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Perspectives Students, Speakers ‘Keep it Real’

Resource type: News

Elev8 LISC/Chicago |

Original Source By Maureen Kelleher It’s not as if the 7th-graders at Perspectives-Calumet Middle School are strangers to street violence. But still, the man in front of their class a few weeks ago grabbed their attention in a way their teachers often don’t. “I was shot in the head, and it’s only by the grace of God that I met any of you all, said Joseph, now 41, who’s serving a six-year sentence for drug-related offenses. I was 14 years old, 15 years old. I’ve been gangbanging all my life. My mother got out of bed, drove to the hospital, had a heart attack in the parking lot and died. I got shot in the head, but my mama died.” Joseph, in a coma, didn’t wake up until long after the funeral was over. He and six other men convicted of nonviolent crimes are part of Keeping It Real, a Safer Foundation program, focused on prisoner re-entry to society, through which offenders talk to young people about the mistakes they made in their lives and what those mistakes cost them. Their appearance at Perspectives came after students approached Elev8 Director Michelle Mason about creating a forum to discuss critical issues that affected their daily lives. Mason called the Chicago Police Department’s 6th District for advice and, with AmeriCorps member Tiffany Horton, invited Keeping It Real to meet with two Healthy Lifestyles classes on September 25. Chicago Police Officer Maudessie Jointer, who works with the police and the Safer Foundation, warmed up the crowd for Joseph. “Anybody here like the police?” she asked. In both classes, less than one-third of the students raised their hands. When she first started Keeping It Real, she told them, she didn’t like young people either. “Back at the time I wasn’t feeling young people, she said. I could not stand teenagers.” Nor did she want to repeat the same-old messages from teachers and parents: stay in school, get good grades. But her job at Safer was in the same building with a Y, and one day she brought about half a dozen students in to have pizza with transitioning offenders. That was seven years ago; she now coordinates 21 presentations monthly. “Anyone know someone locked up in jail?” Almost everyone did. Some were family members. Jointer introduced the seven ex-gang members from Keeping It Real who are in a work-release program and expect to complete their sentences for drug and weapons possession within two years. “Anybody here been arrested?” In the first class, not a hand went up. Jointer and her companions applauded. “This is the first school in seven years we have gone to that nobody has raised a hand,” she said. That’s a beautiful thing.” Jointer asked if anyone was in a gang. Again, no hands, but that didn’t surprise her. “Let me ask the question another way,” she said. “How many of you know someone in a gang?” Everyone raised their hand. “If you hang with gangbangers, other people consider you gang-affiliated and will hurt you just like they would hurt them. You know you’re choosing this for your family. You GD (Gangster Disciple, the largest street gang in Chicago), your mama GD, your grandma GD.” Jointer then asks the students to talk about the people they know who are in gangs. Her message had some immediate impact. “Since you put it like that, he was my friend,” said one boy. The offenders explained why they joined gangs. “I was looking for love in all the wrong places,” Joseph said. Though the comment sparked a few giggles from students, they and the speakers before them share an understanding of the powerful hold gangs have on people around them. Many students said they have relatives and friends in gangs; four of the speakers joined because they had friends or relatives who were already involved. Then Jointer asked her companions what they gained from joining a gang. “They helped me get my ID on,” said Shaun, a 28-year-old now serving a seven-year drug sentence – referring to his prison ID. “That ain’t the kind of ID you want.” Four of the men had been shot or stabbed as a consequence of their gang involvement. Mike pulled up his shirt to reveal scars on his side and back. “My intestines, they was all hanging down to here,” he said. Three had family members who were attacked as a result of their actions. For most of the two sessions, students had the opportunity to ask their own questions. “Did you enjoy it?” asked one, referring to the gangster life. “Most of the time I was scared to death, said Payton, a 44-year-old near the end of a 12-year sentence for cocaine dealing. I tried to front like I wasn’t, but I was.” In the second session, Payton described how his mother’s house was shot at twice by rival drug dealers. His story sparked a student to reflect on how a family member’s drug dealing provoked rivals to shoot at his grandmother’s house. “Why you hating on somebody just because they have made more money than you have? Just be grateful to God you’re alive.” Though this young man’s family life has been hard and he already has had a brush with the law, he wants better for himself. “I want to go to college and play ball. I’m just mad. I’ve got a lot of anger in my body because my mom and dad died, and I didn’t even get to say my last words.” “I’m really impressed with how well you all speak,” Payton responded. At the end, Jointer had some words of encouragement for the youngster. “Man, you a powerful speaker. If I ever see you in my line of work, you getting a straight-up beatdown, because you’re supposed to be doing great things. I don’t care how crazy your family situation is, you keep doing what you’re doing, because you’re supposed to be the next Les Brown, the way you speak.” After the second session ended, Payton shook the young man’s hand, and Joseph gave him a hug. “It was great,” he said afterwards. “It let me get my feelings out, so all this anger, it’s all gone.” Half a dozen other students also lined up to shake hands with the speakers. Meanwhile, Keeping It Real has been invited back to Perspectives for three more presentations. “I’m thinking about how to bring this to other Elev8 schools,” said Mason. “It engages the students. It’s some good information.”

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