When Illinois State Senator Kimberly Lightford (D-4th) was in grammar school she was approached by the notorious Gangster’s Disciples. They wanted to make an example of her, making her a Disciple Queen, and getting her to join the gang, bringing other girls with her.
She said no, of course, but that episode in her life still sticks out as one of those life changing moments, it was a wake up call that has influenced her work since.
Monday, May 2, Lightford and School District 209 Board President Emanuel “Chris” Welch announced a $90,000 grant for the district aimed at curtailing gang influence within the schools, stopping it before it even begins.
“I could have been a victim. They target leaders and figure if you can get leaders, [they] can bring the rest in,” Lightford said of her near-brush with the gang. “It was a good thing for me I had a solid foundation at home, I wasn’t afraid of bullies and didn’t like how gangsters dressed.”
The problem, Lightford said, is that not all children have that strong family background and, since times are different, youngsters are more attracted to the lifestyle epitomized in the current hip hop culture.
In addition, children who may not have strong self-esteem or families backing them are looking for acceptance in all the wrong places, she said.
With this in mind, Lightford, a member of the Community Mobilization Summit Group, sought out the grant money for District 209 and worked with the school board to make this a reality.
“This is a Title IV area,” she said, unveiling the plan. “The goal is to financially support the school district and help decrease school drugs and violence. This is an institution for learning, not for all the social ills that arrive here.”
The grant money, Welch and Lightford said, will go towards a Youth Mentoring and Gang Prevention program through X-Man Productions, led by Tio Hardiman.
Hardiman is best known for his work as the director of gang mediation for CeaseFire in Chicago.
With the money, six team members will begin training this week to come into the schools on May 16.
The program itself, however, Welch explained has not been finalized.
“We met last week [with X-Man Productions] and we are still crossing the ‘T’s’ and dotting the ‘I’s’ but the money has been secured and we do know there are some areas to focus on at a minimum: counseling on gangs and mentoring,” he said.
The program Lightford said will focus on six areas:
The first is a guidance program, active during the academic year, which will match youths, who may not be A or B students, with role models that are professionals.
The second area is a female and male mentoring program that will focus on improving interpersonal relationships and academics.
The third, Lightford said, is a gang prevention seminar which will reduce the level of school dropouts and will focus on violence reduction.
Also in the program is a violence interruption program that will be facilitated by professionals in the field of anger management and will reduce classroom and school fights.
Another aspect is the violence prevention service, which will focus on bullying and will use student surveys to determine where such problems exist. Finally, there will be a substance awareness program where counselors will be matched up with students in classrooms of no more than 50 students.
In addition, Lightford said she has suggested Hardiman and his six team members, who will rotate through Proviso East and West, invite professionals into the schools and do targeted workshops, adding that she has lined up Ford Models to provide an etiquette course for the ladies at Proviso.
“Not all gang members are men,” she said. “I expressed to [Hardigan] my concern to have females as well as males involved, as young ladies are being preyed on in the area for prostitution.”
Welch added that 12 students have already been singled out for the program, which will run through the summer, to the end of the calendar year.
“The kids may not think we know, but we know who needs these services,” Welch said. “We have identified those who we think need to be targeted. These kids are at risk because you know they are being recruited and we hope to build self-esteem so they can say no and tell the gangs to go away.”
The grant comes out to $7,500 per student, for the 12 students involved, over the course of the next eight months, or a $937 investment, per student, per month.
The program, Lightford warned, is not limited to those 12 students already chosen, adding that the money would be allocated appropriately depending on how many students are identified throughout the year.
“My opinion is that it is never enough [money],” Welch said. “We have some serious social ills in our community now and we are doing everything we can to help [the students] succeed.”
“I think there has to be a starting point and for me it is to identify potential at-risk youth at the fine line of being pulled into drugs and violence,” Lightford said. “I am hoping we can do a six week summer seminar.”
Despite the community-wide problem Welch referred to, he refuted gangs are a big problem in District 209.
“We always say you have fights at any high school,” he said. “What our job is, is to identify that there are those issues out there and we would like [the fights] to be zero. It is an opportunity you can’t say no to.”
Hardiman and his group were chosen Welch said, because of Hardiman’s known connections with the gang leaders and for his track record in gang mediation and violence prevention.