Juan Gonzalez is incredibly proud of his Southeast Side community — and is just as proud of working to spark positive change there alongside others in the Youth Leadership Council (YLC) of the Alliance of the Southeast (ASE, pronounced “ah-say”).
Being a council member has been “a transformational experience,” Gonzalez says. “I joined because I have so much pride for being from the Southeast Side; I want to have a voice. The YLC gives me the resources and tools to use — instead of staying home, I can do something.”
Funded in part with grants from Southland RISE (Resilience Initiative to Strengthen and Empower), a joint violence recovery and trauma care program run by UChicago Medicine and Advocate Health Care, the YLC brings together fifteen to twenty students, mostly Black and Latinx, from eight area high schools in an intensive civic engagement and social justice program.
As they work together for change, council members develop close relationships with each other and with community members; those connections are a crucial part of reducing neighborhood violence, says Amalia NietoGomez, ASE executive director. “Violence prevention is about building relationships; people who have relationships are less likely to commit violence in all sorts of ways.” And, she adds, “getting youth to be proactive in the community means that they’re not reactive or acting out.”
Members meet weekly to receive training in leadership tools, peer mediation, conflict resolution, and community organizing skills like building strong networks, public speaking, and planning events. Each council meeting opens with a mental health check-in, where members know they’re in a safe space to share feelings and worries.
The YLC is a key program of ASE, which focuses on developing grassroots leaders who can identify community issues and make positive change. ASE currently works in two areas: ensuring that the community has a voice in local development, and conducting an anti-violence campaign. Founded in 2002 as an outgrowth of a series of anti-violence marches on the Southeast Side, the alliance collaborates with nonprofits, churches, schools, and activists on issues facing South Chicago, East Side, Calumet Heights, and South Deering.
Every year, Southland RISE awards more than $100,000 in violence prevention, intervention, and recovery grants to South Side grassroots organizations like ASE that find creative ways to keep young people engaged and safe while they’re out of school for the summer. With the $7,500 grant that Southland RISE has provided each year since 2018, ASE has been able to increase the size of the YLC cohort, hire former members as interns, and pay stipends to council members.
“The stipends are important for a couple of reasons,” NietoGomez says. “First, we want the youth to see the value of their work. And it serves as additional money for the summer, when many of the members need jobs to help support their families or themselves.”
YLC members put their training into action by identifying problems in the community, talking through their ideas for solutions, and carrying out some of their ideas: Members have planned Black Lives Matter marches and back-to-school events, and are working with Chicago Public Schools and other youth leaders on supporting mental health through alternatives to school resource officers’ involvement with students.
“We’re the generation that’s going to continue to grow up here,” YLC member Skylar Spratt said in an interview with the South Side Weekly. “Even when our parents are gone, this is still going to be the community that we grew up in. It’s important to represent our communities in a positive way, and not just with the things we do, but also with what goes on.”