September 04, 2017
Chico Tillmon grew up in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, where he was exposed to all kinds of trauma. “It was a collage of the beautiful and the painful,” he says. “In the same breath, we’d see someone get killed, and then we’d have barbeques, cookouts, school gatherings, and baseball games.”
After graduating from high school and serving three years in the Illinois Air National Guard, Tillmon faced an impossible choice: testify against drug dealers in his community — thereby putting his family at risk for retribution — or face 20 years in prison.
He chose prison. While incarcerated, Tillmon had an epiphany. “I realized what was going on in our community. Most of the people in these communities are just in survival mode, and I saw how their responses were not only impulsive, but also reactive. So when I came home, I wanted to do something to change the trajectory of the community.”
And do something he did — first as an outreach worker for Ceasefire, the same organization that his predecessor at YSVP, Eddie Bocanegra, worked for when he was featured in The Interrupters. But after working on the ground level, Tillmon realized he wanted to impact policy and practice, and so he headed back to school for a bachelor’s and a master's degree at Northeastern Illinois University.
Today, he’s a few months away from a PhD in Criminology, Law and Justice Studies, and he’s the new Executive Director of the Y’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention initiative, including programs like Urban Warriors and Story Squad. He says the focus of YSVP moving forward, as in the past, is to introduce new conflict-resolution tools based on trauma-informed care to families across Chicago.
“When I was two, my mom told me, ‘If somebody hits you, hit them back.’ That’s instilled in people at a very young age,” Tillmon says. “We’re taught to resolve conflict with aggressive behavior. When you’re two, it’s just hitting someone back. But when you’re 15, and it’s someone bigger than you, you might think ‘I can’t hit them back,’ so a weapon becomes an equalizer.”
In partnership with the Y’s Learning & Evaluation department, trauma-informed care is becoming a key component in all of YSVP’s programs. “We use a trauma-informed lens instead of a criminological lens,” Tillmon says. In Urban Warriors, war veterans mentor youth who’ve been exposed to trauma. In Story Squad, youth are empowered to channel their experiences through audio recording and engineering. Bridging the Divide aims to improve relationships between communities and police, while Parent Cafe supports families who face high levels of stress, isolation and trauma.
We’ll check back with Chico and the rest of the YSVP family soon, as new youth join their programs this fall. For now, click here to learn more and consider making a tax-deductible donation here to help YSVP continue serving Chicago’s youth.
Story by Adam Morgan, Marketing Content Manager at the YMCA of Metro Chicago. Adam writes about Chicago for the Y, Chicago magazine, and the Chicago Review of Books. His daughter runs the show.