Town government and police focused attention on gang-related violence, while residents, recognizing their individual role in addressing the root causes of gang participation—such as the lack of parental involvement in the lives of their children and the cultural barriers that often separate mothers and fathers from their “Americanized” children—stepped up to do more.
“The community would always point fingers at the police department, government, nonprofits, for not doing enough,” Vargas says. “My question to everyone was, ‘What about us? What’s our responsibility?’”
“We know one of the most effective ways to prevent our youth from getting into gangs is feeling connected to something—either school, community or family,” says Rosario Pesce, a former high school psychologist in Cicero and now the coordinator for clinical training at Loyola University Chicago.
Seven families joined him in starting a Parent Patrol. Building on the interest, School District #99, which includes Cicero’s elementary schools, worked to train 20 volunteers on how to navigate situations and solve potential conflict with gang members. Today, the Parent Patrol has 300 volunteers who operate at all of the town’s 16 elementary schools as well as the high school.
“They’re not cops. They’re not security. They’re parents helping the process of keeping the community safe,” Vargas says. “Your voice is the authority you have, and it is enough.”
That collective of parent voices was bolstered and supported by change at all levels, through the systems and policies that shape the conditions in Cicero. Improving safety became a priority across many sectors, leading to changes in the way the police operated, support in schools with more counseling for students who have experienced trauma in their lives, more interaction between parents and schools, and more outreach to teens who would be most tempted by gang life.
A decade ago, the police bolstered its gang unit and began an intentional effort to build better connections with the community, forging what Commander Vincent Acevez calls “significant and meaningful” relationships. Acevez sits on the safety committee of the Cicero Community Collaborative, a coalition bringing groups to the table to set a collective agenda for residents.
The police department “has changed our entire culture,” says Acevez, head of the Gang Crime Tactical Unit. Officers hold regular Neighborhood Watch meetings and organize basketball and softball tournaments to interact with young people. Last year, Acevez worked with therapists from two nonprofits and the high school to train all officers on how to better interact with people who have been exposed to trauma or repeated stress.
Gangs have not disappeared, but the town has successfully tamped down the level of street violence. In 2017, Cicero had seven gang-related shootings and one homicide, a dramatic improvement over years past. “I tell people it wasn’t us,” Acevez says. “It was the community becoming involved with our department.”
Community safety remains a concern, but it is no longer the most pressing issue. In 2016, residents cited as their top challenge helping children reach educational benchmarks, according to researchers from Loyola University Chicago, who conducted surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one interviews.
“Street violence brought people out,” says Meg Hefty, co-chair of the Cicero Community Collaborative. That engagement led to tangible results and visible impact, encouraging a greater willingness to act on other fronts. “It’s been affirming,” Hefty says.