This story is part of Reframing Crime Narratives, a 10-part series about public safety by The TRiiBE to create space for community conversation about crime in Chicago

The series is supported in part by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Envisioning Justice grant by Illinois Humanities.

In Chicago, the word “gun violence” is often more synonymous with the city’s identity than the word  “safety.” This association stems from the city’s long-standing struggles with high crime rates, particularly gun-related incidents, which continue to dominate media coverage. 

Where mainstream media has fallen short, however, is its narrative. Longstanding socio-economic and systemic disparities, along with historical segregation, are among the root causes of gun violence, creating underserved neighborhoods across Chicago where such violence is more likely to occur. Although the urgent need to end gun violence often dominates news narratives, who get overshadowed are the residents, organizations, and programs that prioritize a safer city for all.

As Chicago enters the summer months, often marked by increased violence due to warmer weather, The TRiiBE interviewed people experiencing the most divestment in West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park, and Englewood to understand their visions for safety. In these interviews, they describe what they believe would be most effective in creating safety and security in areas with high levels of poverty, the challenges and barriers shaping the safety of their neighborhoods, and the role law enforcement should play in building a safe community.

“The neighborhood I come from is a place where suspicion hangs heavy in the air. Whether you’re compliant or non-compliant, you’re treated as a suspect. It’s a reality where 96 shots can be fired because of tinted windows,” Pablo Mendoza, 47, said. Although he lives in Little Village, he works as an organizer in East Garfield Park and a Research Fellow for the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project.

Mendoza has witnessed firsthand the struggles and resilience of his community. East Garfield Park, a predominantly Black neighborhood, grapples with median household incomes significantly falling below the poverty line, vacant land, and systemic neglect. So far this year, 30 people have been shot in East Garfield Park as of May 18, with 6 of those shootings being fatal, according to the city’s “Violence and Victimization Trends” dashboard. According to a 2016 report by Rush University Medical Center, East Garfield Park ranked in the third quartile of communities served by Rush for its rate of crimes against people, including simple assault, aggravated assault, and homicide. 

Amid these challenges with gun violence, tension, and suspicion linger in the atmosphere. In March, Dexter Reed was fatally shot 13 times during a traffic stop on the West Side after officers fired at him 96 times. For Mendoza, that incident personifies the harsh realities and extreme measures that contribute to perpetual distrust.

“As an abolitionist, I don’t see law enforcement playing a positive role [in communities]. They are the violent arm of the state,” Mendoza explained. Being an abolitionist often means advocating for the dismantling of current policing and prison systems, which are seen as inherently oppressive and violent, particularly towards marginalized communities. Abolitionists believe in creating alternative systems of community safety and support that do not rely on punitive measures.

Pablo Mendoza is a community organizer in East Garfield Park and a Research Fellow for the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®

“However, as an organizer, I recognize that police officers are people too. While I don’t advocate for partnerships with police, we can connect with them on a human level. Abolishing the police and redirecting resources toward community well-being is crucial. Decolonization, land ownership, and focusing on future generations will shape a different, more equitable future,” Mendoza quipped.

The larger Garfield Park neighborhood, with a population of just over 37,400 residents, is a predominantly Black community where nearly 90% of residents in East Garfield Park and more than 93% in West Garfield Park identify as Black. The area contains a disproportionate amount of the city’s vacant land, affecting community stability and growth. 

Utilizing his lived experience, Pablo informs the development of these spaces in his work with a focus on trauma suffered by systems-impacted people, or individuals negatively affected by institutions like the criminal justice or child welfare systems. Between February and August of 2021, Pablo Mendoza and Sarah Ross researched the need for an art and community space for families of incarcerated individuals, revealing the importance of accessible, inclusive spaces that promote healing and community engagement. The result: Walls Turned Sideways, an exhibit that exemplifies how these trauma-informed practices can be effectively integrated into artistic and educational initiatives, fostering social justice and trauma-centered care.

“Space is undervalued but essential. We need places to congregate, share ideas, and shape our collective future. The removal of such spaces in the past has had lasting effects,” Mendoza said. 

Tyiesha Jackson, a 31-year-old resident of Garfield Park who has worked as a background extra on the TV dramas “Chicago P.D.” and “Empire,” has a different perspective on creating safer environments. She said she’s observed that there are more police with service dogs in train stations downtown but not in the South, West, or East sides of Chicago. She said she wants police surveillance in her community. 

Asked if she’s heard of gunshot detection technology Shotspotter used by the Chicago Police Department (CPD), Jackson said she wasn’t familiar with it. 

“The current state of my neighborhood has its ups and downs of gang violence and shootings off and on,” Jackson said. “My dream is to see new updated systems, like putting police cameras in the neighborhood, making families feel safer especially when heading to work and leaving their home early in the morning.” 

Jackson also noted that residents haven’t been proactive or engaged enough in communicating their needs and concerns to law enforcement.

“That would be great to hear if the law enforcement wanted to collaborate with the community to address a safety environment for their community, but the community is so lazy to even communicate, so that’ll be something the law enforcement would have to bear handling the situation on their own.”

