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Chicago CRED participants grab second chances and high school diplomas

Targeted for counseling by non-violence organization, participants have taken a long walk to graduation stage.

Terrance Henderson, Outreach Supervisor for Creating Real Economic Destiny, left, speaks to Lorenzo Taylor after he received his high school diploma during a graduation ceremony for graduates of the CRED program, at the South Shore Cultural Center, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times
Terrance Henderson, Outreach Supervisor for Creating Real Economic Destiny, left, speaks to Lorenzo Taylor after he received his high school diploma during a graduation ceremony for graduates of the CRED program, at the South Shore Cultural Center, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Last fall, Lorenzo Taylor was recovering from a gunshot wound and pondering his future. The bullet wound to his leg he received in October was the second time the 28-year-old had been shot. He knew the odds were good it would not be the last time.

A high school dropout deeply involved in violent street life in the Roseland neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Taylor had a personal history and various risk factors that Northwestern University researchers calculated made him roughly 10 times more likely to be shot at, or shoot someone, than the average resident of Roseland, where so far this year there have been 84 shootings and 14 murders. Compared to a typical Chicagoan, Taylor was 35 times more likely to be a victim or perpetrator of gun violence.

“When I got shot, I had time to sit and think. I couldn’t walk or do anything,” Taylor said. “I wasn’t doing nothing, nothing good.”

In February, Taylor committed to beating the odds and began a program of therapy, counseling and job training with Chicago CRED, a non-violence program headed by former Secretary of Education and Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan.

Thursday, with nary a limp, Taylor walked across a stage set up outside the South Shore Cultural Center, grinning broadly from underneath a cap and gown with a bass-heavy remix of “Pomp and Circumstance” as he collected his high school diploma.

In all, 46 CRED participants received their diplomas from online high school Penn Foster. Mindful of the risk factors that brought the men into the program in the first place, CRED organizers staggered the graduation ceremonies so that participants from different neighborhood sites didn’t have to cross paths.

Since it was founded in 2017, CRED has seen 170 participants receive high school diplomas. CRED, short for Creating Real Economic Destiny, and partner organizations recruit participants based on a list of high-risk people and intelligence from outreach workers working in Roseland, West Pullman, West Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Englewood— neighborhoods that rank among the most violent in the city.

The program puts participants through a curriculum of mental health therapy, tutoring and job training, part of a network of organizations targeting the same most at-risk men with similar “wraparound” approaches to violence prevention.

Through city and state funding for violence prevention, and private donors, around $93 million flowed to non-violence programs across Chicago in 2021, the second year of a spike in violent crime that saw the number of murders spike 25% nationally and 50% in Chicago.

CRED, according to Northwestern researchers, reduces participants’ likelihood of being shot or arrested by nearly 60%, said spokesman Peter Cunningham. CRED participants also help outreach workers respond to neighborhood conflicts. Outreach workers go to every shooting scene in 15 targeted neighborhoods and often visit shooting victims at the emergency rooms, hoping to tamp down retaliatory violence.

Thursday’s graduation ceremony is a rare moment of celebration for program participants, said Donald Tyler, who heads CRED’s team of 15 psychologists. Many of the participants struggled in school as a result of untreated depression and anxiety that can be part of growing up in impoverished, violent parts of the city, Tyler said.

“These are men that have endured multiple traumatic events, from poverty, to losing loved ones — often witnessing loved ones being killed and being shot themselves,” Tyler said. “People will respond in different ways, but nobody is going to have those types of experiences and be unaffected by them.”

For his part, Taylor tore through his online high school coursework, finishing up the year-plus of high school credits he needed in four months while also earning certifications to work in construction. He will start online college classes this year, with a goal of becoming a therapist.

“I want to help all the young people,” Taylor said. “There ain’t nobody trying to save the younger generation like people helped me.”