HYDE PARK — The University of Chicago is launching a fund to support community programs focused on preventing violence on the South Side, and local organizers want to make sure groups already doing this work are considered.
The university is expected to announced a request for proposals for the “multi-year” fund in the next few months, with an eye on issuing the first grants by early summer, President Paul Alivisatos announced Tuesday at a panel discussion on violence prevention.
“We as a university have much to contribute in the way of expertise, resources, partnerships and more,” Alivisatos said. “It’s important that we bring all of these to bear on stemming the violence that takes place on our streets and impacts our neighborhoods in both the short- and the long-term. … More is possible, and more is needed.”
The fund was announced one week after university police officer Nicolas Twardak shot and critically wounded Rhysheen Wilson in an off-campus shootout, and two months after recent university graduate Shaoxiong “Dennis” Zheng was killed in an off-campus robbery.
The violence prevention fund will support programs in South Side neighborhoods near the university’s Hyde Park campus, “but their impact will support the entire city,” Alivisatos said.
“Because faculty research will be embedded in these community-led activities, we can use what we learn from this work to inform research programs, strategies and initiatives taking place in other communities — even in cities across the country and around the world,” he said.
Programs receiving grants from the fund may involve engagement between police and community residents, trauma recovery and socioeconomic supports for youth. Research may also be conducted into “why some violence prevention programs are more effective than others,” Alivisatos said.
“These are just initial ideas” based on “preliminary conversations and community meetings,” he said.
University spokesperson Gerald McSwiggan did not respond to Block Club’s question about who — aside from university officials — were involved in those conversations.
Further details about the fund “will be topics of discussion with our neighbors and partners in the next two months,” Alivisatos said.
McSwiggan also did not share details about how much money would be allotted to the fund, what the source of the funding would be, how long the university would support the awarded organizations, nor what organizations would be eligible.
“The university will engage further with experts and external partners for input on ways of structuring the fund,” McSwiggan said.
Without more specifics, some community leaders who have long worked in areas near and around UChicago said the grants need to be sizable, sustaining and open to smaller groups. Several said they did not know about the university’s plans before being interviewed by Block Club, nor were they involved in the preliminary conversations Alivisatos referenced.
‘If They Wrote $100 Million Themselves … They Could Do It’
For the grants to be effective, they must support awarded organizations for the long term, said Vondale Singleton, founder of CHAMPS Male Mentoring in Greater Grand Crossing.
South Siders shouldn’t have “to go out and sell chicken dinners and cookies” — nor stretch small, short-term grants — as they try to tackle structural issues like community violence and divestment, Singleton said.
Though the university may not be able to pull funds straight from its $11.6 billion endowment — money that is usually restricted for a specific purpose — that figure is a sign of its ability to substantially invest in South Siders, Singleton said.
A “bare minimum” of $100 million should be invested into the fund, he said.
“It’s a major, multi-billion dollar university right in the heart of where a lot of chaos is taking place,” Singleton said. “UChicago, right now, if they wrote $100 million themselves … they could do it and it would be like $100.”
UChicago has the funding and knowledge base to make the new fund an “awesome” opportunity for South Siders — if it’s accessible to them, Future Ties founder Jennifer Maddox said.
The nonprofit, after-school program, based out of Parkway Gardens in Woodlawn, has worked with UChicago before as a participant in the Community Programs Accelerator.
While university programs like the accelerator — in which CHAMPS also participated — provide needed funds and structural support, there are barriers to entry for smaller organizations, Maddox said.
Maddox urged the university to consider offering as much assistance as possible to grassroots organizations.
“There are a whole slew of things that [small] nonprofits need to get well-versed in, so they can compete with these [larger] organizations out here getting these grants that aren’t putting in time, work and effort” into the community, Maddox said.
Sam Binion, founder of Operation Neighborhood Safety in Greater Grand Crossing, said his organization is among the “worker ants” putting long hours in to limit violence on the South Side with little funding.
Operation Neighborhood Safety members have “come out our own pockets” to sustain the organization since it was founded a year ago, Binion said. The group serves as a community watch program at gas stations to help stop “all of these carjackings that’s been going on.”
The new fund should prioritize prevention work performed in South Side neighborhoods by residents of those neighborhoods, Binion said.
“We don’t have the funding,” Binion said. “What we can give you that no other organization [can is] 24 hours of our service. When those satellite organizations have gone home after eight hours, we’re still here doing work in our community.”
UChicago student activists with the #CareNotCops campaign have for years called on officials to divest from the university’s private police force and in favor of funding community organizations.
#CareNotCops members weren’t privy to the community conversations held before the fund was announced, organizers Warren Wagner and Sahar Punjwani said.
With few details available about the fund, “it’s difficult to say exactly what we think” about its likelihood of limiting gun violence, Punjwani said.
“Obviously, there might be some initiatives that do some good” which end up being funded, Wagner said.
But given that Alivisatos named last year’s fatal shootings of Yiran Fan, Max Lewis and Zheng as a motivating factor in creating the fund, they’re concerned the university has its own interests in mind moreso than South Side neighborhoods’.
“It’s pretty clear their motivation is not to actually address an issue in the community,” Punjwani said. “… Rather, it’s to honestly save face, to provide some lip service after parents are concerned. It really is not for the surrounding community, and the way that they’ve dealt with the aftermath of the deaths of the students is really telling.”
University officials vowed to address public safety beyond policing in the weeks following Zheng’s murder, but set a clear focus on boosting police patrols and surveillance prior to last week’s announcement of the fund.
Student organizers also questioned the need for additional research to complement the violence prevention funds.
“The university always frames these things as these impossible, intractable problems of urban violence: ‘We need to send all of our scholars to figure this out,'” Wagner said.
“UChicago is not willing to do those basics,” Wagner said.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: