- Jennifer Maddox grew up in a different South Side Chicago from the one she sees today
- The Chicago Police Department member wants to give kids the safe space she had
Jennifer Maddox has been selected as a 2017 Top 10 CNN Hero. Voting is now underway to select the Hero of the Year, to be revealed during 'CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,' airing live, Sunday, Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. ET.
Chicago, Illinois (CNN)Jennifer Maddox is no stranger to the violence in the city of Chicago.
For more than two decades, as a member of the Chicago Police Department, she's observed the growing plight facing residents—particularly young people on the South Side.
"We are in a state of emergency here," Maddox said. "The shooting, the killing. Five-, six-, seven-year-olds—they're losing people that they love and care about."
Last year was Chicago's deadliest in nearly two decades, with 762 homicides, according to the Chicago Police Department. And until recently, 2017 was on par with last year's rate.
"A lot of our young people are fearful to even come outside," Maddox said.
For the last six years, Maddox has dedicated herself to giving young people their childhoods back.
Her nonprofit, Future Ties, offers an afterschool program and escape for children living in the turbulent Parkway Gardens Homes. This low-income apartment complex that once housed the likes of Michelle Obama is today a neighborhood rife with challenges.
"Parkway used to be a beat I covered on my patrol," said Maddox, 45. "I saw lack of opportunity, lack of resources, lack of community spaces for young people, and it sparked something inside of me."
Today, Maddox and her group provide a free, safe space for more than 100 children in grades K-5 to learn, grow and succeed. Her ultimate goal is to reach all 1,200 children that live in the complex. Maddox works a second job to support these efforts.
CNN's Marissa Calhoun spoke with Maddox about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: Your commitment to the South Side of Chicago is deeply rooted. What's your personal connection to the community you serve?
Maddox: I was born and raised on the South Side. During the time that I grew up, everyone on the block knew each other. Everyone got along. We weren't worried about no one getting robbed or beat up or shot, like you see today. It was like a family environment—we could go to each other's homes and eat and hang out and play with the other kids safely. We rode our bikes up and down the street and didn't have a care in the world. We were able to just be children.
Now what we see is a lot of that support that builds on families is missing. You see a lot of single mothers and a lot of absentee fathers. You see a lot of social issues. And the violence in this community is at an all-time high.
We can't arrest our way out of this. Law enforcement needs the people in the community to work with us to solve some of the grassroots issues that are causing the violence.
CNN: Why do you think there is such a widespread perception of friction between law enforcement and communities?
Maddox: I think there are a lot of misconceptions about police officers—that they're not fair, that they are the authority figure that doesn't care about the individual. That's not true of most officers. There are many of us in uniform who do care about the communities we police. But most of the time, once an individual sees someone in uniform, they kind of discard who the person is inside and make assumptions.
What makes a strong community is that everyone has buy-in. A lot of the times police officers do not police their own community; they police other communities. So there's not always that buy-in from the officer who lacks the personal connection to that neighborhood. Officers have to learn to see themselves as a part of the communities that they police, no matter how short of a time they are there. If we did more of this, I really think it would make policing a lot easier.
My investment in this community is because I know what it used to be, and I know what it can become again. At the end of the day, we need each other. When we talk about solutions to repairing the rift, I think we should talk more about working together towards the same common goals to give our young people an opportunity of survival.
CNN: Beyond giving kids a safe place to go, what do you hope your program provides?
Maddox: I'm trying to give them a sense of belonging, because that's what I had as a child coming up, and that's what I gave my children when they were growing up. And I think we've gotten away from it. I want them to have that feeling of being at home, safe and at peace.
I brought conflict resolution into the program because I felt that we needed to address how they relate to each other in conflict. That's where a lot of the violence in their community stems from. They need to understand that it's not okay to hurt someone, even though that's what they see happening around them. They need to understand that there are other ways to communicate and relate to one another.
I want the children to make the best out of their lives. The things that are happening across our city—it's very unfair for our young people. I do what I do because I enjoy it and I believe in their potential. I look at their faces every day, and they give me hope.
Want to get involved? Check out the Future Ties website and see how to help.
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