By Yolanda Fields and Damien Morris



Chicago is made up of 77 neighborhoods. The most violence is happening in only about 22 of them, which means that this is a problem that we can solve together.

It also means that violence is localized, so an effective approach to violence reduction must be localized with efforts intentionally focused on the strengths and challenges of each of Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Our organization Breakthrough focuses on Garfield Park on the West Side to develop partnerships and bring resources to create deep, holistic change in the neighborhood. Violence has touched nearly every person in this area, directly or indirectly, and over the years, there has been talk from people on the outside looking in about how to address this. We believe our community has the expertise and can lead in addressing these challenges.

Garfield Park is a beautiful community filled with strengths and challenges. Our hyperlocal efforts are led by individuals with lived experience who can relate to the issues and barriers that men and women face in the community. A community-based approach to violence reduction is effective because of its trustworthy messengers who ultimately believe in the resiliency of Garfield Park.

Our approach includes street outreach — men and women from the area who are on call 24 hours a day to reduce violence through conflict mediation and connections to support services. Breakthrough employs nearly 50 youths who are effective agents of peace as part of a program called Flatlining Violence Inspires Peace, or FLIP. Breakthrough also hosts Light in the Night events throughout the year that grow community spirit and empower residents to reclaim spaces where violence previously dominated.

However, we recognize that violence is part of a larger ecosystem that requires us to respond holistically. Breakthrough provides services across five areas: housing, health and wellness, economic opportunity, education and youth development, and violence prevention. The solution to violence in Chicago begins with quality early childhood education and after-school programs that set students up for success. The ability of residents to earn enough money to pay for food and housing, access safe community spaces to play and receive quality health care are all necessary components of a safe and thriving community. Breakthrough is engaging in all of these areas through our programs geographically focused in Garfield Park. We’re here and we’re committed.

Our efforts are only effective if our partnership with residents is relentless and puts people first. The dignity of every person requires us to care deeply about everyone who walks through our doors, offering them the resources and encouragement to overcome the barriers in their lives. We never give up.

One way we do this is our recruitment method for FLIP workers, young community influencers who partner with our team to serve as ambassadors of peace. We go out into the community and seek out the individuals who we believe can help us in reducing violence. It’s not just a single conversation but relentless engagement with those individuals to shape their mindset on how they can assist in reducing the violence in their community.

This people-first focus is central to Breakthrough’s story. Breakthrough did not start as a violence prevention organization; initially, it responded to adults experiencing homelessness by first sharing hospitality. Our work expanded as we built genuine relationships and responded to the expressed needs and hopes of our neighbors. Our program leaders are experts in their respective fields, and many are local residents themselves. As a part of the Garfield Park community since 2000, we recognize the need to have the expertise and credibility of local leaders who believe in the hope and resiliency that already exists in our community.

Success in our work looks like a reduction in shootings. According to Chicago city data, East Garfield Park experienced a significant 29% reduction in shooting victimizations last year. But success also looks like incremental, positive changes: a resident formally involved in a street organization showing up to work everyday, successful efforts to stop a conflict from escalating into a shooting, a parent building a stable career and wealth, and a family enrolling a child in our preschool program.

We know that hope is a long game. With each positive action, the trajectory of a life is changed and we move closer to our vision of a safe, stable and engaged Garfield Park in which success is the norm and everyone thrives. We need to address violence with relentless, hyperlocal engagement to see this vision fully realized in our neighborhood and across Chicago.

Yolanda Fields is the executive director and Damien Morris the chief program officer of violence prevention for Breakthrough, a nonprofit organization.

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