Over on the South Side, the Englewood neighborhood has a population of more than 24,000 residents, with 91% identifying as Black or African American. The median household income is $23,067, which is below the federal poverty level.

Englewood, too, has faced significant challenges, including high crime and economic instability. So far this year, 33 people have been shot in Englewood as of May 18, with eight of those shootings being fatal, according to the city’s “Violence and Victimization Trends” dashboard.

Despite these hurdles, numerous local organizations and initiatives work tirelessly to improve the quality of life for its residents and change the narrative. Marketta Sims, a 44-year-old former resident of Englewood now living in Bronzeville, emphasized the neighborhood’s need for offering people the necessary resources and ensuring they are genuinely accessible, rather than keeping them in secluded areas or limiting them to a select group. For instance, providing access to education, job training programs, mental health services, and community support networks can help everyone thrive. If valuable resources are available, distributing them widely can benefit the entire community.

“Poverty and gun violence often coexist because people in survival mode are not understood. To address this, we need to reinvent the wheel and change how we view low-income individuals,” she said.

Marketta Sims is originally a resident of Englewood and now resides in Bronzeville. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®

Sims also shared that she received a Mental Health and De-Escalation Training certification from U.S. Bank to be able to better help those in need and prevent further harm.

“Greed and power can blind people to the needs of others, but it’s important to remember that the ‘little man’ is essential for the success of the ‘big man.’ We need to create a space where everyone has an equal opportunity. Without that, poverty and violence will persist because it becomes a matter of survival,” Sims said. “When people’s backs are against the wall, they will do whatever it takes to survive, which can lead to violence. The more resources are withheld, the more conflict arises as people fight for what they need.”

Josephine Horace adores Englewood. Although the 63-year-old left Chicago to reside in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, in December she made the transition back to the city because that’s where the majority of her work is centered. She wants to prove wrong anyone who speaks badly about Englewood.

“I see my current neighborhood safe, quiet, and pretty well maintained thus far,” she said. “My vision for the future is committed to community investment. That is brought about by education, awareness, and economic development.”

Horace said she believes that changing the negative language and narratives that have permeated and become deeply embedded in the mindsets of Englewood residents would be instrumental in bringing about safety and security. Terms such as “crime-ridden,” “dangerous,” or “impoverished” further stigmatize the community and perpetuate negative stereotypes and hopelessness among residents.

She also emphasized the need for local organizations and experts to provide more training and informational sessions on conflict resolution and community engagement to equip residents with the skills and knowledge necessary to address and prevent violence in their neighborhoods. 

Horace urged residents to call on elected officials to become more actively engaged in the community beyond election season, and to advocate for increased funding for critical community programs. The barriers faced by the Englewood community, include a lack of funding for after-school programs, job training initiatives, and mental health services, as well as limited access to viable economic opportunities and educational resources. By addressing these specific needs, Horace believes that the community can build a stronger, safer environment.

“Law enforcement can bring about a change by changing the way they operate, re-establishing a sense of trust, providing officers who can identify with the people and hold them accountable for wrongdoing. I wholeheartedly believe that a collaboration can be formed, Horace said. “It can’t be done overnight because of the extensive damage but with the implementation of safe spaces to have open and authentic dialog, change can occur.” 

For Englewood residents, safety isn’t solely about policing; it’s about coming together. Initiatives like the R.A.G.E. Englewood (Resident Association of Greater Englewood) have been pivotal in giving residents the agency to reclaim their neighborhoods. 

Tra’Vonne Wright is an Englewood resident and member of the Getting Grown Collective, a neighborhood organization that supports communities through agriculture projects, policy collaboration, and health access. He spoke about organizations like R.A.G.E. fighting against gentrification and helping residents buy back homes, Grow Greater Englewood which supports sustainable farms and businesses, and Teamwork Englewood which provides essential resources and amenities.

“As a lifelong resident of 20 years, I’ve always wanted to see my community thrive and live outside of the narrative broadcast by the news and the media,” Wright said. “To see people coming together, working together, and changing the narrative one day at a time, step by step, [with] one block, [with] one corner, is truly inspiring and life-changing. It’s pivotal and central to the longevity of our community.” 

Tra'Vonne Wright is an Englewood resident and member of the Getting Grown Collective in Chicago. Photo by Ash Lane for The TRiiBE®

Like the other Chicagoans interviewed in this story, Wright said he believes that, besides disinvestment, the biggest challenges and barriers their communities face are related to media. These narratives often paint a bleak picture of neighborhoods like Garfield Park and Englewood, overshadowing the strength and potential within these communities.

“Many youth actually want to live outside of what is being broadcasted in the media. However, they become disillusioned by what they see on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, or the local news,” Wright explained. “They feel that they either can’t overcome those obstacles or that they must conform to the negative images portrayed.” 

It’s crucial to understand that these communities are not defined by their challenges but by their creativity and collective fortitude to forge a better future. Their stories highlight a shared vision: a future where safety, determination and community-led transformation are the new norm.

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE