By Shreya Bansal
CHICAGO — It’s the day before Thanksgiving and a group of young and old men have come out to play football as a part of their “turkey bowl.” When a police car passes by, the officers wave and smile at the players. One of the older men waves back and shouts, “Blow the siren as if you mean it!” and the cops honk and blow their siren prompting howls and cheers from football players.
These players are members of BUILD, an organization that works with youth who have had experiences with the criminal justice system in some of Chicago’s most challenging neighborhoods. The main aim of the organization, which turned 50 earlier this year, is to introduce kids in neighborhoods including Austin, East Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Hermosa/Logan Square, and Fuller Park, to a world without violence, one without guns and help them see a future for themselves. BUILD, by its own count, has helped 2,553 youth, mediated 152 gang conflicts and maintained a 97% promotion rate for its high school students.
For some of these young people, BUILD — which stands for Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development — is a family that may have been missing in their personal lives and, for others, simply a platform to direct effort into something creative. While many also see it as an escape from personal difficulties, it can also be a way for crime suspects to complete mandatory community service.
“They come every day and are consistent to show they are willing to engage and do whatever it is to get to where they have to be. They are looking for the knowledge, they are looking for love,” said Devon Tims, 31, a mentor and intervention specialist. Tims describes his job this way: “My role is to help these guys take the second step in life. If it’s school, education or work, my objective is to help these guys transition.”
Each of these kids shows up every day at 3:30 p.m. sharp at BUILD’s headquarters, located at 5100 West Harrison St.
“I am changing as a person. I have been through a lot of stuff, this is a good place for me to go to instead of being on the streets. My mother doesn’t have to worry every time I leave the house, they know I am here,” said Darius Richmond, 16, who works with Tims as part of the intervention program. He said, “This is like a second home.”
Another participant, Christopher Johnson, 16, said he comes to BUILD because of the practice of “peace circles,” where the group sits together in a circle to express their feelings. “You [are] expressing yourself, you speak your mind and people listen. It is like stress releasing, nobody can tell you yes or no, right or wrong.”
BUILD gets most of its funding through government or foundation grants and individual donations. Around 80% of the organization’s funding is dedicated toward an array of programs that directly impact the lives of its young people.
One of the major initiatives is to encourage the young people to trust the justice system and police. Youth mentors accompany kids and advocate for them in the courts, Tims said. “When the judge sees the effort these guys put in at BUILD to improve, they usually give them a second chance,” he said.
The police department, through its Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy, or CAPS, has time and again tried to build stronger community relations and problem-solving mechanisms within the neighborhoods, with a special focus on youth. “If you don’t have community trust you have nothing,” said Deputy Chief Dwayne Betts, head of community relations at CPD. “We find more ways to engage with the youth because the youth has a strong reason to doubt the police because of their history and experience.”
But the department has a weak history of maintaining positive relationships with neighborhoods — particularly neighborhoods where people of color are a majority. The divide only widened amid news of police torture directed by former officer Jon Burge in the 1980s and the shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald in 2019 by officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of murder.
To this day, many young people in Chicago remain skeptical of the police.
“Their slogan shouldn’t be, ‘To protect and serve.’ They are not really doing any protecting or serving. ‘Sit and let things happen’ should be their new slogan,” said 16-year-old Chase Ervin.
Johnson added that, in his view, “The police are just there to see if you’re doing something wrong. They are there to protect and serve if you’re doing something wrong, they are here to dial down the violence.”
These young men said they not only want to create the right path for themselves, but also want to give back to the communities they come from. For Ervin, who joined BUILD five years ago, it is a platform to pursue his dreams as a chef and rapper.
“I want to go to a college where I can double-major in culinary and business, he said. “I also want to help [those] who can’t get access to food. I’m not in it for the money. Think about communities that have to travel miles just to get food every day.”
As a rapper, Chase also wants to spread the word about how violence affects his community and wants to put out “stuff that doesn’t go on the news because the news is biased.”
The mentors working with BUILD are themselves people from the community who once, like their students, needed help “getting off the streets.” Some of the mentors have spent as many as 20 years in prison and have their own experience of dealing with the justice system. “I have to show these guys that what I do has no monetary value, it’s all passion. I was once who they are and who they were,” said Devon “I express some of confidential things to them, engage with them. It’s like saying, I trust you all with this information and then, they open up, too.”
Devon continued, “One thing I always tell my youth is, at the end of the day google the statistics of accidents that happen in your community and think about if you could’ve been the victim of that situation and how you dodged it, and how you saved your own life just by being here.”
For the mentors and young people alike, BUILD is a way of channeling the after-effects of violence in the communities they come from. By participating, they escape the reality of the streets.
“In my area there is a lot of gang violence. I have seen a lot of things happen over there and I am glad we chose a different route,” said Johnson. “I have seen people get shot down on the street, I’m just glad I wasn’t the one getting hit by a bullet.”