How many of us go about our daily lives with an effortless routine? Many of us have been programmed to design our routine as significant milestones take place – marriage, children, school, work. We don’t think about the anxiety that it sometimes yields in where we live or how it can have lasting affects on our children.
Chicago is the third largest city in the nation with a population of 2.7 million, according to 2014 Census numbers. But it has become known as one of the country’s deadliest cities with the highest number of people shot and wounded – 834 – and killed by gun violence – 152 – since 2016 began.
The magnitude of the violence that has riddled our streets has impacted not only the neighborhoods that have bared the burden, but the children who reside there.
The Chicago Defender sat down with several young people from age 12 to 18 years to discuss concerns they face growing up in some of the toughest predominately Black neighborhoods.
In an ongoing series, we will discuss the concerns of living as a young African-American resident on the West and South Side of Chicago.
Westinghouse College Prep Academy
Zyleik Gladney is a Chicago public school student who may seem to some to be just another statistic, but as you delve deeper, you understand he is not your stereotypical kid from the West Side.
Raised by a single parent, Zyleik has four brothers – three older brothers, one of who is currently in the Navy. A junior at Westinghouse College Prep Academy, he sees himself following in the footsteps of his brother Andrew, who has been in the Navy for about four years.
“I want to go the Navy, too,” Zyleik says. “But that’s not my long-term goal. It’s to become a doctor. I’m hoping the Navy can pay for my schooling. I don’t want to put any pressure on my mom. She doesn’t have to worry about stress to get the money to go to school and then med school. I will be in school for a long time.”
His routine is similar to most of us. He rises at about 6 a.m., showers, brushes his teeth, gets dressed and prepares to leave the house going to school. Unlike students in neighboring suburban schools, a yellow school bus doesn’t greet him at the corner of his block.
He leaves his home early for the CTA bus stop waiting to ride the Harrison #7 for 15 minutes then switch to the Kimball-Homan #8, which drops him in walking distance of his school.
“Sometimes I’m on facetime with my girlfriend, that’s how I wake up,” he says. “We stay on the phone, like overnight. She and I go to the same school. I hang up the phone and track my bus. I usually get on the bus about 7:13am. I tell mom and pops I’m leaving and I love them. It’s an average of 45 minutes to get to school.”
A series of non-stop classes sets the tone for his day, beginning with his Accounting class and ending with his eighth period U.S. History class. It doesn’t break his cool and the day-to-day battle of making it from home to school to work and home again keeps his senses alert.
“I keep my head up. I never keep both headphones in, especially if I’m by myself. Sometimes, you just got to look to your right, look to your left and look behind you. Keep your eyes up, never down, you never know what can happen,” he says.
Zyleik makes it a habit while waiting at the bus stop to watch every car that passes, as well as to dress down a bit. “I definitely got to watch out,” he says. “It’s never been this crazy. Sometimes you can’t even put any headphones on –depending on the time of day.”
Where Zyleik resides, the Austin and Garfield Park communities have the highest ranking of gun shot victims and homicides. At the Defender’s press time, Austin’s latest homicide count topped off at 22, with 92 wounded. Garfield trailed behind with 12 deaths and 79 wounded victims.
The Chicago Police Department repeatedly points the finger at gang members and individual beefs, but Zyleik feels it goes beyond the gangbanger label.
“I think it’s fear,” he says. “People fear what’s about to happen, or what’s coming. Sometimes you have people who want to beef from the streets, but they’re not cut from that cloth. That means they’re willing to do anything to show that they can be a part of that group so they’re willing to shoot anybody they see. The crazy part is that they can’t even shoot. They’re trying to hit something they don’t hit so, now what?”
As a young Black male, he has witnessed too many of his peers targeted or approached as a daily routine. The distrust of law enforcement is at its highest on the heels of repeated video releases showing people of color dying at the hands of officers.
It leads Zyleik to wonder if “we’re pointing guns at each other versus the real enemy. I’m not saying to point the gun at the police. I think we lack education. You should know what to do in a situation when the police approach you and your hands are in your pocket; it may look like you have something on you.”
Unlike the young guys who can’t shoot straight, Zyleik says of the police, “They know where to aim, they know how to kill you. Look at the news, a police shoots a kid, they’re dead. There are no wounds, they just die.”
Being a part of mentoring programs and currently a youth counselor at Simon Park, Zyleik attends workshops preparing him to beware of the law and know his rights.
“Police can’t search your car without a warrant,” he says. “They cannot search your person without a warrant unless they feel threatened. It’s simple things like that.”
Learn Charter School Network
Kenyelle Meeks is a young student with dreams of becoming a professional dancer. She lives with her mom who makes sure to drive her to and from school. There is no CTA bus for her, out of fear of what could happen.
“I don’t go outside because I don’t feel safe where I live, so I just stay in the house,” Kenyelle says.
Her school has a diverse student body that resides in various parts of the city so she often sees the difference between herself and other classmates.
“I don’t think it’s a problem with me because I’m not an outside person. Most of my friends live downtown so they don’t have a problem going outside,” she says. “There are more people surrounding them. There are a lot people and businesses in their neighborhood. Most people who are shot, are shot where there’s fewer people. It happens more with kids who live where I live.”
It’s become the norm to not understand that it’s not normal to not be able to have a choice to go outside. To have that choice which raises the awareness of having key rules of routine in place to assure her safety. Her mom allowed her to take Tae Kwon Do classes, but also equipped her with a cell phone.
“Make sure you have a phone. Make sure it’s over 30 percent charged. If I call you and you don’t answer, I will come and get you. Make sure you are ready to fight back,” Kenyelle said her mom told her.
