The Back of the Yards neighborhood, on the near southwest side of Chicago, was once home to Chicago’s meatpacking industry and, when the stockyards closed in the 1970’s, the community remained home to a resilient working class community of mostly Latino and African-American families. In many ways, the Back of the Yards epitomizes the chronicled disinvestment of the South and Westside neighborhood of Chicago and, as a result, the neighborhood experiences high rates of poverty, joblessness, many forms of violence, and a lack of genuine investment in public education. Despite being neglected by city, county and state elected officials, the Back of the Yards is a community of dedicated and hard working people. Founded in 1997 as a 501 (c )3, the Peace and Education Coalition has a history of reaching out to network and listen to the needs of the people and accompany the legacy of the community.
In the late 1990’s, there were numerous shootings and deaths of BOTY youth. The public elementary schools were mandated to improve student scores. However, the violence was interfering with progress being made. The principals at Chavez and Hamline Schools were in conversation with Phillip Jackson from Chicago Public Schools about this issue. Phillip suggested a meeting be called with all interested parties to address the issue of youth violence. (Phillip is currently the CEO of the Black Star Project impacting Black youth nationally.)
The principals developed a list of invitees, which included all neighborhood principals, clergy, law enforcement, elected officials, park districts, and community based organizations. This meeting was held at the Chavez School in November,1997. This group did grow into the not-for-profit Peace and Education Coalition of Back of the Yards, New City (PEC).
Approximately forty groups were represented. As the PEC continued, it relied upon the expertise of the various groups within. An important piece was the work Fr. Bruce Wellems. He, in conversation with park district employees, realized how needy our youth were for an outlet of their anger and hurt. Fr. Bruce created Reflection Groups providing a safe place for our youth to have a voice. One thing learned was that many of these youth were dropped out or put out of high school. They were not successful in a traditional educational setting. Thus, working with CPS, in July, 1998, the Sister Irene Dugan Alternative High School was created in the neighborhood. It has since expanded to two more campuses and to date more that 500 youth have completed their diplomas.
The BOTY is a community divided by school attendance boundaries, parishes, aldermanic wards, major streets and so on. In February, 1998, it became apparent how divided yet connected the neighborhood was. An eleven year old student from Seward Academy, was shot and killed in front of Chavez School, by two Daley students. At the request of the newly formed PEC, CPS provided a grant to implement a sports program between and among the elementary schools. It was the intent of the program to blur the lines that so divided the community.
The forces behind the implementation of many of the endeavors included Fr. Bruce Wellems of Holy Cross, Marcey Reyes, Principal of Seward Academy, and Sandra Traback, Principal of Chavez Multicultural Academic Center. Other members of the Coalition have supported their efforts tirelessly.
The mission of the PEC is to use education as a way to reduce and prevent violence. Poverty is very prevalent in the neighborhood and presents significant challenges to the residents, especially the youth. So the PEC uses its partnerships to collaborate and maximize all grant and contribution dollars. Since it’s inception the PEC has been an all volunteer not-for-profit organization with very little overhead. Therefore, all the money raised for scholarships ($500,000 to date) or youth programming is used for that stated purpose only. The Board of Directors DO NOT receive any compensation for their efforts. However, beginning June, 2017, a CEO was hired to grow the PEC and create a long term plan to serve the BOTY community.