Graduation Night

06/04/2010 01:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Elena Quintana Executive Director, Adler Institute on Public Safety & Social Justice

Marilyn Pitchford has been a Chicago CeaseFire outreach staff member for longer than any other. Marilyn started work in 2000 as a CeaseFire outreach worker after her brother, Michael Davis, was gunned down on Chicago's Westside. Between 1993 and 1999 Michael had been shot 3 times, finally succumbing to life on the street.

Shortly after Michael's passing, Marilyn joined CeaseFire as a member of the original outreach team that helped reduce shootings in the first Chicago CeaseFire Zone that went from having 43 shootings in one year, to 14 the next. Marilyn became an Outreach Supervisor in 2008, has earned both her bachelors and master's degrees while simultaneously curbing violence on Chicago's Westside.

The celebration for Marilyn's master's degree was held in May at a sports bar called Plush. Members of Marilyn's family, church, community, and work cycled through to congratulate Marilyn, a single mother, who has exemplified slow and steady achievement. Marilyn graduated from a Westside high school that currently has a graduation rate of 41%. Few people at the party had graduated college, much less graduate school, so it was particularly poignant that Marilyn's achievement serves as a beacon of hope for her friends, family, and community.

The night of Marilyn's party a CeaseFire worker named Napoleon got a call from an old acquaintance that I will call Rhonda. As Napoleon was sick, he called his coworker Tim White to address the situation. Rhonda had called to calm down her cousin, "Annie," who had gotten into a confrontation with another woman, whom I will call "Bernadette." Guns and knives were drawn. Injury or death seemed imminent. Seconds after receiving the call, two carloads of outreach staff left the celebration for Marilyn, high-tailing it back to the scene of the conflict.

Annie owned a building that had been damaged by a fire set by her renter, Bernadette. After the fire, Bernadette wanted her things out of her apartment, while the owner did not want to allow her entry into the building. There was so much threat on both sides that the first two CeaseFire respondents were told that, basically they should run for cover because the block was going to get "aired out," or shot up, and no one wanted the CeaseFire workers to get hurt.

Eying the guns, the tension, the suspicion, outreach worker Derrick House chose his words carefully as he tried to calm down both sides of the dispute. The owner was not, under any circumstances, going to be crossed. The renter, Bernadette, would not be held back from recovering her things.

At some point the police came by. Derrick House approached the car and identified himself as a CeaseFire staff member. The officers in the car stated that they had come to the house earlier, but they were denied entry, and felt there was nothing they could do. They wished the CeaseFire outreach workers well, and let them know they would be around the corner if they were needed. House assured the officers that they were doing all that could be done to resolve the situation non-violently.

When Tim White, a CeaseFire worker, arrived to assist Derrick at the scene, he spoke to a group of men near the scene. He introduced himself as a CeaseFire worker, and asked what had happened. A man in the crowd, convinced that Tim had come to help, explained everything. Tim approached Annie, who was sitting on her porch, her arms folded. Annie was defiant, but Rhonda pleaded with her cousin to just listen to Tim. Tim spoke with Bernadette, who said that all she wanted was the food out of the refrigerator; she had just gone shopping, and she couldn't afford more food. Tim worked with Annie to allow him into the burnt out apartment with garbage bags, to quickly pack up all the food that he could to deliver it to Bernadette.

With the delivery of the food, the problem was resolved and no one was shot. It was only after the fact that Tim learned that a group of men, including Rhonda's sons, were in a parked van across from the residence waiting to shoot Bernadette should she or her people come to threaten their Aunt Annie. It is probable that someone would have died should Rhonda not have insisted on calling CeaseFire, and working with all involved to cooperate with a peaceful mediation.

This story compels me because there are so many graduations highlighted beyond the literal celebration of Marilyn Pitchford. At CeaseFire we constantly work on "changing the thinking," helping every day people to understand that there are alternatives to violence. What is satisfying about this story is the fact that Rhonda had faith that things could be different. The police allowed the mediation to occur and were grateful for CeaseFire's presence, and all those out on the block that evening witnessed grown men working toward a peaceful solution for the love of their community. These are all small steps in a bigger revolution - a story of many individuals coming together to plant seeds of hope, and ultimately of graduating to a different way of thinking, a different way of life.