In Chicago’s grim parade of news about shootings, gangs, and homicide in the summer of 2017, there was a glimpse of hope: A series of Friday night campouts, on some of the most violent blocks in South and West side neighborhoods, replaced too-frequent gunfire with committed residents who reclaimed the space with barbeque, music, games, speeches, bonfires and more.
The program, Increase the Peace, drew coverage from the city’s local television newscasts and publications like Hoy and DNA Info. As good as the good news was, however, it was only part of the story. Increase the Peace isn’t only designed to create and promote nonviolence for a night. It aims to strengthen the community over the long term and help the youth who organize the events prepare for college and career.
“We’re using the issue of safety and nonviolence to start a conversation about civic engagement and to get youth and residents involved in their community,” said Jose Muñoz, the vice president of community ownership at The Resurrection Project (TRP), a community-based nonprofit that works in Pilsen, Little Village, and Back of the Yards, which runs the program.
Increase the Peace started last fall as a response to mounting violence in the Back of the Yards community, sparked by outrage at a deadly shooting of a young girl outside of TRP’s local office. The overnight vigil was so successful—and had so much potential as a catalyst for change—that Muñoz made an expanded concept his capstone project when he became a fellow in the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy in 2017. A public relations strategist with more than 20 years of civic leadership experience, including at the City of Chicago’s Department of Public Health and New Futuro, a national education effort to help get more Latino students into college, he saw Increase the Peace’s potential.
“I know Jose used the academy to really hone his vision. It’s great to see something go from a good idea to a working program that is making neighborhoods in Chicago a better place to live,” said CLA Instructor.
The final iteration was a seven-week program, where TRP worked with 50 youth enrolled in One Summer Chicago and Afterschool Matters and 10 youth leaders. Each week, teams split up for the five days before the Friday night event, canvassing the blocks surrounding the new site to drive participation, operating voter registration booths, and cleaning up neighborhood streets. Mixed in were programs to help the high schoolers be ready for the next step after graduation, such as college visits and workshops on topics like completing the federal application for college financial aid.
The campouts were also designed to plant the seeds for ongoing engagement for the residents who come out. More than 60 participants have gone through TRP leadership trainings to date, an eclectic mix of teachers, young professionals, church members, parents and others. Muñoz says the network is already having an impact, like a workshop at Benito Juarez Community Academy on the mechanics of expunging a criminal record for minors, held by a young immigration lawyer who had attended the Increase the Peace event in Pilsen.
“CLA was important to what Increase the Peace is on so many levels,” said Muñoz, citing, for example, how academy presentations led him to prioritize collecting and using data. Over the summer, regular updates on performance let the team make weekly adjustments to its strategies. Perhaps the biggest change from the original capstone concept, however, was the breadth of its reach. Rather than solely operate in TRP communities, the team held the campouts in Brighton Park and Englewood, too.
“We had several conversations in CLA about the importance of crossing neighborhoods in Chicago, and the black/brown divide and how we have to get people together,” Muñoz said. “There is real work to engage folks in a neighborhood where you haven’t been. You can’t just pop in there and expect results. But the effort is so worth it.”
To run a program, work with TRP’s executive team, and partner with other organizations across communities takes real leadership skills, and here too Muñoz said that CLA helped him, particularly in how to reach his goal of empowering the people who work with him. Berto Aguayo, TRP’s community organizer, said he can see that impact.
“Jose was a visionary. He really had the insight to provide space to the young people here,” he said. “We often talk about youth violence without young people in the conversation. In Increase the Peace, they are leading the conversation.”