Increase the peace youth leaders hold a private meeting recalling an incident with two local gang factions at the recently re-opened St. Michaels Community Center, Friday, August 4, 2017 (Sebastián Hidalgo)

Every few weeks this summer, a block in a South Side neighborhood was taken over by peace marches, workshops, free food, and an all-night campout. This is the Resurrection Project’s Increase the Peace campaign, a youth-led program that grew out of the tragic drive-by shooting of high school senior Naome Zuber in the fall of 2016. Naome was riding in the back seat of a car when a stray bullet ended her life. Her death galvanized her community; since then, other neighborhoods from Little Village to Englewood have come together as well, on these warm summer nights, to think about structural ways to stop gun violence long after the campouts end.

The Weekly spoke with three organizers from the Increase the Peace campaign. The Weekly also published a photo essay from the final Increase the Peace event in Back of the Yards in our Interview Issue.

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Elizeth Arguelles

Youth leader in the Increase the Peace campouts and Little Village resident

I was born in Mexico but was raised in Chicago. I have two brothers. They are the motivation for why I do these campouts. I don’t want to see them in the headlines any day that people get shot. I do community work across Chicago—Back of the Yards, Englewood, Little Village, Pilsen—and I’m involved because I feel like if I don’t take a stand and I don’t get involved, no one is going to do it for me.

[What] I would like to see in Chicago is more opportunities for underserved communities. What I would like to see is centers that are safe and that create a culture of nonviolence for teens, for youth. And most importantly what I would like to see are programs that reach out to youth that help expand their skills and their knowledge.

I feel positive that community members and community stakeholders are going to take action. That they are going to be catalysts of change in their own neighborhoods. I’m not really focusing on legislation, because I know it’s hard and more complicated. What I’m trying to focus on this year is the community taking action…that’s why I feel positive. I know people that care about where they live are doing something about it.

After the summer, I’m planning on creating deeper relationships in Chicago. Just because I know that an Increase the Peace campout is not enough. It’s a start; it’s a great way to come together and celebrate our culture. But I know that there needs to be more than that, so for that I will create lasting relationships that will help me to create more programs, more projects for the summer for the winter, for the fall and just not stopping. It’s a long fight, but I’m not stopping.

I remember where I come from. I come from a family of strong people. I come from a neighborhood of strong people. And if sometimes I feel like I can’t keep up or things are getting harder, I remember all the people that are expecting for us to do something, expecting for us to [make] change. And knowing that I represent a strong community, it makes me remember to keep moving forward.

An ideal world would be a place where the community can come together and have peace. For me, peace is having opportunities to move forward, having education access, having housing access, having healthy food. For me, that would be the ideal community—having all those things.

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Berto Aguayo

Community organizer with The Resurrection Project

In September [2016] I joined the [Resurrection Project] as a community organizer focused on safety and nonviolence with a large focus in the Back of the Yards area. A month into my new role, a sixteen-year-old girl gets killed right in front of our office. I gathered our community together and some of our youth and tried to strategize a response—what we are going to do? The youth were tired, but they didn’t want to do the same thing over and over, and they said, why don’t we do something different? Why don’t we just camp out? And then we convinced ourselves at that table—yeah, why don’t we just do that?

I started organizing and we gathered in a span of two days; we gathered twenty community partners. In a span of five days, we gathered two hundred people for our first action, and then from then on I wanted to make sure that we continued for the long term and start preparing for some real social change.

So what we did was for everyone that stayed until five in the morning, we offered them a free leadership training. And sure enough we [got] more than fifty people, and some who are young leaders, to start doing peace actions all across the city. So then with our training and with our support, now they’re the ones doing these actions. If you see, I’m in the background, I’m just chilling, because the idea is to give them the space to lead their own actions, their own communities, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.

This [was] like phase one of Increase the Peace—really making sure we identify leaders, recruit leaders through our campouts, and train them. And the second phase is to start mobilizing people in these actions for the larger cause of peace, and that’s where we’re really at right now.

The next phase is agenda-making and specifying our demands. We got a whole bunch of young people that are down for the cause, that are ready for the fight. And all we got to do now is sit down at a table and make an agenda together—by young people, for young people.

What does it look like? Does it look like potentially asking the city to expand the One Summer Chicago youth employment program to include more youth and to be year-round? That could be one of the demands. Another one of the demands could be at the state level, advocating for a senate bill, one which will fix the formula in order to get more funding for some of our public schools, so that young people don’t feel the need to join gangs because they got what they need at school. At the federal level, it could look like federal background checks, right? But, these are all possibilities of what we could specify. But I’d rather our young people sit down at a table and make those demands, than for me to say, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing.”

The idea is to have a youth-led initiative where young people can see themselves as agents of change. We try to create young people who start seeing peace as something cool. Like peace, that’s something that’s lit, that they want to be a part of. And that only happens when you have young people making actions like these. When young people decide that they want to fight for peace, they know what other young people will be attracted to. So that’s what we try to do: create young leaders who can be warriors of peace on the street with what we teach them in the classroom.

The whole idea is about having community policing. So what we think about is, at one point or another, the police will leave. You won’t see them here all night, and I always tell them, this is what community policing looks like. These are all people who are taking over a block all night long, actively policing our neighborhoods and policing ourselves. It doesn’t look like a police officer—we don’t have guns or badges. What we do have is our fight for peace. That’s what we fight for.

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Jose Muñoz

Vice president of community ownership with The Resurrection Project

[What people in Back of the Yards] wanted to do was one, reclaim that safe space and create a safe space for people to come out and continue to be able to come out into the streets and enjoy life. But they also wanted to change the narrative of how people saw their community. The vast majority of people that live in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, and I would say all neighborhoods in Chicago, are not committing crimes. And what these young people wanted to do was to be able to highlight that there was some very positive things that were happening in the community. And if we highlight those things then we can get more people involved and engaged and not only taking care of the community but also increasing the peace in their communities. And that’s how this initiative was born.

We see Increase the Peace as a platform to get young people civically engaged. They’re learning about the importance of voting; they are registering people to vote. The summer project of going into six different neighborhoods throughout the city is completely youth-led. They’re cleaning up the—literally cleaning up the streets in their neighborhood. Going out there and engaging residents and having dialogue with folks about issues that are happening in their community.

And the other thing is that they’re connecting with local organizations in their community. So as we are moving around different communities and we’re getting youth that want to get involved, we are also trying to connect them to local organizations that are doing good work in their community, so they can continue to do this for not just a whole summer but also the winter, fall…as they go back into school.

Many of the youth in their communities are looking for outlets to be connected with other young people, but also [with] other things that are happening in their community. And many of the communities that we are going to, there aren’t many after-school programs or outlets for them to even have fun and engage with each other. Jobs, more of a focus on education, cleaner streets—[these are] all the real social determinants of health that are root causes of a lot of the violence in our community.

These youth, as they are getting engaged, are starting to realize that these problems are much bigger than some simple solutions. They know that marching alone is not going to help, an overnight campout alone isn’t going to help. That to really create change in their communities they have to come together, get organized, and start pushing for resources to come to their communities that will help provide them with what they need, but for others around them.

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Portions of these interviews originally aired on SSW Radio on WHPK August 23:

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