Chicago – one of the pride & joys of our country – currently suffers from a plague of violence, corruption and the lack of honest justice. The Chicago Justice Project, an organization dedicated to promoting transparency and accountability in the Chicago justice systems, has worked tirelessly to seek information about justice officials and report findings to our community in an accessible and comprehensive way. As a native Chicagoan and social justice-oriented college student, I was drawn to the mission of the Chicago Justice Project because I, too, believe in the power of data in enacting evidence-based change in a suffering city.
Despite having accumulated a substantial amount of data and making notable progress in amending the infrastructure of the Chicago justice systems, I found that the Chicago Justice Project has hit an obstacle that will prevent the organization from realizing its full potential: community outreach. The success of our work relies heavily upon the needs and knowledge of Chicago citizens. As such, I chose to dedicate my efforts as an intern for the Chicago Justice Project to develop a Community Outreach and Engagement program that will carefully fit the needs of our organization and the community and, hopefully, propel CJP forward in the fight for honest criminal justice systems.
Community outreach programs are essential for community- and social justice-based organizations. While it would be easy to model our program off of a different organization, I instead chose to use a range of approaches in designing CJP’s plan. I believe that a variety of perspectives will help us understand the underlying elements in community engagement efforts that yield the most success in establishing meaningful, long-term relationships. I began by reading a score of academic publications about community policing, community meetings, and non-profit organizing. Additionally, I attended several CAPS Beat meetings to supplement my research on trends in community responses to authorities. These preliminary research efforts led to my development of the Chicago Justice Community Outreach and Engagement Program (COEP).
The Chicago Justice Project relies on community meetings to both learn about the community’s needs and share our organization’s current findings. Thus, the COEP has been established with two main programs to address these needs: The Listen to Learn meeting style and Engage & Empower community approach. Listen to Learn focuses on understanding the needs of the community by implementing several discussion and writing-based exercises. At the end of these meetings, we hope to better understand how we can tailor our work to serve the community. Engage & Empower meetings, however, focus on facilitating discussions about our findings and using the community meeting space to develop actions plans. These meetings are based upon our fundamental principles of legitimacy, consistency, and action and implement a variety of exercises to achieve our goal. We hope that we can serve as partners to enact evidence-based change. The Chicago Justice Project hopes, more than anything, that our data will simply be a tool for advocating for truth and justice.
Our Community Outreach and Engagement Program, however, is limited by the capacity of its involved members. Thus, I am calling on all community organizers, politicians, and activists to learn about our work and see how the Chicago Justice Project can help you. Our programs are flexible and compatible with all type of community-based work. We are all in the fight for justice in Chicago, so it’s time for us to partner together and see where our strength can take us. It has been a tremendous pleasure to work with the Chicago Justice Project this summer and I am confident that, with the strength of community partnerships, we will see and feel honest change in our city.
Leah Umanskiy is a rising second-year at the University of Chicago. She is majoring in Economics and Fundamentals: Issues & Texts, an interdisciplinary major through which she will explore the meaning of justice. In her free time, Leah loves to spend time all across Chicago and enjoy all of the wonders the city has to offer.