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Photo: Teresa Crawford/AP Photo

When rival gangs get caught in a cycle of retribution, violence interrupters like Donya Smith mediate through thoughtful conversations and fried-rice summits

CHICAGO — It’s a frigid January night, and Donya Smith’s leg is bothering him. He barely shows it, but a nearly imperceptible limp betrays the pain that is almost always there—especially in the cold.

He sits down at a desk inside the CeaseFire office in Englewood and rolls up his pant leg. It’s a quiet night, so he and his staff have a moment to relax as they wait on call. Two men set up a chess game at a desk, while another gets a dominos game going. Smith keeps his phone at his side, and pulls down his sock to reveal a patch of gauze taped to his leg.

“I got a bullet coming out right now,” Smith says as he peels the gauze back to show the lead pushing its way out of his ankle. “I can feel that shit in my leg.”

It’s a remnant of the life he used to live, a life that was headed toward death or a long stint in prison. It’s also the reason he’s here today. At 27 years old, Smith is the youngest supervisor for CeaseFire, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping gun violence in Chicago.

For the last six years, he’s canvassed the streets where he grew up wearing the nonprofit’s signature neon orange. He’s placed himself in the middle of gang conflicts, counseled teenagers and young adults, and prevented hundreds of shootings, by his own count. Now, he runs a team that covers six beats in West Englewood—one of the most notorious neighborhoods in Chicago—and is working toward a degree in inner city studies at Northeastern Illinois University.

While Chicago made headlines after a surge in homicides the last two years, Smith is confident he can reduce it in his neighborhood and bring his community together.

To understand why, it’s important to understand that bullet in his leg, and the journey that began six years ago.

◊◊◊

Smith never saw the person’s face.

It was a bright August 26th in 2011. He and his girlfriend were straightening things out after a bad stretch. He was 21 and running in the streets of Englewood. That meant doing whatever seemed fun at the time, whether it was drugs or finding a quick way to make money.

“It wasn’t no life. Anything I didn’t think I would get caught for and go to jail for, I was doing it,” Smith said. “But all the things I was doing, you could go to jail for that shit.”

It was the only life he had ever known. He had grown up without a role model, his mother wasn’t around and his father was in jail. While his childhood was quiet, violence interfered with Smith’s freshman year of high school when he learned a classmate had been shot and killed. Soon most of his childhood friends were either dead or in jail. Smith was savvy enough to avoid serious trouble with the law, but his actions were reckless.  

When he stepped outside on that bright summer’s day in 2011, he found a gun pointed at him. Before he could react, the person pulled the trigger.

“When he started shooting, he took my legs,” Smith said. “I started crawling, but he kept shooting. I’m like, ‘Man, is his gun going to run out?’”

When the shooting stopped, five bullets had pierced his body in his ankle, hip, thighs and arm. He didn’t feel the pain. All he felt was anger for letting the person shoot him. It wasn’t until the ambulance came that he realized the gravity of his situation.

“They start counting [bullet holes] like, ‘One hole, two hole, three hole, four hole, five hole, six hole, seven hole, eight hole—you got nine holes?’” Smith said. “From that point on, I saw my life flash. You could lose your life in an amount of seconds. It could be over in a snap of the finger. That was when I really started to appreciate life.”

CeaseFire intervened in Donya Smith's life after he'd been shot. Now he does the same for other kids growing up in Chicago, interrupting violence to break cycles of killing and other an alternative. Kristen Norman

It was in the hospital where he had his first interaction with a CeaseFire worker. They followed up after he was released. The outreach worker helped with gauze and brought him food and other essentials he couldn’t afford at the time.

“Not only did I see them around, but these people aren’t bullshitting,” Smith said. “Their follow-up game was real strong, that’s what hit me. They were genuine.”

The nonprofit helped him at his lowest point, so once his wounds had healed, Smith decided to return the favor. He attended his first CeaseFire meeting as a volunteer.

