In this Wednesday, April 25, 2018 photo, a sign displays the name of University of Chicago-Crime Lab in Chicago. An unusual partnership involving the five major pro sports teams in Chicago is helping fight youth violence in the city. The Chicago Sports Alliance was unveiled in December. The teams announced a total of $1 million in one-time grants to programs and groups addressing violence, including the crime lab. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Chicago teams helping fight youth violence

June 24, 2018 - 10:42 am
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CHICAGO (AP) — Mashaun Alston's office has a corkboard with pictures of some of the kids he has helped over the years. A basketball player in his uniform. A row of smiling teenagers.

On one side of the room there is a framed quote that reads, "All those who achieve great things are great dreamers."

Alston, 41, is definitely dreaming. In one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago, he is dreaming of more graduations and birthday parties. Life for a group of kids on the edge.

"I can be overwhelmed, but then when I go home ... I never say I'm not doing this, I always reflect and say, 'Wow, this kid is going through this,' and then the next day, I'm renewed," Alston said.

Alston is a therapist in Choose to Change, a five-month program that aims to reduce youth violence through therapy and mentorship. And it very well might be gone by now if not for the effort of one unusual coalition.

The Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks. The titans of Chicago sports, united with a singular purpose.

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Near the end of a violent 2016 in Chicago, Roseanna Ander went to a meeting. Ander, the executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, goes to a lot of meetings, but this one was different.

The room included White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and his son, Michael, the president and chief operating officer of the Bulls. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and his sister, Laura, who also is part of the Cubs' ownership group, were there. Same for Bears chairman George McCaskey and Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz.

"It was like a very Godfather-esque moment," Ander said with a grin.

Concerned about a precipitous rise in violent crime — Chicago had 762 homicides in 2016, a 64 percent increase from 485 in the previous year — the city's most prominent sports executives had an idea, and they were looking for help.

"They decided that this was a very unprecedented challenge facing the city and they wanted to do something unprecedented," Ander said, "and that was really to try to see if putting their resources together that they might be able to do something more significant than they could each do independently."

It began with Jerry Reinsdorf, 82, who once lived in some of the South Side neighborhoods that have been racked by violence. He took the idea of a united effort to the rest of the owners, and they quickly signed on for what became the Chicago Sports Alliance.

Then came the tricky part.

"It became very clear that we really didn't understand what was behind the homicides and the violence," Michael Reinsdorf said. "We all had ideas and theories, but we really weren't as educated as we should be.

"We decided instead of just jumping in there and making some type of investment, let's get smarter."

That led the group to Ander and the Crime Lab, which was created in 2008 following the shooting death of a graduate student at the University of Chicago to study crime and develop and evaluate crime-reduction programs. While the room grabbed Ander's attention, her presentation struck a chord with the group.

"It's just tough," Michael Reinsdorf said. "I have kids and we teach our kids that they can dream and they can do anything they want and they have such incredible opportunities. But the kids that we're talking about trying to help in some of these communities, their dreams are totally different than the dreams of like my children.

"Their dreams are like, surviving. ... Their expectations are I won't live a long life."

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Alston had a group session in May where only one of the six young men showed. It was a nice day in Chicago and graduation festivities were in full swing.

The 17-year-old who made it to the session was depressed about the death of his cousin in January. He wanted to retaliate sometimes, but he said the program was keeping him on the right track.

"He says, 'Yeah, but this group,' he says, 'since I've been coming in February is helping me think,'" Alston said.

A buoyed Alston kept going, sitting straight up in his chair in a common room down the hall from his office on the city's South Side.

"You know just with the people he knows, the family he's involved with, it'd be easy to go and retaliate," he continued.

"I want you to think logical. If you go retaliate and you're 17, there's two things going to happen. You may get away with it for a little bit. But you're going to end up dead because they're going to retaliate, or you're going to be in jail and you're 17, I want you to get to my age."

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The Chicago Sports Alliance was unveiled in December. The teams announced a total of $1 million in one-time grants for Choose to Change, the Crime Lab and for training for embedded civilian analysts who work with the police department to develop strategies to reduce crime in the city's most violent areas.

While the money provided a lift, the alliance itself might have made an even bigger statement.

"It's not just the dollars, but I think it's kind of who they are, their ability to have influence with such a huge range of the population," Ander said. "But I do think for me the most important thing was sending a message that this isn't just somebody else's problem to fix."

The funding for Choose to Change had run out by the end of 2017, so the money from the alliance kept it alive for the first part of this year. Another group of teenagers went through the program, and the Crime Lab used the funding extension to build on its data, helping bring in new investors from the public sector.

The teams were also able to make a difference in another way.

"The kids look up to these teams and these athletes," Ander said, "and it's a huge motivation to be able to say, 'Look, we're going to be able to get you to these games,' things that they wouldn't normally be able to do."

Homicides and shootings dipped in Chicago in 2017 and continued to drop at the start of this year. The future of the Chicago Sports Alliance is still being determined, but the teams plan to meet again with Ander soon and Michael Reinsdorf thinks the partnership will continue.

"We're just starting out in this process and so there's probably a lot of things that we can do going forward that can add on to what we've already done," he said.

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Alston stays in touch with several of the teenagers he worked with in Choose to Change.

One of them sailed through the program a couple of years ago. He made it to every session and participated in the conversations, but he "was still involved heavily on the streets," Alston said.

On the last day, Alston told him he wanted to keep working with him, and the young man responded positively. About a week later, he was shot.

"I went to go visit him in the hospital," Alston said. "'Hey, everything you was learning in group, I mean was it like all in vain, or were you a phony? Because what I'm hearing and seeing is two different people.' So those types of things are challenging."

The visit made an impression.

"He looked at this as more being a professional thing, just me doing my job," Alston said. "But then when I showed up at the hospital, it gave him a different outlook of me and said well, this is personal. Absolutely."

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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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