“She allowed me to go to Tae Kwon Do. I already go to dance but I wanted to go. I feel like in life, you have to learn how to protect yourself. You never know what will happen. Somebody came into the school with a gun. I heard the sirens and I waited in one of the places where they tell us to hide.
“Sometimes I aspire to help kids because I think some kids don’t have the adult aspect that they need in their lives. Maybe their parents may have gone down the wrong path and they’re teaching them the same. I still want to dance, but I also want to help kids.”
Frederick Douglass Academy High School
Jodeci Gladney has had a rocky road to redemption in his young years, but will be graduating in two months. He carries himself in a respectfully, mild-mannered way, but opens up about his experiences.
He’s not a member of anybody’s gang or cliché – he doesn’t sell drugs, but has developed a routine of smoking weed.
As he prepares for the school day, he and his buddies will smoke a blunt and afterward when they get out. “I don’t be on the block to gang bang. We just smoke weed, watch TV and play video games,” he says. “You can’t really do anything nowadays. You can’t even take your little brother and sister outside without knowing what is happening out here.”
Jodeci can remember his grammar and middle school years being less intense and not riddled with constant gunfire as background noise.
“When I was younger, it wasn’t as bad. Now, friends I grew up with are gone. The friends of my older brothers are dead or in jail. It’s just crazy. I don’t see how people can go to jail and come out to do the same thing.
“I used to be out here stealing – going to stores – just to get high.” After being caught on several occasions, he stopped realizing this was leading to a path of juvenile jail time. The disappointment and sadness that his mom endured coming to the police stations was enough for him to turn around.
Regretfully he admits, “It was the high of stealing. Steady ditching school just to go out to smoke. Once I smoked, I’m out of school and it’s still early. Nobody else was out but me. I wish I could go back and start over.”
He feels with the support of his family and aspirations to attend community college, he still is very conscious of his environment. He doesn’t allow the environment he resides in to dictate his fate.
“I feel like I have to be alert when I’m outside. There’s other ways to solve problems, you don’t have always to fight or pick up a gun. I’m not saying to let anyone hit you. It’s about being the bigger person and helping your peers out.”
Spencer Elementary Technology Academy
Tamia Spivey says, “I’m pretty smart. I’m one of the top students in my grade. That motivates me and I’m very intelligent. When I grow up, I want to be something in life. I want to be a teacher or a principal over a school.”
The confidence and poise of Tamia was very impressive as she shared her aspirations to be a great role model.
Every morning, she gets ready for her school day like most students – finding the right outfit without trying too hard, but enough to look cool. Her father is the school security guard and she rides with him – arriving about 45 minutes before classes start.
The intelligence of Tamia also is in alignment with her street smarts. She’s lived in the Austin community all of her life and walking by herself is not an option. Being a young female doesn’t make it any easier.
She said, “Sometimes, you have to watch your back because you never know what may happen. We live in a neighborhood where there’s shooting all the time. You’re always concerned about being shot or having someone jump on you. You have to watch your surroundings at all times. That’s why sometimes I walk with my older brother. I don’t want to be out there by myself.”
Failure is not an option for Tamia and she makes a point to encourage her peers who may make bad life choices. “I tell them it’s not always a good choice to fight. They may get in trouble or get somebody else in trouble,” she says.
Tamia has attended Spencer Elementary since kindergarten and has grown a close kinship with teachers and faculty.
“My daddy, my sister and all of my teachers encourage me; I’m still very close to them,” she says. “I’m going to graduate in two years and I’ve already chose my schools – Lane Tech, Westinghouse, Prosser, Uplift and Whitney Young.”
Frederick Douglass Academy High School
When you first meet Jeremiah Greenwood, he is a quiet and observant young man. He was hesitant on being interviewed but once he began to talk it was clear that he had his own philosophy in approaching challenges.
His quiet demeanor also housed someone who had a short fuse who dealt with his anger through aggression and fighting. At 16, Jeremiah discovered his love for playing sports, which eventually helped him manage his anger.
“Football was my first sport. I used to have anger issues – I used to be mad at the world. If somebody said something to me wrong, I would want to fight,” he says. “The first thing I joined was B.A.M. (Becoming A Man).”
After awhile, Jeremiah became the student vice president of B.A.M. He says it taught him not react to certain situations with anger–along with his involvement with B.U.I.L.D.
“Words are not supposed to hurt you, so if they’re not putting their hands on you, just shake it off,” he says. “Walk away. Kill somebody with silence and walk away.”
Everyday, Jeremiah’s routine usually plays out the same at school.
“I get all of my homework done, talk to the teachers, go home and talk to mom. If I’m not playing basketball or doing something productive, then I’m not going outside. There’s nothing outside for us. So, I’ll stay inside and read a book or something or fill out job applications,” he says.
In talking with most of the students, it seems that being outside can be associated with trouble. “I stay cool. I never walk by myself,” Jeremiah says. “If I walk with one of my friends, we’re trying to get to school. We take the same route everyday.”
He explains, “You treat people how you want to be treated. I say, ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you.’ It’s a two-way street – you have to give respect to earn respect. If not, you’re going to have to switch up your route to school.”
Jeremiah’s plans include attending college and raising his GPA in order to qualify for the free tuition plan offered by Chicago City Colleges. He doesn’t intend on being a statistic – studying social work or becoming a pediatrician is on his radar.
“I was raised by my mother,” Jeremiah said. “I was going to learn from her or it would be the streets. Thankfully, I have brothers, so the streets weren’t an option either. They didn’t play that. Some people’s parents don’t care. If some kids had more parent involvement in their lives it would be different. If we had more mentoring programs to keep kids off the street, everything would be better.”