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CeaseFire’s intervention in Smith’s life was just one component in its wide-reaching program. Unlike law enforcement, CeaseFire treats gun violence as a health epidemic rather than a criminal issue. Its theory is rooted in the research of its founder, University of Illinois-Chicago epidemiology and international health professor Dr. Gary Slutkin.

Slutkin, who studied infectious diseases and epidemics in Africa and Asia, discovered that violence not only directly and indirectly affects the health of those at risk, it spreads like an infection.

He developed the Cure Violence Health Model and founded CeaseFire in Chicago in 1999. The program utilizes a three-pronged approach that involves interrupting violence at the source, reducing the risk of the most vulnerable and changing social norms. It starts with violence interrupters and outreach workers, who are often reformed gang members from at-risk communities vetted by a panel. They act as credible messengers who have the ear and the respect of people in their community. They use those connections to prevent retaliations and mediate ongoing conflicts. Often all it takes is removing a teen from the situation for a meal or reminding them of the consequences, Englewood violence interrupter Darryl Wheeler said.

“They use us and our credibility to save face,” Wheeler said. “You talk common sense to them, give them something to think about.”  

Researchers compared crime data from 1992 to 2008 to when CeaseFire was implemented in those neighborhoods. In Englewood, shootings went down 34 percent.

Meanwhile, hospital responders go directly to emergency rooms after a shooting to talk to victims and provide immediate assistance to prevent retaliations. Then a case manager works directly with at-risk participants to solve urgent needs, help them find work and earn a degree if they desire. Finally, they engage community leaders, business members and faith leaders to change norms in the community.

The Cure Violence model is now used around the world, from New York City to Los Angeles to cities in South Africa and elsewhere. In Chicago, the method has proven effective. A Northwestern University Institute of Policy Research study released in 2009 analyzed CeaseFire’s impact in seven neighborhoods throughout Chicago.

Researchers compared crime data from 1992 to 2008 to when CeaseFire was implemented in those neighborhoods. They found that shootings and/or homicides were down 16 to 34 percent in six of the neighborhoods along with decreased gang activity. In Englewood, the number of shootings went down 34 percent.

One of its principal authors, Northwestern University professor of political science Wesley Skogan said the caseworkers are most directly responsible for the programs efficacy. They are successfully changing the social norms of the most vulnerable participants. Unlike many other organizations working with at-risk communities, CeaseFire conducts its own research to ensure they get involved with the people who need it the most, he added.  

While CeaseFire Illinois director LeVon Stone would prefer to focus on his organization’s current efforts, he said the last two years have shown the impact. From 2015 to 2017, Illinois failed to pass a budget, eliminating the primary source of funding for CeaseFire and other programs. The program reduced to one full-time site and 20 employees. During that same timeframe, shootings in Chicago escalated from 474 homicides in 2015 to 795 in 2016, and 674 in 2017 (according to Chicago Tribune data).

“The city was plagued with violence in those 18 months that we weren’t out there working,” Stone said.

With a renewed state budget, CeaseFire is operational in Illinois once again. It deploys 175 workers, manages four direct locations and is working with 15 other community grassroots organizations to deploy its model, Stone said. As of April 29, 44 fewer people have been killed in Chicago compared to 2017. While the impact can’t be attributed directly to CeaseFire—Chicago Police Department has also taken an active role to reduce shootings—Stone knows its model has the ability to change lives.

“A lot of people have made that transition in their life, and they’re an example of change,” Stone said. “Over time people will see the outcome, and what the difference is when the work is being implemented in the right dose—how violence (trends) can go down.”

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Smith became a true believer in CeaseFire during his first volunteer meeting in 2012.

The staff was trying to prevent a shooting between two major gang cliques in the neighborhood, but no one had a connection to any of the members. When Smith heard the names of the two parties, his ears perked. Ever stubborn and persistent, he waited until they were done, then raised his hand—he knew them.

