For more than 40 years, BUILD has worked to pull scores of gang-affiliated teens back into the margins of mainstream.
This story is the first installment in a series of 12 profiles on anti-violence organizations throughout Chicago. The series is funded by the Field Foundation.
By the time Adrian Hernandez reached adolescence, he knew how to stand his ground in a schoolyard brawl. As Mexican growing up on a West Humboldt Park block dominated by Puerto Ricans, he never got much respect. And he’d taken enough blows to know that, if he didn’t fight back, he’d never get any.
But the teen, who stands just shy of 6 feet and wears an easy smile, also knew that he would be a fool if he didn’t find some back up. “I had to prove that I was harder than them,” Hernandez says of the other boys in the neighborhood. By the time he started high school, he had joined a gang.
From the get-go, it was clear that getting involved with a gang wouldn’t come without hassle; ultimately, it has invited as much danger as protection.
In high school, Hernandez fought his way onto the Orange Line train home from Curie Metro High School. The station was on the side of South Pulaski Road, which was controlled by a rival gang. Each day, his gut would clench as he made his way across the busy thoroughfare. “But it was my only way home,” he says.
During his junior year, one of those scuffles carried over into the classroom and interrupted his high school career. The way Hernandez tells it, he was sitting in a first-period Latin American history class when he was whacked in the back of the head with a blunt object. One of his nemeses had wound a belt tightly around his fist and slammed Hernandez with the buckle. “I just felt the hit,” Hernandez says. “I was bleeding like crazy.”
“I look back now and I’m like, ‘What was I fighting with this kid about?’” says Hernandez, now 19.
For Hernandez, it took getting kicked out of Curie and slowly making his way to BUILD—a nonprofit that, for more than 40 years, has worked to pull scores of gang-affiliated teens back into the margins of mainstream—to even ask himself that question.
BUILD started as a gang intervention organization on Chicago’s Near Northwest Side but now reaches out to teens in 10 Chicago neighborhoods with the highest rates of youth violence. The organization’s goal is to refocus the adolescents on rebuilding themselves and their communities. It works in schools, runs a small jewelry-making business out of the main office and mentors even the most troubled teens when they are released from Cook County’s juvenile detention center.
“We don’t reject youth nor do we eject them,” BUILD’s Executive Director Roslind Blasingame-Buford says. “If they mess up, we don’t kick them out of our program like a lot of other organizations do.”
That’s not always easy. The only way it works, Blasingame-Buford says, is to meet the teens where they’re at. BUILD’s philosophy is to draw on young people’s strengths, ironically, the same way a gang would.
Hernandez, for example, is now part of a team of youth mentors who reach out to other gangbangers. Each year, the group calls a gang summit. The goal is to try and make teens think about what they’re getting out of being in a gang, ditching school or breaking the law. And present them with better alternatives.
“What we do today is not just interrupting violence but redirecting youth,” Blasingame-Buford says. “It’s definitely about having positive alternatives. And young people need jobs. They respond most to that. They say, ‘You mean, instead of selling drugs, I could earn some money … and not have to watch my back and run from the police?’”
The message resonated with Hernandez, who is now a freshman at Northeastern Illinois University and holds down a job at a fast-food joint. Now he’s trying to spread the word among his friends. “I have friends who think they’re stuck,” he says. “I tell them, ‘It’s not too late,’ and I try to get them to BUILD.”