GRAND BOULEVARD — Nearly a year after Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled a plan to prevent sex trafficking and gender-based violence, some community organizers who have long tackled the issue say they’ve been kept in the dark about what city leaders are doing.
Lightfoot announced the $25 million plan in September, which called for a multi-agency approach to collect data on sex trafficking and gender based violence, partner with community organizations, coordinate efforts between city departments and agencies, improve law enforcement responses and reform policy.
Domestic violence has increased exponentially since the beginning of the pandemic, with shootings and homicides more than doubling in the last three years, according to a recent report from Chicago-based advocacy group The Network.
Mayoral spokesperson Cesar Rodriguez told Block Club the city is making progress on its prevention plan. Leaders are beefing up city staff devoted to gender-based violence programs, soliciting bids from organizations to provide essential services for survivors, implementing new training and curriculum for city workers and police officers, and devoting some of that $25 million to other local groups, Rodriguez said.
But much of that is news to longtime advocates who have done similar work in their own neighborhoods and spent years pushing the city to more seriously grapple with an issue that disproportionately impacts Black and Brown women. Some said they had no idea the city had released requests for proposals and questioned why they weren’t informed or included.
“Neither our organization nor Good Kids Mad City or the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization have heard anything from the city regarding this,” said Rev. Robin Hood, founder of Mothers Opposed To Violence Everywhere. “Seeing that we’ve been doing this work for over five years, you’d think we’d be among those contacted. In Chicago everything is politics. Even murder.”
The city’s Department of Family and Support Services is accepting bids from groups to provide for rapid rehousing, legal services and emergency financial assistance, Rodriguez said. Those organizations selected will be receiving award letters soon, with two more requests for proposals for other services to come, Rodriguez said.
The city’s support services department has also added three more employees to help with gender-based violence programs, bringing the total number of employees to seven, Rodriguez said. The city is also partnering with FUTURES Without Violence National Resource Center, “Workplaces Response to Domestic and Sexual Violence,” to address gender-based violence within the workplace. City employees will have to participate in mandatory training, Rodriguez said.
On the law enforcement side, the city has used a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Violence Against Women received in 2020 to improve the police department’s response to gender-based violence, Rodriguez said. A new 8-hour curriculum developed by local police and the National Police Institute will be provided to both veteran officers and new recruits, Rodriguez said. The police department is also working with a subject matter consultant and several community-based organizations to revise all policies related to the issue, Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said there will be other opportunities for local organizations to receive some of the $25 million set aside for the initiative, and a bi-annual progress report will be released later this month.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Office announced the creation of its own task force last September and has been working with other law enforcement agencies to take on cases dating back to the 1930s, focusing on missing women. NBC5 Chicago reported the task force has solved a dozen cases in the last 10 months.
Hood and his wife, Louvenia, have been advocating on behalf of the city’s missing and murdered Black women for years, often providing support to victims’ families. Hood has pushed for more action from law enforcement to solve the 51 open cases of missing and murdered women from the past two decades, including that of Shantieya Smith, whose body was found in a vacant garage in June 2018.
M.O.V.E. is a constant presence at “We Walk For Her,” a march organized by Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization member Aziyah Roberts in 2017.
He said last year he was cautiously optimistic when he heard of the city’s plan, but said local organizers needed to be looped in and the funding “has to reach the right groups, especially the youth who are affected most.”
Other organizers said they also had not received any updates from City Hall.
Activist and sexual abuse survivor Beverly Reed-Scott has spent most of her life fighting on behalf of those most vulnerable, often acting as an intermediary between families and law enforcement. Reed-Scott said she was “a little surprised” by the city’s initial announcement, but that turned into disappointment at being left out of the process.
Reed-Scott doesn’t understand why she, like Hood, weren’t included.
“I felt like she really should’ve had some people who do the work. I thought that maybe [Lighfoot] has a different perspective, and that’s fine. ‘Let’s see what happens.’ But I haven’t seen anything that’s happened,” said Reed-Scott, who has operated the Soul Garden Empowerment Center for over 20 years.
The longtime activist and writer, who appeared with Hood in Discovery Network’s “The Hunt for the Chicago Strangler” last year, told Block Club she was “offended” by the oversight, considering that she’s been in the field for 25 years.
“You have to have different kinds of perspectives at the table. Otherwise you just end up with the same conversation. As a survivor, or should I say, thriver, I have a particular insight that would have value,” Reed-Scott said.
Girls Like Me Founder La’Keisha Gray-Sewell said she believes the lack of communication between the city and community organizations like hers contributes to a larger problem: community leaders find themselves exhausting their personal resources — and themselves — when a lot of those spaces “could be relieved by support coming from taxpaying entities.”
Members of Girls Like Me, an organization dedicated to training young girls in media literacy and empowerment, created a podcast to raise awareness about the city’s missing and murdered women. They also built a garden at Overton Free School, 221 E. 49th St., to honor them.
Hood, Reed-Scott and Gray-Sewell said if given the opportunity, they’d be willing to work with the city to keep their communities safe.
“The city can rectify this, but honestly? They’re not,” Gray-Sewell said. “When the city puts out the RFPs they should make sure it’s accessible to everyone and that stipulations aren’t predicated by any city connections. There should also be an open symposium calling on organizations who have been doing this work so they can share some of their practices.”
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