“They’re like, ‘Man, you playing,’” Smith said. “I’m like, ‘Man, you watch.’”

Smith reached out to both cliques and learned that they weren’t directly fighting with each other, but with a partner clique that one had joined. No one had been killed yet; there was still time, he urged. He convinced the groups to meet at a China Buffet in Englewood with CeaseFire and community leaders. About 40 people gathered at the restaurant and hashed out their differences over plates of orange chicken and Chinese fried rice.

“They never got into it ever again,” Smith said. “That’s what really showed me I could do more to help on this end.”

Smith never envisioned he’d be a part of this program, but now he can’t imagine doing anything else. Not only did CeaseFire pay him to do this job, he found a mentor and father-figure in violence interrupter Melvin Haywood. Haywood showed him the ropes of CeaseFire, walked the streets with him and taught him what it was to be a man. The most important rule, he learned, was to take care of his children.

Haywood passed away in 2016. Smith still scrolls to his number wishing he could call, but he carries his words with him everywhere. He takes care of his children, eliminated negative influences and is genuine with the participants. He meets them where they are and listens.

“These kids know me,” Smith said. “I’m talking to them like I’m their father. They know I care. It may be some cuss words, but at the end of the day, they know I want them to get straight.”

While Smith has lost track of how many shootings he’s stopped, his main goal is to change lives. In that sense, one person knows him better than the rest—Laval White. White likes to say that he has a devil on both shoulders, but Smith has been his angel, his voice of reason on speed dial.

Smith was best friends with White’s older brother, and as a kid, White would hang around with them. He envied Smith’s talents on the basketball court and looked up to him.

Then White’s sister and father both died when he was 12 years old. From that moment on, he and his siblings started to hustle in the streets to earn money and maintain their lifestyle. As his older brother moved in and out of jail, Smith never strayed far from his life.

When White turned 15, Smith began taking him to restaurants around the city to expand his horizons and brought him to CeaseFire meetings. When White went to pick up a gun after a fight with a family member three years ago, he called Smith first. Smith calmed him down and reminded him of the bigger picture—losing a fight wasn’t worth a life in jail.

“After so long of him using the CeaseFire model with me, I’m not even noticing it, but I’m telling guys, ‘Don’t do this’ or ‘Don’t do that,’” White said. “Guys are telling me, ‘Man, you sound like Donya.’” 

Smith showed White another side of life that didn’t involve gangs or drugs. After six years of following Smith around, White joined CeaseFire as a violence interrupter.  

For Smith, this is what CeaseFire is all about.

“Even if I can change one person or two people, I’m going to keep on going,” Smith said. “That’s where I get hope. I know how hard it is to be where we from and actually do good.”

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Back inside CeaseFire’s office, Smith imagines a future for his community.

He envisions Englewood the way it used to be, a place where people can gather for barbecues, where kids aren’t smoking cigarettes at age of 12 from stress or learning how to load a gun. He sees basketball rims in the streets, nice parks and black-owned businesses. He sees a community.

“I don’t want to see a bunch of people standing around looking like they on BS,” Smith said. “I want to see community organizations … I want to see everybody working together and empowering the community.”

His future may not be too far away. If CeaseFire can operate at a consistent level, Stone said it could reduce homicides in the city by half, if not more. The nonprofit’s own research estimates it can reduce homicides to 350 a year in Chicago, if not lower. But to get there, it will take an investment from everyone at the city, county and state level.

“It’s gotta be that we all have a role respectfully to play in stopping the senseless killings,” Stone said.

For his own life, Smith pictures himself with a bachelor’s degree and working on his master’s. He sees himself providing the life he didn’t have to his three kids, and working with CeaseFire to mobilize his community.

Don’t tell Smith he can’t accomplish those goals. It took him six years and five bullet-wounds to get to this point. He’s not going to stop now.

“When it’s all said and done, Donya Smith’s name is going to mean something in Englewood,” he said. “I’ll have a legacy.”

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