Former President Barack Obama poses for a picture with participants in Guitars Over Guns, a Bronzeville recording studio and youth program, during a May visit to the space. Guitars Over Guns received a $30,000 grant for summer programs from the Obama Foundation. Credit: The Obama Foundation

CHICAGO — Former President Barack Obama’s foundation is funding several dozen community groups this summer as they work to create fun, safe spaces for young Black and Brown men on the South and West sides.

Thirty-three local organizations will receive $30,000 grants from the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an Obama Foundation program which supports young men of color.

Awardees of the 2023 “Freedom Summer” grants include Future Ties in Woodlawn, Christianaire and Lost Boyz Inc. in South Shore and CHAMPS Male Mentoring and Ring of Hope in Greater Grand Crossing.

Others include Project I Am, New Life Centers, I Am A Gentleman, the North Lawndale Eagles youth football program and #IncreaseThePeace.

The organizations will each run unique summer programs in fields as diverse as archery, maritime arts, violence interruption, mentoring and more, officials said.

“We have so many organizations that are already doing the work, and obviously they just need the finances and the resources to be able to reach more,” said Christopher Crater, manager of My Brother’s Keeper Chicago.

This year’s Freedom Summer grants are the second to be awarded, after the organization awarded $1 million in total to 51 organizations across the United States last year.

Twenty of last year’s awardees were local, including Mr. Dad’s Father’s Club in Englewood and Options for Youth in Little Village. Guitars Over Guns in Bronzeville, a 2022 recipient whose participants met with Obama earlier this year, received the grant again this year.

My Brother’s Keeper officials were “real intentional about making sure Chicago was the priority” this year, Crater said.

“It was ultimately an opportunity to really do an audit of the city, with all of these amazing Black and Brown organizations that are impacting change in Chicago,” he said.

Violence prevention groups designed programs “to keep Black and brown young men safe and occupied for longer hours” than the groups could otherwise offer, Crater said.

All organizations have already received their money after submitting plans to spend the grants through a “super intense process” earlier this year, he said.

Each organization agreed to use at least $4,000 of the grant for an evaluation of their summer program once it ends, Crater said. Beyond that, groups have “a lot of freedom” to spend the grant on stipends, trips and other aspects of their programs, he said.

Youth with the Urban Male Network canoe and kayak during a recent camping trip. The trip, supported by a $30,000 Freedom Summer grant, was free to all participants. Credit: Provided

Marlon Haywood is the founder of grant recipient the Urban Male Network. The Englewood-based organization has 12 locations on the South and West sides and in the south suburbs.

The network is in the middle of its eight-week summer program, through which young men have gone camping, seen “The Flash” in a theater and participated in other activities that encourage leadership and relationship-building skills.

Events still on the calendar this summer include a trip to TopGolf, a picnic in Jackson Park, a Six Flags visit and a back-to-school event. All the programs are free for the youth thanks to the Freedom Summer grant, Haywood said.

“For many of [the young men], this not only gives them an opportunity to experience things outside of their neighborhood, but also creates that safe space for them,” Haywood said.

“When we were camping, we stayed in a cabin in the woods and they were making s’mores until 2 or 3 in the morning,” he said. “They’re from the South and West sides, and they stay in certain neighborhoods where they can’t just stay outside until 2 or 3 in the morning. It’s an opportunity for them to have fun and be safe in a contained environment.”

The summer slate is organized in honor of Darrion “Cheese” Williams, a program participant and Crane Medical Prep High School sophomore who was killed in April, soon after his 16th birthday.

Many of his close friends were on a college visit with the Urban Male Network when they found out about his death early the next morning, Haywood said. Williams had opted to stay home that weekend and celebrate his birthday.

Haywood and network mentors relied on youth input to plan out this summer of “Cheese” — whose nickname reflected his “infectious” smile — with a focus on encouraging the kids to have fun and connect with each other, Haywood said.

“I believe in really hearing their voices,” he said. “This is not me coming in and saying, ‘This is what you need to do and learn’ — I take [their input] and recreate the curriculum to fit their interests.”

Young men with the Urban Male Network sit around a fire as they camp during one of the network’s weekly summer events. Credit: Provided

Violence prevention activists have repeatedly said that long-term funding, evidence-based research and relationship building is needed to successfully curb violent crime in Chicago.

It’s also important to get grassroots groups out of their silos and working together while including kids in decisions about their safety, Crater said.

“Obviously we know $1 million is not enough, and obviously there are some systems that need to be changed” in addition to funding, he said.

Aside from the grants, My Brother’s Keeper Chicago will continue holding monthly “action team” meetings with members of dozens of local violence prevention groups including Lost Boyz, CHAMPS, I Am A Gentleman, the South Shore Drill Team and others, Crater said.

“A lot of times our organizations are doing so much great work on the ground, but they don’t have an opportunity to check out the other organizations that are doing the things they’re doing,” he said. “They are the experts, we’re not, [so we want] to get them in the room together.”

The organization will also hold another edition of the London Exchange program later this year, Crater said. Students from Chicago and London swapped places across the pond and met with Bulls creative director Don C, Jordan designer Tinker Hatfield, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others through the program.

The Urban Male Network will return to its regular, monthly events once summer ends and school is back in session, Haywood said.

The network also plans to unveil two projects in Englewood later this year, he said. One is a community space for young men in a mixed-use building the group now owns, while the other is a lot that will host a basketball court, a play area, a games trailer and a trailer to serve as a shop where youth can learn business and financial literacy.

“Things are not going to change overnight, and you have to have everybody working in tandem,” Haywood said. “From business leaders to the police department to parents, schools, churches … that’s how we can begin to tackle the violence within our community.”

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