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Youth-led Chicago initiative gets $10 million grant to expand its reach

Young people are in a circle with their arms outstretched.

Communities United and the Lurie’s Children Hospital received a $10 million grant to expand a program that helps young people heal through activism.

Courtesy of Juan Cruz

For years, Bezaleia “Bezzy” Reed watched her brother Caleb advocate for racial and social justice issues such as removing police from schools and curbing gun violence.

His life was cut short when he was shot in July 2020, and about a year later, Bezzy joined Communities United to honor her brother, who had been a youth leader at the grassroots organization. Reed, a senior at the alternative Chicago public school Pathways in Education, worked alongside other youth to help tackle mental health issues in her West Side community. The activism helped her heal from her brother’s death. 

Now, thanks to a $10 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the racial justice organization will be able to help thousands more Black and Latino youth in partnership with the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital.

Communities United, which formed in 2000, and the Lurie hospital will use the money to expand a youth-led initiative that helps young people heal through skills building and activism such as leadership training, healing circles, and community outreach. 

The grant comes at a time when communities of color are grappling with racial inequities and trauma exacerbated by the pandemic. 

Healing Through Justice: A Community-led Breakthrough Strategy for Healing Centered Communities will be expanding its efforts to help 3,000 Chicago youth develop leadership skills so they can advocate for changes at their schools or in city government, said Laqueanda Reneau, a Communities United youth organizer. As part of the eight-year initiative, Communities United and the hospital will also work with health providers to update their mental health strategies based on a decade of research with input from Black and Latino youth.

The two organizations also have worked toward removing police from schools, changing Illinois’ zero tolerance expulsion policies, and refocusing school disciplinary policies toward more restorative practices.

Helping youth heal by taking action

From losing family members to COVID-19 to losing friends to gun violence, young people are carrying a lot of trauma, Reneau said.

“This is how we should be engaging our young people,” she said of the program. “This is how we should be engaging our youth in a way that allows them to make informed decisions in a way that supports them and leads them ultimately to healing that we all need.”

“This approach to trauma really offers youth in the community an alternative to other forms of expression,” said Dr. John Walkup, chair of the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Lurie Children’s and professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“There is a draw in many of the communities in which we work toward gang life or other kinds of alternatives for being powerful and strong. But this really provides a positive and powerful alternative to those other ways that youth try to dig their way out of the trauma they’ve experienced.”

Young people channel pain into activism

In the summer 2020, Marques Watts reached out to Communities United after losing his brother Derrion Umba Ortiz and friend Caleb Reed. Watts, who attends the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recalled feeling helpless over the lack of mental health resources and wanted to ensure other young people didn’t struggle to find those supports.

The 19-year-old said Communities United programs help him cope by being around other young people dealing with the same thing.

Communities United “showed me my voice matters in society and just how much I can really impact my city,” Watts said. 

Like Watts, Reed said Communities United has allowed her to heal and grow mentally and emotionally during a challenging period. Most importantly, she feels heard. She’s hopeful the grant will allow the organization to help more youth dealing with trauma and fighting for change.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to continue the work we have been doing,” she said. “It’s a sign we are doing a great job and that we should keep going.”

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org

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