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Chicago youth-led initiative will help 3,000 more young people with $10 million grant

For years, Bezaleia “Bezzy” Reed watched her brother Caleb advocate for racial and social justice issues such as remove the police from schools and the fight against armed violence.

His life was cut short when he was shot in July 2020, and about a year later Bezzy joined united communities to honor his brother, who had been a grassroots youth leader. Reed, a senior at alternative public school Chicago Pathways in Education, has worked alongside other young people to help address mental health issues in her West Side community. Activism helped her heal from the death of her brother.

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

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

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

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

The two organizations have also worked to remove policing from schools, change Illinois’ zero-tolerance expulsion policies, and refocus school disciplinary policies toward more restorative practices.

Helping young people heal by taking action

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

“That’s how we should engage our young people,” she said of the program. “This is how we should engage our young people in a way that empowers them to make informed decisions in a way that supports them and ultimately leads them to the healing we all need.”

“This approach to trauma really offers young people 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. Medicine School.

“There is a pull in many communities where we work towards gang life or other types of alternatives to being powerful and strong. But it really does offer a positive and powerful alternative to those other ways that young people try to get out of the trauma they’ve been through.

Young people channel pain into activism

In the summer of 2020, Marques Watts contacted Communities United after losing his brother Derrion Umba Ortiz and his friend Caleb Reed. Watts, who attends the University of Wisconsin at Madison, recalls feeling helpless over the lack of mental health resources and wanted to make sure other young people didn’t have trouble finding those supports.

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

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

Like Watts, Reed said Communities United allowed her to heal and grow mentally and emotionally during a difficult time. Above all, she feels heard. She hopes the grant will enable the organization to help more young people cope with trauma and fight for change.

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

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at [email protected].

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