For the past couple of weeks, there have been a lot of negative comments about Adam Toledo and his background, some even going as far as to say that he brought it upon himself. Columnists like Eric Zorn, who have likely never lived in our neighborhoods, have entertained the notion of criminalizing a child while giving Kyle Rittenhouse, the rifle-toting teen from Antioch, IL, the benefit of the doubt. As the conversations unfold, I think we need to acknowledge that many of us could’ve been Adam Toledo, and that in order to prevent more of these tragedies, we need to start doing things differently.
Around the same time that the public learned about the tragic shooting, a picture I posted five years ago about my transformation from a teenage gang member to a college graduate began resurfacing on social media. As people engaged with that post, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between Adam’s life and my own, and how they resonate with other young people in communities like Back of the Yards.
I was a thirteen-year-old who was involved in a gang. I was a thirteen-year-old who would sneak out in the middle of the night and roam the alleys. I was a thirteen-year-old being raised in a community with few resources or opportunities either for me as a youngster or for my mom as a single mother. A few years later, I was also a seventeen-year-old that someone believed in and gave a life-changing opportunity to, becoming the first in my family to go to college on a scholarship.
As I think about Adam, I can’t help to see myself in him. I can’t help to think that he, too, was just a lost boy with no one to turn to. And I can’t help to think that he, too, could have turned his life around if he had attended an art class, an after-school program, or had resources to help him and his mom navigate life in the neighborhood.
In communities like ours, street gangs fill those voids and provide a sense of belonging, purpose, and opportunity for city youth. My mom worked hours on end as a hairdresser. And despite her best attempt at making sure we had everything we needed, she couldn’t be both a provider and supervise our every move. One of the reasons I started hanging out with the wrong crowd was simply because I was often home alone while my mom was working. Albeit it was not the best crowd to be hanging out with, it was the most accessible way for me to find a support system, with people who looked like me, and have something to do.
Like Adam, I had a passion, not for art, but for soccer. The older I got, however, the more expensive playing soccer became and my mom just didn’t have the means to be able to cover the expenses, the uniforms, or even take me to the games.
Fortunately for me, I had two opportunities that are the reason I am writing an op-ed instead of being dead or in jail. One of those opportunities saved my life was when I was around 14 and the other one transformed my life a couple years later. My mom was so desperate to get me off the streets that she asked a local grocery store owner to give me a job. When he replied that he couldn’t afford it, my mom said she was willing to pay part of my wage. She told him that a job would be the only thing that would keep me from a casket and so he agreed to take me on. Because of that risk he took, I spent less time on the street because I was busy working at his grocery store, washing dishes, mopping floors, and maintaining the inventory. It not only taught me the value of hard work, but it also gave me the sense of dignity that comes from being able to earn your own money.
The second opportunity that helped me develop even further as a youth happened when I was wrapping up my junior year of high school. I was sitting in the principal’s office because I had gotten in trouble. When the principal saw me, she threw me a summer job application to Mikva Challenge, an organization that engages young people in the civic process. She said, “Fill it out. If you need a recommendation letter, I’ll write one for you.” I applied and I got it. I was selected to be a summer intern with a local City Council member.
The summer of my junior year going into my senior year, I was taking the Halsted bus on 48th Street all the way to Wrightwood in Lincoln Park to work for Alderman Michele Smith. My internship duties ranged from helping someone request a garbage bin to researching municipal ordinances that impact communities like mine.
It was a transformative experience for two reasons. It gave me the exposure that I needed to see that the world was bigger than the South Side and that there were deep inequities between Lincoln Park and Back of the Yards. Secondly, it helped me discover my purpose and agency. Working in an aldermanic office sparked my love for community work. Being able to help people and refer them to services was something that I could see myself doing.
The exposure to new things, a newfound purpose, and the agency this opportunity gave me helped me realize that, as I wrote in my 2016 post that went viral, “although I said I loved the hood, I was the one destroying it.” It helped me understand that I could work toward finding more effective solutions for issues plaguing my neighborhood. It helped me realize that if I wanted to change my community, I had to get out of the gang and change as an individual first.
And those are the reasons I’m here today. The grocery store owner who looked out for me, the principal that believed in me, and the staff at an organization that thought I could rise up if given the chance.
The biggest tragedy of all is that we will never know Adam’s potential because we didn’t give him that chance. We will never know what could have been of his life if he had gotten similar opportunities or met more people that gave a helping hand. His story especially hits home because I’ve had my own Adams while working in the neighborhood—young people who we’ve lost too soon, as well as Adams who survived and are working in the neighborhood, helping other young people leave the gang life, go to college, and get connected to real life-changing opportunities.
But in order to help more young people and drive down the violence, we need to be proactive and not reactionary, preventative and restorative instead of punitive, and really tackle the root causes of violence. If we don’t take the first step to stop the bleeding, we will have more of these tragedies.
What does that first step look like? We need to look at the environment that allows someone to pick up a gun in the first place. If you look at the top 15 neighborhoods with the highest levels of violence in Chicago, many of those communities are also the same neighborhoods with the highest levels of youth unemployment, and also likely with the most underfunded schools and least amount of opportunities and resources for young people and their families.
One of the steps we can take is to expand existing programs for youth. One Summer Chicago could be broadened to give young people year-round jobs (not just summer ones) in our communities while at the same time increasing the amount and of after-school programs for youth in low-income communities.
In addition to out-of-school and after-school opportunities, young people deserve safe spaces that are accessible to both them and their families. These safe spaces could take the form of community centers operated by community-based organizations or by turning some of our CPS schools into community centers that remain open in the summer or after-hours as reconnection hubs for youth and families. These opportunities and spaces can also be maximized by ensuring a funding increase for wrap-around services like mental health, housing, and domestic violence services that our youth and families need.
And, without a doubt, we must make a massive investment in the street outreach work that targets the individuals that are more likely to become perpetrators or victims of violence. We also need to increase the amount of funding schools receive to ensure all youth have a quality education and the classes that will stimulate students, like the art class that could have helped Adam.
But these solutions won’t be easy to secure. They require crisis-level funding to address a crisis-level issue. Currently, the City of Chicago spends less than one percent ($36 million) of its $12.76 billion dollar budget on violence prevention, while violence prevention organizations have estimated that, in order to truly address the issue, we need to increase that amount to $150 million. That figure, in addition to the increases in funding to the Department of Family and Support Services that programs like One Summer Chicago will require, puts the figure well above $150 million.
The city already gave more than $280 million to the police department that evidently hasn’t helped. And now the city is poised to receive an additional $2 billion in federal money. It’s time that we demand the same amount be used to fund the hood and stop our people from dying this summer.
Support the resolution calling for a hearing on the state of social service programs in Chicago and the city’s strategy to address increasing violence ahead of the summer. If we build enough momentum, we can have a hearing later this month and demand that the city invest in our neighborhoods and in our young people, so we can stop the bleeding and finally address the disinvestment that’s hurt our communities for way too long.
Berto Aguayo is a resident of Back of the Yards and the executive director of the anti-violence program Increase the Peace. This is his first contribution to the Weekly.