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Leader of new Lake County Peacemakers says, ‘We can stop cycles of violence and retaliations’

Chicago Tribune - 5/5/2023

These days, North Chicago resident Shawn Lewis is working a lot of early mornings.

Weeks into his new role as the program director for the Lake County Peacemakers, a group formed to intervene and de-escalate tense situations before violence occurs — primarily in Waukegan, North Chicago and Zion — the stakes couldn’t be higher.

In the 11 months since Lake County State’s Attorney Eric Rinehart’s office announced its Gun Violence Prevention Initiative to address root causes of violence, rather than react after the fact, communities in northeast Lake County have continued to reel from instances of gun violence.

A gun violence survivor himself, Lewis knows well that time is of the essence. And he believes this program can make real inroads to mitigate violence, unlike other solutions promised by politicians cycling through Waukegan, North Chicago and Zion, which have fizzled out or never materialized over the years.

“We’re really just a team, and we’re going to get out here with our boots on the ground and you’re going to hear a lot about us in the future,” Lewis told the News-Sun. “Right now, we’re in the baby stage. After we get done selecting our staff, this is going to be probably one of the best teams Lake County has ever had as far as gun violence prevention.”

Lewis said his “all-star team” will be made up of people with deep knowledge of their communities who understand the impact gun violence has on people, and how to navigate situations between community members. He estimated that about 40 people, most of them from the area, have applied to be violence interrupters.

Other community-based organizations, such as the Antmound Foundation, Legacy Reentry Foundation and some religious and community leaders, are already working to promote peace, connect people with resources and de-escalate dangerous situations that can lead to violence.

But none of those groups have the political, administrative and financial backing of this initiative, which has secured grant funding for multiple years and will be under the administrative purview of Waukegan Township and the Coalition to Reduce Recidivism, which township Supervisor Marc Jones explained are acting as the program’s “fiscal agent.”

In addition to Rinehart’s office and the township’s backing, the program has drawn staunch support from a host of Lake County Board members, including Chair Sandy Hart, D-Lake Bluff, and gun violence prevention activist Sara Knizhnik, a first-term Democrat from Vernon Hills representing District 18 who Rinehart’s office tapped as the chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Initiative.

Jones explained that the program wants to keep a healthy distance from the Lake County state’s attorney’s office so that it is clear the group has no intention of working with law enforcement to incriminate anyone.

“We need to make sure they’re separated and kind of operating in their own silo so they can be they can maximize their effectiveness,” Jones said. “I think that’s very important, too. And then they could put those people at risk, going into dangerous situations if they have a state’s attorney affiliation attached to them.”

Jones said Rinehart was “very proactive,” and is taking a different approach to addressing violence than many state’s attorneys traditionally might.

“Most of them survive off how many they can incarcerate,” Jones said. “(Rinehart) is looking to prevent the incarceration period, which is unique for a state’s attorney.”

In August, Rinehart told the News-Sun, “My interest in this is that if the police are already investigating a shooting, then we’re already at the end of the story. And the goal for violence interruption, and for a broad approach to violence reduction, is to get to the beginning of the story.”

Lewis agreed that it is important that community members understand that dynamic.

“We’re out here to try to stop the violence and the shooting so that nobody reaches that point where they’re going in front of a judge,” Lewis said. “We’re not trying to fill up the courthouses. This is an alternative to stop people from thinking about violence, and changing their mind frame. To get them to get a job, or further their education.”

Lewis and Jones concurred that a violence interrupter’s own life experience and proximity to or past involvement with gangs — or familiarity with others at severe risk of experiencing or carrying out violence — is crucial to succeeding in the line of work.

“This is one of those positions almost where your street knowledge trumps your book knowledge,” Jones said. “It’s good to have both, but in this position, the more entrenched you are into what’s going on in the heart of the community, the better.”

Recalling his own experience, Lewis said successful violence interruption and prevention includes connecting people at risk with resources, and showing them there are options available to them that do not include violence or putting themselves and others at risk.

“We can’t just sit up here and say, ‘Don’t shoot,’” Lewis said. “We want to make sure we have something else for them to do, because a lot of (people at risk of violence) are lacking employment, might lack schooling, so we want to steer them a different way.”

After he was shot more than 20 years ago, Lewis said the thought of retaliating quickly came to his mind. He said a similar program would have helped him, and now he is determined to be that support for others who are at risk of violence.

“We all have experience” he said. “Our team that I’m talking about, when something like that goes on, we know the seriousness of it. So we know that we have to go and defuse that situation, even if it’s talking to their parents, talking to their girlfriend or wife, just to try to get to them so that this stuff doesn’t keep going on. If they don’t, they could end up killing somebody (and) end up in jail.”

Many of the Lake County Peacemakers who will engage their communities have previously been incarcerated or impacted by the legal system, and Lewis said they are “proof that it works” to engage with people most at risk of violence and to connect them with pathways to stability and success.

“We know that many shooting victims come from underserved communities, and do not have access to long-term trauma care after a shooting,” Lewis said. “This lack of investment in Black and Brown communities is one of the drivers of violence. But if we can quickly connect them with interrupters who are already credible peace messengers from their community, we can stop the cycles of violence and retaliations.”

Jones said Lake County is “lucky and fortunate” to have Lewis take on the task. He believes his previous experience with other violence prevention programs, such as Ceasefire, have equipped him with a deep knowledge on the subject.

Lewis said he feels this program is different from previous violence prevention initiatives because of the unprecedented financial and political backing locally, but also the independence and trust given to community experts to do the work. He said his team will also be compensated fairly for their work, which inherently brings risk of experiencing violence, but is often not financially rewarding for those who take it on.

“This right here, while we’re making these decisions to hire on staff, we’re going to change a lot of people’s lives, too,” Lewis said. “Some of them might not have had a job that has benefits and pays pretty good. This right here, they’re being compensated (well) because it is a dangerous job.”

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