By Stephanie Fox
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With his locks pulled back into a ponytail, and his ears and nose decorated in jewelry, Toriano Sanzone exudes his own style as a businessman and a candidate running for office to give a stronger voice to his community. Sanzone believes he could be exactly what Chicago’s 24th Ward needs in a new alderman.
“You have a lot of different people living in these neighborhoods. They’re going to require super diverse leaders,” said Sanzone, 44, owner and president of the dog training facility Wolfkeeper University.
Sanzone has been collecting North Lawndale residents’ signatures since August when he decided to run against incumbent Michael Scott, Jr., as well as candidates Traci Treasure Johnson, Patricia Marshall, Larry G. Nelson, Creative Scott and Edward Ward. He has already obtained enough signatures to place his name on the 2019 ballot but won’t know if his spot is officially secured until late December, after the signatures have been verified. If he’s on the ballot, residents will have the chance to vote for him on Feb. 26, 2019.
“I was born and raised here in North Lawndale,” said Sanzone. But after leaving to earn a degree in speech communication and marketing from Adolphus College in St. Peters, Minnesota, it took him a few years to settle back in the West Side of Chicago. In college, Sanzone studied abroad in Uganda and Kenya. After graduating, he lived in Chicago for five years before moving to Miami, then Brooklyn, then California. Eventually he made his way to Europe, living in places that included Berlin, Mallorca and Zurich. But in 2014 he officially moved back home. He said he believes his travels provide him with a unique perspective that could benefit him if elected for alderman.
“Having so much travel makes me totally different from most candidates for alderman because… I was able to come back and really see Chicago with a different point of view. And, wow, the neighborhood I grew up in actually has gotten worse,” said Sanzone. He noted the evacuations of larger companies such as Starbucks and grocery stores. Most significantly, he expressed his concern over the rise in crime.
“We definitely didn’t have the murder rate and the crime rate like we have now,” he said. “There’s definitely something to that that made me want to become an official elected leader of my community, to help push that change faster and to stop what’s currently going on.”
One murder, in particular, triggered Sanzone’s desire to move for change in his community. Tyrone Scott, Sanzone’s friend and colleague of 18 years, lost his 12-year-old nephew this past summer in a drive-by shooting. The murder took place only 15 minutes away from Wolfkeeper University’s Little Village location in North Lawndale.
“He called me up one day and said, ‘They killed my nephew… my nephew got shot in the head – 12 years old.’… That really affected us… I see what’s going on with the violence and the murders. It’s not a Chicago issue, or an Illinois issue, or even a country issue. It’s a global issue,” Sanzone explained. As he paused to think, he rubbed his hands together making his rings—mementos from his time living in Spain—clink.
“There is a North Lawndale everywhere. When I lived in Nairobi there were murders, crimes, rapes. All the way to Berlin where there were tough areas with underprivileged people,” he said. “Being able to see those [circumstances]… Someone has to figure [this] out somewhere… So, why not Chicago? Why not North Lawndale? Let’s figure it out.”
If elected, Sanzone hopes to do just that.
By introducing better after school and summer programs in the community, Sanzone believes his plans could assist the growing number of single-parent households, by providing children, such as Scott’s nephew, with a safe and educational place to gather and play.
“We have one of the highest percentages of single moms. There are just a lot of children,” explained Sanzone. “So, it’d be amazing to have a state-of-the-art training facility where young, small children and young-adults could learn basketball, football, tennis, swimming, golf—just keeping them active. I would bring in and encourage top coaches and Olympians and nutritionists to come in. If [the children] are busy and they’re active at night, these mothers can go home and go to sleep.”
Sanzone also believes he can reduce crime in North Lawndale with a little assistance from his community. One of the first things he would do if elected would be to seek out 41 individuals interested in being, what he calls, “Lawndale Leaders.” These individuals would “claim” a block of the neighborhood to oversee. Sanzone thinks this program has the potential to combat the rampant gang violence that has taken root on the West Side.
North Lawndale “is its own world that is divided into little sections, which are based upon different gang territories,” said Sanzone. “To have 41 different people come together and say, ‘I’ll take this area. I’ll take this area.’ That’s doable.”
Sanzone recognizes that his goals may seem unrealistic, but he says his past accomplishments are a testament to the fact that when he puts his mind to something he follows through.
In 2008, Sanzone spent 68 days in the hospital after breaking his right femur and patellar tendon in a car crash that nearly obliterated his legs. He spent his recovery writing his first book, Wolfkeeper: A Wolfkeeper’s Guide to Training a Dog. Shortly after his recovery, Sanzone returned to dog training. In 2015, he released his second book, Wolfkeeper: Dog Training the Wolfkeeper Way.
Sanzone has also worked on a rehabilitation program to help inmates of Westville State Prison in Indiana seek careers as dog trainers rather than returning to a life of crime after their release. Working together with his friend Chris Stevens, Sanzone co-founded Mixed Up Mutts. Inmates who participated in the program were assigned a dog to live with and train in prison. The inmates would then attend weekly sessions that Sanzone and Stevens led to teach proper care and training of their dogs.
“It was just an amazing experience,” Sanzone said. “Dogs can change people’s lives. Some of these guys hadn’t had [this kind of] human contact or that level of loving something, caressing something, loving it back. And a lot of these men would graduate and come back into the world. I know a few of them that became professional dog trainers.”
After working with Sanzone for almost two decades, Scott, Wolfkeeper University’s general manager and lead trainer, believes that Sanzone has the capability to change the lives of those living in North Lawndale too, because of the time and energy he puts into caring about other people.
“I think it’s great that Toriano is running for alderman,” said Scott. “It’s like what they say, you need somebody for the people.”
Sanzone certainly is “for the people,” but he is also “for the dogs.”
While running for alderman, Sanzone will continue to work with dogs at Wolfkeeper University’s two locations: 921 S. Loomis St. and 2747 W. Cermak Rd. in Chicago.