watching the role of a violence interrupter in the movie, there may be a temptation for people to say, “Well, I can’t do that.” How do you encourage people who feel this way to participate in your mission?
Williams: That question always comes up. Everyone can play a part by doing something. It may not be in the street doing mediations, but you can mentor kids in your community and help them grow up. Listen to young people and build a relationship so they feel comfortable reaching out to you as well.
MSR: What was the best thing about your Minneapolis visit?
Williams: The visit was great. The event was great, but the best thing was working with people who are trying to make a difference. I had an opportunity to ride around in the community and visit different parks. Seeing how Youthline staff were on the same page and the consistency as we went to visit the different parks was great.
Seeing how the youth responded to the staff meant a lot, because I could see that they are doing a great job. I could tell that they had great relationships with the kids by the way the kids opened up to me and talked to me. I could tell that the staff are really involved in the young people’s lives and that was great. If someone didn’t know any better, they would probably say, “Man, those are really their kids!”
I am visiting Iowa City now, and that’s one of the things I keep telling people. It’s important to care about everybody’s kids, not just your kids. Reach out to other people’s kids. That is important. I saw the love that the staff had for the kids was sincere and straight up. That made me feel good.
MSR: You have been doing this for six years. Is it getting better, or do you feel like you are digging a hole and someone keeps filling it with dirt?
Williams: No, I feel like it is getting better. I can’t save everyone, but I can spend time with these guys and help them think about changing their minds.
When I go back to places where I have done mediations, I ask the kids how they are doing. I ask, “Are you still doing the same things?” And many times the answer is no. They are changing friends, changing their behaviors, and changing their immediate environment.
When I go back and they haven’t been shot or in jail, that shows me that it is changing, even if it is little by little.
For more information on Ceasefire, go to http://ceasefire chicago.org; for more information on related MPRB programs and events, go to www.minneap olisparks.org.
Yvette Griffea-Gray is a youth worker with the MPRB. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.