Phil Jackson knows that the difference in a young person realizing his or her full potential is often instilling the confidence to do so.
A resident of North Lawndale for nearly 30 years, he’s operated The Firehouse Community Art Center since 2006 as a community resource for kids and young adults to engage in and realize their true potential through the arts in a variety of ways. Through the VIP Program — just one of The Firehouse’s several arms of outreach into the North Lawndale community — Jackson and his team are working to interrupt the cycle of violence on the streets by giving the young men often at the heart of the problem the resources and confidence they need to reach that potential.
“Young people often times can be seen as the most disadvantaged because of the situations they’re around, but it doesn’t mean you can’t come alive,” Jackson explained. “We work with guys who are shooters, they have a little edge to them, and the kid, the kid that they used to be, is not around anymore. That kid can’t come out. We try to create a space where they’re free enough where they can actually be a kid again. The dreams that they had about this or that that they shut down. If we can be with them for a long period of time, we believe and try to present a fire hydrant of hope in the life of our young people.”
It all starts with the outreach advocates the VIP Program employs. The advocates rely on what Jackson calls a license to operate — a deep-rooted connection to the area each works in as someone who grew up there or was once part of the cycle of crime and violence themselves.
“They can talk to whatever dope boy on the corner because you’re from that area. You have background in that area, experience in that area. They listen because you have a reputation from before and got out of that life and that reputation with integrity,” he said. “Now they can come back into their life as a person who can bring peace and a guy they’ll listen to.”
The advocates connect to guys on the streets — ones Jackson said are most likely to shoot someone or be shot — and share what an alternate life can look like, the potential each has beyond the streets. Those who are serious about making a change go through an orientation process and enter the VIP Program, an intensive six-month process that provides access to cognitive behavioral therapy, job readiness training, housing and a stipend to put each in the best situation to succeed along the way.
Each is paired with a navigator, or professional mentor, to start them through the path of life-altering change. The process is not linear, and it’s unique to every person. Jackson says there’s often a lifetime of trauma each participant has to overcome. It’s not an overnight change, but one that is taken step-by-step with guidance and a helping hand all the way.
“We let guys know that just because you’re getting off the streets now and working with us doesn’t mean things are going to change instantly,” Jackson said. “It takes about six months that we start that process. We are not believing that they’re going to be all together in six months. The work is around the journey. As we work in that six month time around those particular things, our work is to do hand and heart, hands and then what we call launch. We commit to a lifelong journey with you. We’re not done with you after six months, we’re just really getting started.”
“The most rewarding part is the young people stepping to their power,” he added. “That they commit to the fact that they’re no longer victims of the circumstances that they created and they’re not giving up their power to what has become comfortable for them — the streets, drugs, money — and they’re saying “No, I’m more powerful than my past and the ways in which I lived my life.’”
One of the program’s recent graduates — once charged but not convicted with double attempted murder — has recently joined the staff as an apprentice navigator and in the next year will have a full-time role guiding others down he very path he turned his life around with. Another moved to Arkansas, got a job as a truck driver, bought a house, got married and wants to become a farmer.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, a farmer?!’” Jackson said laughing, recalling a recent conversation with him. “I’m loving it it but if I would’ve said (years ago), ‘Hey you’re going to move down to Arkansas and be a farmer,’ you would’ve laughed in my face.”
“The streets or their past, their identity is not found in that,” Jackson said. “They’re identity is found in their strength as men.”
Learn more about A Better Chicago and the Chicago Blackhawks Foundation’s One West Side initiative: Blackhawks.com/OneWestSide