Peace Fellows Explore Engaging City Hall as part of Civic Partners For Peace

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Princeton Fellow 2021

As part of the Civic Partners for Peace series, the Chicago Peace Fellows met with Alderman Walter Burnett (27th Ward) on June 15, 2021, to explore the theme of Engaging City Hall and how grassroots leaders can partner with civic leaders towards violence prevention and peace building.

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For over a year, the Goldin Institute staff and the 2020 and 2021 Chicago Peace Fellows have been meeting online. But last Tuesday at noon, several of the Chicago Peace Fellows and Goldin staff members attended their first hybrid meeting—a workshop with Alderman Walter Burnett on engaging City Hall. Some fellows were excited to see an end to zoom meetings as they met in person at the alderman’s office at 4 N Western Ave #1c, whilst others joined online through zoom.

After brief introductions, Alderman Burnett discussed how community leaders should approach working with City Hall and the alderman’s office, before addressing the government’s policies towards violence prevention. The Fellows then asked questions and brainstormed ideas to reduce and prevent violence.

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Burnett, who has been the alderman for Chicago’s 27th ward since 1995, has always preferred in-person meetings, saying that he used to tell his constituents that they would be more likely to meet with him at his office than have him return a phone call, as he simply received too many.

“It was great to finally have a face-to-face meeting,” said Vince Carter, a 2021 Peace Fellow, in an interview after the meeting. “As soon as they said we could do face-to-face, I was one of the first ones to sign up for that.”

Carter is the Executive Director of Project Education Plus, an academic and athletic program for youth in the Cabrini-Green Near North community. The program started as a small summer baseball program in 1980 and grew into an organization with 15 different teams playing various sports, about 200 kids from elementary through high school, a scholarship program for college students, and even a senior citizens program.

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“We might get a small grant [from city hall], but we haven’t really interacted with them, with the exception of on the personal level,” said Carter, who has known Burnett since they were teenagers.

Bertha Purnell, the founder and CEO of Mothers on a Mission and a 2021 Chicago Peace Fellow also left the meeting feeling optimistic. She was particularly inspired by the idea of hosting an all-city block club.

“When they were talking about the block club summit, [Alderman Burnett] thought that was a great idea as well,” she said.

“I think that he [Alderman Burnett] understands that the neighborhood is so diverse that you are probably never going to get the community to agree on something, but I think with more discussions we can come to some solution,” said Carter about the all-city block club idea.

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2021 Chicago Peace Fellow Randy Sadler, the Vice President of the Monticello Block Club, a Community Psychologist, and a mobile crisis responder, was also encouraged by the idea of bringing block clubs together. He feels that promoting the block clubs will “empower residents to take back their own community...as opposed to just being a victim and thinking that things won’t change.”

Despite the hopeful outlook, Sadler also did not mince words when asked about some of his frustrations with the local city government.

“Some of the things that they say injure your stomach like a gut punch,” he said. For example, he frequently hears “change isn’t going to happen overnight,” which he thinks “is one of the most insulting things you can say to people that are having to live in fear every day.”

Sadler gave the example of a gas station in his neighborhood, West Humboldt Park. The gas station, owned by Mobil, was unsafe because of loitering and drug dealing. Sadler wrote to the company and the business affairs in the office in the city, as well as to news organizations to bring attention to the problem.

“Finally, the alderman connected the owner of the gas station with a legitimate security company, and within a couple of days turned it all around.”

Purnell noted that she would have to follow up on the ideas discussed at the meeting “to make sure it wasn’t just lip service.”

“The alderman said that we have some good ideas and that he will, you know, try to implement some of those things,” she said, adding that she was already in contact with the alderman’s office to set up a second meeting.

Purnell was especially surprised by the alderman’s connections with construction companies that work with residents who have been involved in criminal activities or groups.

“If you have this big influence with these people, [I want to ask] can you hire some of these kids so they can get training, so they can be a part of the community? Can we get them [the city government] to use some of these children..., help teach them a trade, and then they’re not on the corner selling drugs.”

For Alderman Burnett, gang outreach, which entails working with older gang members to reduce tensions and offer them the opportunity to do construction work, has become a part of his policies towards violence reduction.

“Alderman Burnett has always been one that will... invite you in to come to the meetings and talk to people, even if he does not always agree with everything,” Carter said.

This was true to a smaller degree as well. In the workshop with the Peace Fellows, Burnett spent time talking to everyone, even the Fellows who were not his constituents. “It wasn’t like, ‘I can only talk to my guys,’” Carter explained.

“I thought it was a great workshop and I pray that some of the things that were brought up yesterday... we start to work on those things, because they can only benefit our communities and help us be better safe communities,” Purnell added.

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