From prison to Ph.D, this activist fights for peace in Chicago

Many twenty-somethings spend their formative years between classes and exams, expanding their knowledge. Chico Tillmon spent his 20s — and his 30s — in prison. The street gang lifestyle, he said, caught up with him at the age of 23, when he was convicted and sent to prison for conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.

After nearly 17 years in prison, Tillmon is now a Ph.D candidate studying criminology. He’s using his own life story to mentor young men on the same streets in his native Chicago. As part of the organization Cure Violence, he works to de-escalate community disputes that have the potential to become deadly. Tillmon says he’s always been a leader, even as a high-ranking gang member. But those leadership skills he calls “misguided” are now being used for good. NewsHour talked with him about his experiences along with his thoughts on how the city could address its escalating violence.

What inspired your transformation from gang member to violence interrupter?

During time in prison, I had an opportunity to reflect on everything that had transpired in my life. Being away for so long gave me an opportunity to reflect and view society from a different perspective and a different angle.

Being able to see all the violence and chaos in the community that I once was a part of, and that I once helped produce, gave me an obligation to make a change in that situation of chaos that was going on in the community. I wanted to do something positive in the community, but I hadn’t figured out an outlet or an avenue to do it.

What do you do about it now?

I have direct contact with the individuals who may be doing the shooting or committing the violence. There are a lot of underlying problems that exist whether it be substance abuse or child molestation. Whether it just be being hungry or a plethora of problems going on with these individuals. What do I do? I love them.

Cure Violence takes an initiative to invest in those people who society throws away in order to stop violence. What we do? We partner with other organizations to try to get them needed services. And when I get these individuals services, all I ask in return is if [they] enter into a conflict, before [using their] weapon, reach out to me.

How is your approach unique?

We look at violence as a disease. We don’t look at it as a problem for incarceration. We’re looking at it as people who have not been trained to resolve conflict in a peaceable manner. So when we see individuals who are involved in violence, we identify them as individuals who are just untrained and are responding to conflict according to societal norms.

We’re trying to change people, help them rehabilitate themselves and be productive. So I really try to establish relationships with high-risk individuals prior to a conflict so that when the conflict starts I [can] come in, and I de-escalate.

You consider yourself a “credible messenger.” What is that?

A credible messenger is someone who knows the community, was born and bred in the community, has relationships with key individuals and has enough influence to stop or prevent or influence others from doing violent crimes, or violent behavior. So I have relationships with key individuals in the community.

How is that an advantage over police and politicians?

My credibility comes from being born and bred on the west side of Chicago, being involved in street gangs, experiencing the inner city culture, understanding the code of the street, understanding the lifestyle of people who live in the inner city and being a person who has passion and love for the people who live in the inner city. 

So the reason why [people] feel more at ease calling me is because they know my objective is to make sure their son gets home safe. Whereas the police objective is what? To lock somebody up, to take people off the street.

What does everyone need to know about the violence in Chicago?

One thing people don’t realize — violence is not just a Chicago problem. I was in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I’ve been to several penal institutions throughout the United States. It was helpful for my development, because it let me see that the problem with societal norms was not just geographical. That’s why pure violence is able to go all over America, because of some of the same problems.

We’ve got to view violence as a disease. And the same way that people in Chicago have this disease is the same disease that’s in all these other cities.

What’s your ultimate goal?

My ultimate goal is to create a paradigm that’ll help brothers [who are] getting out of the [prison] to stop going back. Also to change the culture in the community. Not only the behavior, but the mindset, so that it’s not even a thought anymore to kill someone over something so insignificant. Change the norms or the way people in our community think.

At the end of the day, these people look like me. They might not talk like me or act like me but they have been exposed to everything that I’ve been exposed to. So I try and expose them to a different way of thinking in order to come out of the situation they’re in.

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