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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Annie Sweeney and William Lee

From the streets of Little Village to Washington: A Chicago violence-prevention leader tapped to advise Justice Department

CHICAGO — On a summer day eight years ago, Eddie Bocanegra, with his daughter Salome on his shoulders, stood at the head of a wooded hiking trail in a Chicago suburb to lead a group of teens on a walk.

The youths, who navigated dangerous paths every day back home in Little Village, were there as part of Bocanegra’s Urban Warriors program, which brought street-involved young men and military veterans together for mentoring.

“This is my sanctuary,” Bocanegra said as he stepped into the sunlit forest.

Urban Warriors was the first of two violence prevention programs Bocanegra has launched in Chicago during the past eight years, a time period in which the city’s long history of neighborhood-based violence prevention experienced a major revitalization.

Now, with the country grappling with a surge in homicides and shootings, Bocanegra has been named senior adviser for community violence intervention in the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice, according to a release from Heartland Alliance, where he serves as senior director.

Some said the appointment is an acknowledgment from the administration of President Joe Biden that solutions to the two-year spike should include input from people on the ground — such as Bocanegra — who have responded to persistent gun violence with street outreach and mediation, direct support for victims, job training and therapy.

“To me it signals that the (Biden) administration is still following what the research says … you can’t solve gun violence just with cops and handcuffs,” said Walter Katz, who worked under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel as deputy chief of staff for public safety in Chicago. “Being able to effectively investigate crimes and use cops to solve crimes is very important but another absolutely crucial part of that is … trying to work with people who are involved in violence to address the underlying causes. That is what Eddie has shown: A pathway, down to the individual level, to steer people in the right direction.”

Bocanegra, who served time in prison and went on to earn a master’s in social work from the University of Chicago, first worked to fight violence in Chicago as an outreach worker at CeaseFire, an organization known for its work to interrupt street disputes with workers in neighborhoods where they take place.

He then joined the YMCA of Metro Chicago, where he started Urban Warriors. The program paired youth in Little Village with military veterans for mentoring and therapy, based on shared experiences of coping with and surviving danger. Bocanegra thought it was a way to help treat mental and emotional wounds that youths often suffer from growing up in Chicago’s more fractured communities.

Bocanegra later moved to Heartland Alliance, where he started the READI program, which sought out those most at risk to be involved in violence to for an intense jobs program as well as therapy to deal with unaddressed trauma. The program partnered with other violence prevention groups in the city that have organized into a more formalized structure to try and reduce violence during the last five years.

“Eddie’s new position with the Department of Justice is a testament to his vital work with READI Chicago and demonstrates the important role leaders in Chicago and Illinois play in the field of community violence intervention,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said in the release. “When U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland visited Chicago last year, he included a visit to St. Agatha Catholic Church to talk with Eddie and participants in the READI program. If we want to end the epidemic of gun violence, we need to invest in community-based solutions that end cycles of trauma.”

In an interview Monday, Bocanegra said he is hoping to be a voice in Washington for his entire field, the organizations and individuals he knows in Chicago and across the country who work every day to identify people who need help and determine how to deliver it to them.

It is a complicated process, and Bocanegra said he was excited that people in Washington wanted to learn more about it.

“I see this opportunity as our president and our current government walking the walk when they talk about criminal justice reform,” he said. “This is a part of it, they are allowing someone like me to be in this space.”

Bocanegra knows from firsthand experience how hard it is to intervene and help people who have been exposed to violence. Not everyone in READI or Urban Warriors was successful, and policymakers need to understand why.

“I think that is part of the reason I am going into this role,” he said. “We think because you have a program or intervention, that is going to solve people’s exposure to trauma or lack of education, which has happened for 20 years. We’re grappling with decades of disinvestment and exposure to this level of violence.”

Paul Carrillo, a former intervention worker in L.A., said Bocanegra’s appointment provides an opportunity for Washington officials to really understand how hard the work is.

“There aren’t many in our industry that do what we do, specifically on the hard to reach, the most at-risk,” said Carrillo, who is now director of the Community Violence Initiative at Giffords Law Center. “So it says a lot. ... I personally think it is a significant move by the White House in that we are all going to be better for it.”

Bocanegra’s appointment comes at a tumultuous time around issues of public safety and policing in the U.S.

After the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, there were widespread and sustained demands across the country for a re-examination of the role of law enforcement. Many called for outright defunding of departments, citing the deaths of unarmed citizens, mostly Black men, from the actions of police officers.

Then, in the wake of the past two years of sustained gun violence across the country, which coincided with a pandemic that caused economic and emotional stress, came increased pressure on lawmakers to return to a more punitive law enforcement response to stop violence.

Bocanegra’s appointment also comes as the neighborhood where he grew up, Little Village, or La Villita, as it is known has been back in the spotlight for high-profile crimes. Despite its troubles, it serves as both a cultural destination and an entry point for Mexican immigrants looking to earn a living in Chicago and beyond.

Despite a continuous focus in recent years on the root causes of violence and outreach to families by community organizations, the vibrant community anchored by its 26th Street shopping district has seen no end to gang warfare. Some of the conflicts have their roots in the 1960s.

Prosecutors have said those entrenched conflicts sparked the shooting that killed 8-year-old Melissa Ortega on Jan. 22. That killing was about half a mile east of a 2019 Halloween shooting that wounded a 7-year-old who was trick-or-treating.

In addition to the young victims of crime, the conflicts very often involve teenagers and young adults used as gang foot soldiers and enforcers.

In March 2021, an on-duty Chicago police officer shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo during a foot chase, after officers responded to someone shooting at cars, highlighting the issues surrounding police response in the neighborhood.

Marches and parades to honor Adam’s memory were held, with some gathering to protest police. The shooting remains under investigation by the department.

Such is the high stakes debate Bocanegra will find himself in when he lands in Washington. When asked about that Monday, he said he understood the legitimate criticism of police conduct but also said that many are moved to serve in local law enforcement out of a true sense of purpose.

And as charged and divisive as the topic is, he said an increased understanding of shared experiences will lead to solutions.

He noted that three of his five siblings served in the Armed Forces and that his reflection on their experiences and his — as someone who chose a street life instead — is what led to the Urban Warriors program.

Bocanegra, who is on leave from Heartland, now lives outside Chicago with his wife and seven children.


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