Project Presence Helps Reclaim Neighborhood Hotspots

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Chicago Peace Fellow (2020)

Beginning on the week of May 17, the Firehouse Community Arts Center will implement a much-needed initiative to reduce violent crime in Chicago: Project Presence. Project Presence will support community residents who live in crime hotspots reclaim their neighborhoods by going out onto the streets and engaging with their neighbors, especially young people.

Our work at the Firehouse Community Arts Center is all about interrupting the cycle of violence in the lives of youth and young adults through the power of arts and faith. We hire some of the most "at risk" men in the community, those who are most likely to shoot or get shot, recruiting approximately 60 men a year in total, including our three outreach advocates.

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Project Presence was initially planned to pilot later this summer, following a conversation with our outreach advocates who recognized that we could encourage neighbors to come out and support our team working on the streets. However, the murder of 7-year-old Jaslyn Adams in April, who was shot while with her father at a McDonalds drive-thru in the West-Side of Chicago, highlighted the need to mobilize people as a matter of urgency and to begin the project as soon as possible. Shortly after Jaslyn’s death, we invited people to come to an introductory meeting to understand what we are trying to achieve with Project Presence.

This project is based on a simple but powerful concept; we need more presence on the blocks, so our outreach advocates will go out each day and invite others to come out.  The team hands out flyers about the initiative and encourages other residents to get involved. We also want this project to be organic; this is not controlled or regulated by Firehouse Community Arts Center but rather we are the catalyst and facilitator for it.

We want people to sign up, pick a day of the week and a slot when they can be out on the streets, and that is all we are asking for.

Individuals will go out within their own communities and recruit more people to come out and together they will decide what they want their presence to look like. These groups can then obtain additional support from the Firehouse Community Arts Center, for example if they want a basketball rim or a grill for a barbecue etc.

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We also want to have fun with this and double it as a community cohesion project which spreads love and hope amongst some of the most crime-ridden blocks in Chicago. By making Project Presence visible on the blocks and having the teams initiate conversations with residents we are showing them that “we’re here because we care for you.

We are cultivating relationships and friendships and reducing intimidation and fear amongst people.

Once people recognize that there is a presence here, and that we are not going away, we embolden the community to take a collective stance. We want to be a righteous irritation of change.

This project will run from May 17 until the end of summer. Anyone who is interested can visit us at the Firehouse Community Arts Center at 2111 S Hamlin Avenue in Chicago or call 773-522-3473. We are also meeting every Thursday at 5pm at the Firehouse to check in with each other, see how everyone is doing and discuss any potential risks or issues and how to address them.

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We also know that everyone is different, and some people are more introverted, and so we will find something for everyone and make sure people are comfortable. So, we might get some people to just hand out flyers or shadow others. And we are not asking people to go to unfamiliar areas or another block that they do not know – but to areas where people are familiar and know what is going on so that they can facilitate change and impact within their own areas. Our goal is to be out there as much as we can be and I would love to see us have presence 7 days a week in Chicago’s crime hotspots, so we can have more contact and impact with at-risk youth.

There is more good than evil, I truly believe that, and it’s important to just let people shine their light. Like Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” and this project is one way of further demonstrating that.

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