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I’m calling on Chicago’s business leaders: Here’s a way you can help our city end the violence

For 100 days, I’m living in a tent on a Woodlawn rooftop and inviting CEOs to join me for a night and learn what it means to come to the aid of disinvested communities. Every day, these leaders create strategies to solve problems that others haven’t, and their help is needed.

In this photo from Dec. 2, 2021, Corey Brooks explains the goal of his 100 days of camping out at 6615 S King Dr in West Woodlawn.
In this photo from Dec. 2, 2021, Corey Brooks explains the goal of his 100 days of camping out at 6615 S King Dr in West Woodlawn.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Recently, Mayor Lori Lightfoot held a press conference to discuss crime rates across the city. I imagine she’s heard from people who are frustrated and angry at what’s happening in their neighborhoods. I wonder whether those noticing the sudden presence of crime in their communities understand that many Chicago neighborhoods have been experiencing devastating crime and violence for decades — or if they understand but didn’t feel passionate about fixing the problem until it landed on their doorstep.

I hope it’s becoming clear to every Chicagoan that a city is not a collection of disconnected neighborhoods. It’s a single system, like the human body — and like the body, when part of the city is hurting, it affects the entire system. In the same vein, something amazing happens when a part of the body is injured: the entire system marshals its resources to heal the part that is vulnerable. That’s the response we need from our city, and I’m calling on the most well-resourced of all — our business community — to take the lead.

For 100 days, I’m living in a tent on a Woodlawn rooftop and inviting Chicago’s CEOs to join me for a night and learn what it means to come to the aid of our communities that are suffering from generations of disinvestment that lead to poverty and crime. Every day, these leaders create strategies to solve problems that others haven’t, and their help is needed to turn “O Block” into “Opportunity Block.”

Several CEOs have answered the call, such as Related Midwest President Curt Bailey and Executive Vice President Don Biernacki. Brad Keywell, founder of Uptake. Kayne Grau, CEO of Uptake. Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman. Project H.O.O.D., a nonprofit I founded, offers construction certification to at-risk individuals, and contractors like Mike Uremovich of Manhattan Mechanical Services hires our graduates.

We’ve even had leaders from out-of-town, like David Hoag, president of Florida’s Warner University. They’re helping us raise $35 million to construct a Leadership and Economic Opportunity community center to provide families and at-risk individuals with skills training, construction certification, sports and arts — things most on the North Side can access every day but those in Woodlawn rarely experience.

They’ve joined me, no matter the wind chill. They’ve sat by the fire and listened to people from the block. They’ve discovered that it’s a shock to the nervous system to try to sleep against a backdrop of sirens, traffic and trains, and even occasional gunshots. Most important, they’ve left here changed and committed.

Rallying networks to the cause

Some have brought their own networks to the cause. When Bailey and Biernacki visited, they helped raise money and spread the word so much that representatives from 20 of their construction and supplier partners showed up the next day to talk about working together. Eight committed to providing pro bono services to help us build our community center.

That anecdote demonstrates the resources of Chicago’s business leaders and how they can rally them to an important cause. We need leaders like the CEO of Northfolk Southern, whose trains operate in Woodlawn’s backyard. We need leaders like Ken Griffin of Citadel, whose philanthropic efforts show he cares about Chicago and understands the long-term value of investing in youth.

People ask about the personal sacrifice I’m making by not leaving the rooftop for 100 days of a Chicago winter. And it’s true — there’s no running water or refuge from the wind. I miss my family and can’t wait to spend time with my new grandson Tristen, who was born just before I headed up here and will have changed so much by February 28, when I finally climb down.

But this isn’t my first time. Ten years ago, I left church after the funeral of 17-year-old Carlton Archer with my heart broken in too many places to count. Carlton may have been another in a long line of funerals to some, but he was a brother, son, friend and source of limitless potential to those who knew him. So I decided to do something about it. A few days later, I was camping on top of a run-down motel that had become a hub of drug use and sex trafficking, and I stayed for nearly 100 days until I had raised enough money to buy it and tear it down.

This time, I’m not working to tear down but to build up. And if these sacrifices can help inspire others to remember that they are part of a system that must heal itself — a city that must look after its own — then it will all have been worth it.

Pastor Corey Brooks is the founder and senior pastor of New Beginnings Church of Chicago and founder and CEO of Project H.O.O.D., a nonprofit organization that provides mentorship, training, and community for residents of Woodlawn and Englewood.

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