By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
The I Am We organization is looking for unsung heroes in the Hyde Park community who are working to keep the neighborhood safe. The organization is working to build a best practices approach to keeping communities all over the city free from robbery and violence.
For LaTisha Thomas, founder of I Am We, charity began at home.
“My husband and I moved to the South Side in the winter of 2009,” said Thomas. “When spring approached it seemed as if our neighborhood had drastically changed.”
She said as the temperature rose her block became plagued with crime and despite electronic monitoring, camera surveillance and sophisticated locks there were repeated burglary attempts on her home.
Thomas said it was at a Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) meeting that she learned why her neighborhood was a magnet for burglars. An ex-burglar spoke at the meeting and gave tips on how to be safe.
“People work in cyclones, they stay to themselves so if a burglar comes and stakes out the block no one notices there is a new car on the block,” Thomas said. “He said if he came to the block and noticed that no one was talking to each other he would go in and clean up in one week. If he sees a block where people are connecting he keeps on going.”
Since learning that Thomas has put the practice of community engagement to use on her block. She said a group of young men started hanging around the front of her building.
“They were just standing out there in 100-degree weather,” Thomas said. “After I took my grocery bags upstairs I grabbed some popsicles out of the freezer and brought them down to the men.”
She said one of them laughed at the kid-sized pops but they all thanked her and voluntarily told her that they would move from in front of the building.
Thomas said what most neighborhoods are missing is community engagement. She said her organization did a case study in the Austin community and found many of the residents had lived in their homes for more than 10 years and didn’t know anything about their neighbors.
She said staying in isolation blocks people from opportunities.
“I found one person needed a job and right next door was a person who was a head-hunter in search of a receptionist,” Thomas said. “There was also a family with no food and a church in the area that was about to close its food program because it was not being used.”
Thomas said in order to promote the organization’s mission, which is art, inspiration, outreach, education and advocacy, it has launched the Chicago Unsung Heroes project. She said the project includes narratives and photos of people making positive changes in communities across the city that she hopes will be placed in museums, schools and libraries to inspire a pay-it-forward culture.
One of the unsung heroes being honored by the organization is Clayton Hutchinson, a police officer with the 3rd District Chicago Police Department.
When Hitchinson was a beat officer he noticed that there was a large number of young men who dropped out of high school and were victims of violence.
“He grew sick and tired of arresting young men and seeing them dead but he was told he’d get used to it,” Thomas said.
On his days off he would observe the boys and he noticed they liked to play basketball. He then used his days off to go into the neighborhood and play basketball with the youth. Once he gained their trust he asked them what he could do for them and the kids said they just wanted a safe place to play.
“He went to schools, churches and police partners to get the support he needed to create a mentorship basketball program for the young men,” Thomas said. “Over the years he’s saved 600 young men. Kids started graduating, leaving gangs and making neighborhoods safe.”
To nominate an unsung hero in your community, visit iamwecommunity.org.