A South Side Chicago Pastor's Plan to Fight Violence and Poverty in His Community | Sojourners

A South Side Chicago Pastor's Plan to Fight Violence and Poverty in His Community

In 2012, Pastor Corey Brooks spent 94 days living on a motel roof. He only came down for two funerals, which happen often in his community. He was protesting the motel owners, who were involved in local sex trafficking and gang violence that had a stronghold on his South Side Chicago community. Brooks’ goal was to convince the owners to sell the property and end the illicit activities. Eventually they caved, and Brooks was able to buy the lot with help from actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry and Ozinga Concrete, one of the longest-serving family businesses in Chicagoland.

Since then, Brooks’ activism has rippled through the Woodlawn neighborhood like the wind, his home of 12 years. Friends, mentees, and excited children give him hugs, a handshake, a wave, or a business letter. His work intersects faith, activism, and community organization; he’s become a sort of local a celebrity: everyone knows his name and legacy.

“A lot of good coming out of the community is thanks to him,” said Lashon Tolbert, 31, who has known Brooks for nine years. Tolbert used to be in one of the street gangs; now, he has distanced himself to be a better father to his seven children, working full-time at Macy’s department store and laying concrete in the summer.

“I flock to him because he brings something out in me most people like to see — that I like to see. He makes me a better person,” Tolbert said of Brooks, who he calls P.

P’s recognition spans greater than 63rd Street and South Wentworth Avenue. He won the Steve Harvey Best Community Leader Award in 2013, chosen from a nationwide pool of community leaders and has been covered by numerous publications as a leader for peace and hope. Brooks, who is originally from Kenton, Tenn., and grew up in Muncie, Ind., has spent his life helping youth in Woodlawn and Englewood, which suffer from poverty, unemployment, business disparities, and high gun violence.

The overall crime rate in Woodlawn is 163 percent higher than the national average, according to data from AreaVibes, a real estate site. But the district also saw less crime compared to last year; it declined by 19 percent in 2018 compared to 2017, according to the 2018 Year End Crime Summary by the Chicago Police Department. Shootings were also down by 20 percent in this district in 2018 compared to 2017. Englewood has a similar story: The overall crime rate is 256 percent higher than the national average, according to data from AreaVibes. However, murder crimes have declined over the last couple of years, and in 2018, the district was one that saw the biggest seizure of illegal guns by the police.

Brooks is the founder of New Beginnings Church, where he has created mentorship programs, trade classes in construction, and entrepreneurial and hospitality training to get people off the street with his nonprofit organization called Project H.O.O.D., started in 2011.

These services have already decreased the violence and disparities residents experience. Project H.O.O.D. reported that a gang truce between four gangs (250 people) reduced murders by 75 percent. The fourth Construction Cohort saw 90 young adults graduate from the program with 90 percent employment post-graduation. Over the last four years the group has helped 610 people to get jobs, Brooks noted.

But, Brooks said, his dream is not fully realized. His goal is to create a community center on the lot of the old motel to house all of these services and more that will give the neighborhood a facility that meets its needs. In December, Brooks started a GoFundMe to help bring the center to life. His goal is $25 million. So far, the project has raised nearly $3 million from 142 donors.

“The community wants the building, the facilities, the programs, but they can't support it financially so we got to reach out and do everything we can,” he said.

The project has received generous $1 million donations from the Rauner Family Foundation, the Robert J Semrad Foundation and $500,000 from two former NBA players, Steve Francis of the Beijing Ducks and Chicago native Bobby Simmons of the Los Angeles Clippers. The architect is gifting $750,000 and the developers also donated. Brooks said that with help from other large donors, Project H.O.O.D’s annual gala, and some tax credits, the goal can be reached by August. That’s when the team hopes to break ground and start construction, if they can raise the funds.

With modern, colorful design and professional facilities, Brooks said he is hoping that the building’s look will directly impact the youth using it.

“In this urban area that is so underserved and impoverished, to have the type of building you would see if you were in the suburbs, up North or in some rich community [is important],” he said. “When kids go in it, we want them to be changed and understand it is a beautiful facility.”

The community center will have a classroom for various programs, a swimming pool, two theaters, a music studio, a basketball court, a rooftop garden and facilities for trauma counseling, since many kids deal with traumatic experiences. To assist youth with hospitality training and employment, three restaurants will live in the center: Oberweis, Woodgrain Pizzeria, and BGR The Burger Joint, which will also alleviate the lack of food options in the area.

“When people understand that you love them and you really do care, they will be more committed to the programs you have,” Brooks said.

Ja’Mal Green, 23, believes mentorship is an important way to reach struggling youth. Green, a community activist who has worked closely with Brooks, is the CEO of Majostee Allstars, an organization that empowers youth through guidance, training, and mentoring and has received support from Chance the Rapper, among others.

“If there’s a kid who comes from a broken home, you can put all you want in front of him — give him a job, give him some money, put him in a program — none of it will work because he doesn’t have the guidance he needs to mentally be able to understand how to stay on track,” Green said.

Green’s organization rents out Project H.O.O.D.’s location and had tried to crowdfund for its own community center in 2017. But the financial strains were too high and its $1.5 million target was not met. However, he believes Brooks can accomplish his goal. Green donated to the project, calling it a fight that needs to be won.

Brooks looks to another business model that has seen success to similar gang problems is in Los Angeles: Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries. Homeboy is the largest gang intervention and reentry program in the world ,and Brooks sees its model as a solution to emulate. It works to dismantle gang violence through entrepreneurial and workforce development programs, end mass incarceration, and change the negative perception of criminals.

Homeboy Industries trained 390 former gang members, held 21,451 classes, helped 5,586 community members with services, and provided 11,834 tattoo removal treatments in 2017, according to its yearly report. Its flagship re-entry program is offered to at least 250 men and women each year, as well as therapy sessions.

Boyle’s New York Times-bestseller Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion helped Brooks visualize the power of the community center.

Brooks wants it to be a model for other disadvantaged communities, just as Homeboy acted as an inspiration for him. With Woodlawn and Englewood’s poverty rate at 36 percent and a $27,400 median income, Brooks believes the center will reduce crime, disassemble gangs, fix unemployment and uplift the next generation.

“My prayer is that Project H.O.O.D. and this facility will become not just a beacon and a light for this community but a beacon and light for inner cities that are troubled and plagued with violence across America,” he said.

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