ENGLEWOOD — It may have been tragedy that led Tamar Manasseh to a vacant lot on the corner of 75th Street and Stewart Avenue, but it is hope that keeps her there.
As the founder of MASK (Mothers Against Senseless Killings), she — along with a coterie of neighborhood matriarchs — has stood vigil over this small plot of land since 2015, transforming a once-neglected, violence-plagued corner into a place where sidewalk chalk meets smoke-filled grills. Their vigilance led to a drop in violence on the corner.
Soon, the sidewalk chalk and smoke-filled grills will give way to textbooks and musical instruments, as MASK builds Block Academy, a community resource center that will give teens and young adults the opportunity to finish their high school education.
It was on this corner in 2015 that Lucille Barnes was shot and killed as she was with a group of women. That moved Manasseh and others to make their daily visits and, with music, food and advice, to form MASK to address neighborhood violence. They were dubbed the “Army of Moms” and their work attracted national attention.
The center, which features shipping container classrooms on the newly paved lot, is scheduled to open June 23, and will offer not only classroom instruction, but job training as well.
“We’re doing a home schooling kind of network thing here,” Manasseh told Block Club Chicago last week. “Kids can come here and actually get the education they didn’t get when the high schools were closed in the neighborhood. It’s not an ‘alternative’ school, it’s just a school.”
Manasseh added that MASK will partner with corporations and businesses to have instructors come in to teach students about their fields. Once the students complete the program, those businesses would take them on as interns, Manasseh said.
“This is how they transition into the job market,” said Manasseh. “And if you don’t get a job, you also have the option of going to college. We’d help with that, too.”
The community resource center will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, offering GED and after-school programs. There would also be space for community meetings, said Manasseh.
Plans are also in the works to create a community orchestra with the help of the city’s world-renowned bucket boys, some of whom would also serve as music instructors.
Construction of the center is on schedule; electrical wiring and doors were installed in the containers last weekend. They’re still looking for volunteers to help.
The project cost $60,000 and was made possible through a combination of donations and support from Benchmark Construction, which provided a concrete slab, excavation, container stabilization and labor.
Presidential hopeful Eric Swalwell surveyed the site last week as part of his national gun violence listening tour. Swalwell, who announced his run for the Democratic nomination in April on CBS’s Late Show, has expressed support for a national ban and buy-back on assault weapons, and pledged to help however he can.
Swalwell said he wanted to come to Chicago — “a great city in America that seems to be suffering endless gun violence,” — to meet the people who were trying to do something about it.
“Sun’s out, guns out. That’s how it goes. If people had more to do, had more resources…” Manasseh explained to Swalwell before being interrupted by one of his staffers.
“I certainly want to see background checks passed and an assault weapons ban, but I know it’s deeper than that. People have a sense of hopelessness because there’s no investment in education, jobs, or health care,” Swalwell said. “You look around the street here and you see liquor stores and payday lenders. You don’t see real infrastructure that will give people hope, and I want to understand from people like Tamar how to give people hope.”
Swalwell added that he believed programs like MASK could benefit from more help from the government in the form of community development block grants, an initiative he supported as Dublin, Calif., city councilman in 2010.
“The best thing we can do is just create a sense of community where people can eat together, learn together, pray together, work together,” he said.
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.