In Back of the Yards, more to the story than gang violence

By DIMITRIOS KALANTZIS      JUNE 2, 2015

CHICAGO – Standing in front of a buffet of chicken and beef, corn tortillas and Spanish rice, Joe was filling up his plate.

Someone asked him how old he was.

“I just made 18,” he said.

It was a curious way of phrasing it. Except Joe is from Chicago’s Back of the Yard’s neighborhood, a tough neighborhood on the city’s South Side, just south of Bridgeport, just north of Englewood. It’s split by a rail line separating the Hispanic and black populations and has suffered from gun violence in much the way many other communities on Chicago’s West and South sides have. Making it to 18, Joe explained later to a group of reporters, is worth noting.

Joe’s father is serving a 24-year prison sentence for drugs. One of his older brothers is serving 52 years for murder. “I just keep my head high,” he said. “I don’t want to go down the same path.”

He was one of three teenagers who came to talk about their lives before and after joining the programs run out of a schoolhouse at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, 51st and Elizabeth streets.

Father David Kelly, who runs the center, hosted a group of working journalists during a two-day McCormick Foundation specialized reporting institute on race, police and community, hosted by Community Media Workshop.

Talking to about 30 visitors, the three boys were with Xavier McElrath-Bey and Claudio Rivera, men who also grew up on the streets and these days act almost like counselors or you could say, advocates. With them was the senior colleague, Oscar Rivera.

Xavier said he joined a gang at 11, was accidentally shot at 12, and at 13 was sentenced to 25 years for his connection to a gang-related murder. “I feel sad,” he said, seated next to Joe and the two others, Derieon, 16, and Tommy, 20. “Because I know there’s a lot more in the world for them to see.”

Derieon, Joe and Tommy asked more questions than they answered. They wanted to know what the reporters report on, whether they like their jobs, whether they ever feel unsafe. They talked about Bulls games they’ve gone to, and the playoff series going on at the time. Asked about the police, they offered quick hits.

“They rule the world,” Derieon said. “If you want to stay free, stay out of their way.”

Oscar Contreras, who came here from L.A. in 2000 to start a program at the neighboring parish Holy Cross/Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, tried to explain the appeal of gangs. It’s a family. It’s the people who look out for you and it’s a way to earn money.

“Can I change them? No,” he says. “But I can help them make better decisions in life.”

Claudio, who still lives in the neighborhood, is working on a PhD in psychology from DePaul University. He asked the group of journalists to take the time to meet the people behind the headlines when they are covering gun violence and death.

Too many stories, he said, go untold.

“It’s easier to hear a gunshot,” he said, “than it is the turning of a page.”

Kalantzis is managing editor of The Daily Journal in Kankakee. He attended the McCormick Foundation SRI and was given a stipend to cover the event.