From gang member to mentor

Maurice Washington is thriving after dealing with violence, poverty

Maurice Washington with one of the students he mentors for Friends of the Children Chicago, a nonprofit organization on the West Side of Chicago. (Contributed Photo)

Staff writer

A graduate student at the University of Chicago, Maurice Washington mentors youth on the city’s West Side while they are struggling with poverty and navigating the violence in their community. Washington is able to connect to his students because he was once a homeless youth, involved in a street gang on the South Side.

Washington is currently a resident of Kenwood but his childhood in Englewood was shaped by his struggles with poverty. When he reflects on his earlier years, he attributes the instability of his formative years to his mother not having a high school degree and his father being incarcerated. The family’s poverty led to homelessness. He describes it as, “When I say homelessness, I think of it as a transient sort of homelessness; going from house to house, attic to attic, basement to basement, things like that.”

In addition to moving to different homes in the city — at times moving to different states in the Midwest —and transferring schools, Washington was involved in a street gang in Chicago. “My mother was in a gang, my father was in a gang, so it was expected that, ultimately, I will be in one as well. With gangs in Englewood, you start very young; everyone is friends. At one point in time, you have kids running around doing things, but then at a certain point it gets more serious,” explained Washington.

Even though Washington’s family faced financial challenges, his large extended family was his lifeline. His grandmother had 18 children and his mother was the 15th child. His connection to his extended family was disrupted for a while once his mother decided to move him to Michigan at the age of 12. Washington hated her decision for years but grew to understand that it was the right decision as it drastically changed the direction of his life.

“If my mother would have never moved me to Michigan at the age of 12, I would have been in prison,” Washington said. “The only reason I say that is because my cousin, who is two years younger than me, who hung out with me and did everything I did is … serving a 25-year sentence now.”

His life in Michigan was not completely different from his life in Chicago as he continued to struggle with poverty and abuse from his mother. However, academically he was able to thrive and later obtained a full-tuition scholarship to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

When asked about his college experience, Washington said, “What prison was to Malcolm X is what I feel like what college was for me. It was a chance for me to sit down and really think about things like what I wanted for myself. Initially, I didn’t think that college was for me because no one in my family went. I didn’t know anyone who did it, but I knew I needed to try something, and I knew I didn’t want to be at home.”

Despite not having a model to shape how his undergraduate years should look, he mastered navigating academia. Washington majored in Social Work with a triple minor in political science, communication and interdisciplinary studies and was accepted into the honors college. One of the highlights of his academic career was having a 3.7 GPA in his first semester.

Though he was successful academically, he struggled with fitting in until he found a mentor by the name of Patricia Williams, who was responsible for helping scholarship students transition from high school to college. Williams’ advice to Washington was to immerse himself in college. When he first started college, he would go to classes and then cut hair — he had received a barber license a few days before he graduated from high school. He pushed back against her at first but took her advice later on.

“Eventually I did everything that you possibly do on campus; from being a [Residential Assistant] to studying abroad in Guatemala, teaching in class to going on different mission trips to New York City, Colorado, and Washington, D.C., to a protest. I interned with the mayor of the city and created an anti-poverty initiative that they’re still spearheading to this day. I did everything she told me to do,” said Washington.

Currently studying at the U. of C.’s School of Social Service Administration, Washington is a professional mentor at Friends of the Children Chicago, a nonprofit organization based on the city’s West Side that focuses on supporting youth who struggle with poverty.

“I mentor eight young males who are both Hispanic and African American. I see myself in them so much. They’re just kids who need stability, due to the circumstances that life has handed them. If they had stability, I have no doubt in my mind that they could be where I am in life, if not even further,” said Washington. “As professional mentors, we spend four hours each week per kid making sure that we assist them in school, in the community and support their parents.

“We’re trying to be the rock that they need to have a solid foundation to spring forth from. The issues that they face can be anything from poverty, domestic violence that they’re dealing with at home, food insecurity to unemployment of the parents.”

In the future, Washington wants to become a politician in the city to create a better life for Chicagoans in Englewood.

While speaking about his ambitions, he said “The goal is to return to Englewood, whether that’s West Englewood or Englewood, to run as a city alderman. I returned to Chicago to contribute to work that’s going on in my community so that kids like me don’t have to leave Chicago in order to be prosperous and to have a happy life. They should be able to have that here. Just like communities up North and in other places. I just want more equality of opportunity and more economic development to occur within the areas in which I’m from.”

His immediate plans are to attend the second Peace Summit of Emerging Leaders at the United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok, Thailand between Feb. 5 and 7. In order to accept the Humanitarian Affairs Asia’s invitation, he must make an $890 payment before Saturday, Dec. 28 to cover room and board and flight fees. Since Washington is still financially unable to make this payment in such a fast turnaround, he has started a gofundme to help raise the amount he needs.