Sally Hazelgrove is the president and founder of Crushers Club: Restoring the Path, a nonprofit organization in the gang-ridden and predominantly African American Englewood section of Chicago. The club helps put high-risk youth on a path of hope and maturity, using boxing, peer mentoring, and music. Its mission is to provide a strong alternative to gangs by giving its members the support and tools they need to restore their lives and rebuild their communities.
In honor of this year’s Black History Month theme—A Century of Black Life, History, and Culture—we recognize that a century characterized by great cultural, political, and overall achievement for African Americans has also been marked by the persistence of drug use and gangs, especially in neighborhoods like Englewood. We asked Sally to share her thoughts on how we can help end the scourge of drugs and gangs in such neighborhoods in the century ahead.
Phoenix House: What prompted you to start Crushers Club?
Sally Hazelgrove: The epidemic of African American boys and young men who were being shot, shooting others, and entering the juvenile justice system in the Englewood and West Englewood communities. All I could think was, What if it were my son? What if I wasn’t able to be a good mother and had drug or legal problems? I started volunteering at a court-mandated program for juveniles in 2000 and soon became immersed in the community. I realized that if 150,000 kids were choosing gang life, it must be offering them something. So I decided to duplicate the gang life model, but use boxing and music instead of drugs and guns. I moved myself and my three children to Englewood in 2010. I felt if I was really going to make a difference and enact sustaining change, I had to do it from the inside. Today we are a youth-operated organization built on the ideals of discipline, ownership, respect, and love—things kids typically get from being in a gang.
PH: How intertwined are drug use and gang life?
SH: I would say 90 percent are using marijuana. It strongly influences their impulsive and often deadly actions against others. Logic and reasoning are diminished, and the street-level gang members are not connecting the dots until it is too late.
PH: What do you consider the most important thing(s) we can do as a society to help African American youth stay away from drugs and gangs?
SH: I feel we need to talk openly with them. Lots of youth feel that if they’re only smoking weed, it is not that serious, but what I tell them is that if you are smoking morning, noon, and night, then you are addicted, and you are conditioning your brain to “check out” of stress, rather than walk into and through it. Often, by replacing the gang, we take away the drug component without them realizing it. Sometimes, particularly with older kids, the drug use has progressed to the point where they need treatment. But we try to get kids when they’re young—we accept children as young as seven years old—before that happens.
My advice is to give these kids lots of second chances and provide the love they need for a while before asking for or demanding change—let them own it.
We also need to invest in programs that are engaging and provide a stronger purpose than being a gang member. For example, we tell our youth employees—who, themselves, were considered “at-risk”—that they are saving lives and are the real heroes; now they have a stronger purpose. Take a chance on youth, let them have ownership, allow them to grow from their mistakes, and empathize with them. Guilt causes people to self-medicate, in my opinion.
PH: How do you think racism plays into drug use and gangs in the neighborhoods you serve?
SH: I feel it is more economics than racism. If you put a group of white people in the hood, they would fall through the cracks of darkness just like any young person without intervention would. All youth, regardless of race, that live in poverty or feel marginalized are at risk for gangs and self-medication with drugs. And, indeed, plenty of white kids are in gangs and addicted to drugs. It just happens to be that Englewood is predominantly African American, so those are the kids I work with.
On a causation level, though, racism and segregation are a source of sub-standard living conditions and the poverty that comes with it. Segregation is so unhealthy for our cities, but more than that for our children. It is not fair that children grow up in Englewood, where you know you could die any day, and 15 minutes away they spend 65 million dollars on statues and parks named after dead people; you would almost think someone dead has more value than a black child who is alive.
PH: How does a young African American male’s experience in the criminal justice system play into it?
SH: That experience plays into it a lot. We call it the criminalization of our children and youth. First off, in the more affluent neighborhoods, youth are not arrested and detained for the same infractions that kids in Englewood are. Party in the suburbs and you get grounded or your phone taken away; party in the hood and you can die or go to jail. Without intervention or treatment, our youth will get used to being detained and on drugs—and they are likely to have a life in and out of incarceration, and of drugs, which they use to self-medicate and avoid looking at their lives. The good news is that intervening can work if we invest in our at-risk youth and stay the course with them.
PH: Can you share with us a personal anecdote that best illustrates why you do what you do?
SH: I remember the day a young man told me, “I want you to know I gave up my gun and I will no longer gang bang.” He now works for me instilling motivation in our at-risk youth.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said that if you haven’t found something worth dying for, you aren’t really living, I found that “something” 15 years ago when I first came to Englewood. Children are my oxygen; it’s just how I’m built, and I am blessed to be that way. But I would say my reason is always, “What if it was my child?” If children belong to God and God is big in me, then in a way, they belong to me too. I feel all children have a piece of my heart, and that is truly the biggest blessing of all.
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