Rafael Yañez, a police officer and youth organizer, uses bridge-building groups to build communities in the 15th Ward. He wants to take that know-how to the City Council. Credit: Facebook/Rafael Yañez for Alderman

As a police officer, community organizer and youth worker, Rafael Yañez has a broad perspective on the issues of gangs and violence — a perspective he’s now bringing to the race for alderman in the 15th ward.

“As a police officer, I can say from experience that we won’t get rid of crime simply by putting more officers on the streets,” he says — although he says more police are indeed needed. According to Yañez, the problems of crime and gang violence reflect the marginalization of communities — like those in the 15th Ward, which cobbles together parts of Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, West Englewood and Gage Park, with large numbers of low-wage workers and unemployed, mainly Latino and African-American.

These are areas “lacking in vital resources, investments and opportunities for community members,” he says. But that doesn’t mean they are without assets, and as he talks, Yañez repeatedly returns to two ideas — building bridges and identifying community assets.

The best example is the UNION Impact Center, which Yañez founded in 2007 with the goal of building “a safer and healthier community,” especially for young people. Entirely grassroots, with no outside funding, it’s nonetheless provided sports, arts and mentoring programs to some 1,500 young people. Last summer 300 participated in its soccer program.

Yañez’s approach is straightforward: “We utilize the skills that [community residents] have to offer,” he says. “We’re looking for skills and heart and passion.” If someone can do an art workshop or teach guitar, they start a program. They’ve also had ESL and computer classes for parents. The center — which utilizes locations around the community —currently has about 40 volunteers.

The project is also about building bridges.

“The kids are able to play and grow up, knowing each other and respecting each other,” he says.  “So when they get to high school, they’ll remember each other from having a soccer game, not ‘you live east of Western and I live west of Western.’”

Yañez learned early — he recalls being chased out of Harrison Park when he went there to play basketball at the age of 9 — “that our neighborhoods are segregated and divided, even by blocks. It’s part of the culture of the neighborhood, that this is the line and you stay on your side.”

He also learned early, being constantly stopped and searched, even in front of his family home, that some police officers had “an ‘us versus them’ mindset” which runs counter to “the mindset where I’m here to serve and protect,” he says.

That could explain Yañez’s commitment to community policing, known as CAPS, which he also describes as bridge-building. A Chicago police officer since 2004, Yañez worked on community policing in Englewood, and he recalls a time when “a lot of resources were invested and there was support from the mayor’s office on down.”

Today, however, “I think CAPS has been put on the back burner. It’s not what it was before. “It should be the backbone of having a strong relationship with the community.  When we talk about trust, when we talk about communities sharing information, when we talk about accountability and follow-up, all that goes together.  [Community policing] should be the center of our philosophy.”

Yañez advocates a citywide commitment to restorative justice programs in schools as a key anti-violence program — current support is piecemeal and inadequate, he says. He talks about running “peace circles” in Harper High School, and it’s clear that bridge-building is a central aspect there too.

Twenty-five students chosen by the principal, all of them with felony convictions and many members of rival gangs, met in circles with adults including the district commander.

“We would order pizza and just talk about it. And we were able to identify some of the issues they were facing.”

This led to a summer program where kids got stipends to work together on self-designed projects. One group formed a music production enterprise with a performance ensemble that came to be known as Men of Honor. He went on to lead circles bringing together youth from Englewood, Back of the Yards and Brighton Park, “just to get people talking across their boundaries.”

The point was to show that “we can learn from different cultures, we can respect them and understand that [cultural diversity is] not a threat, it’s an asset.”

But a comprehensive approach to violence prevention is going to take a basic change in the city’s priorities —away from projects like the DePaul arena near McCormick Place, Yañez says.

Addressing violence will require prenatal care, early childhood services, early testing for learning disabilities, programs in school and after-school, and crucially, economic development that offers families living wage jobs, he says. Instead, Back of the Yards saw its city mental health clinic closed in 2012. Englewood lost six schools in 2013 and Kelly High School has had its budget cut by $5 million, threatening positions for social workers and counselors.

“Our priorities are upside down,” Yañez says.

There are five other candidates for the open seat in the 15th Ward: former Ward Superintendent Eddie Daniels, pastor Otis Davis Jr., public interest lawyer Adolfo Mondragon and Ward Committeeman Raymond Lopez, with Raul Reyes awaiting a ruling by the Board of Elections on his ballot status. All of them evince sincerity and a commitment to improving life in the ward.

It seems to me that Rafael Yañez stands out for his experience, his leadership qualities and his vision. Win or lose, he’s someone to watch, and a voice that needs to be heard.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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