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Service & Impact
spring 2022

Street Mom

One woman’s mission to make Chicago’s streets safer for young people
Written by: Diane Latiker

Mother of eight Diane Latiker has been named a CNN Hero of the Year for her work with Kids Off the Block, the project she launched to help at-risk teens in her Chicago community.

Back in 2009, most boys would have been scared to hang out with Jordan alone. He was in his early twenties when he first showed up on the lot to play basketball. The other kids froze as he hollered, “Can I play?”

“That’s Jordan,” I heard somebody whisper. Jordan’s family had lived in Roseland as long as anybody could remember. Everybody knew who he was. He was one of the few boys in the neighborhood who drove a car, and everybody said he always kept two guns in the trunk. Everybody kept their eyes on that car and held their breath anytime he came near it.

I’d never had a conversation with Jordan, mostly because he never came inside my house. Once basketball was over for the day, he’d wave to me and yell, “Hey, Miss D!” before climbing in his car and disappearing down the street.

So when I heard a knock on my door one September night, Jordan was the last person I expected to see when I opened it.

“Can I talk to you, Miss D?” he asked quietly. I studied his face, wondering what was going on behind those dark eyes of his.

“Of course,” I said, opening the door wider. “Come on in.”

Jordan sighed as he sat down on a folding chair and set his backpack on the floor. He leaned into his knees, still wearing his jacket, as he hung his head and stared at the ground. “Miss D, this dude just beat up my sister.” He paused for a moment, pressing his lips together tightly, fury written all over his face. “I was going to shoot him. But something told me to come here first.”

“If you shoot this boy, that ain’t gonna make the neighborhood safer.”

A negative leader

My mind raced. This boy had never stepped foot in my house or said anything to me beyond a greeting. I didn’t know he thought enough of me to ask me for advice, let alone that he would be asking about shooting somebody. Don’t yell, I thought. Keep your cool. Talk some sense into him.

“Jordan,” I said slowly, “you a leader. But you a negative leader.”

Jordan frowned. “What do you mean?”

“These boys in the neighborhood look up to you. But they’re scared of you. They think what you’re doing is exciting. They think you don’t take no mess. But just think about what would happen if you were a positive leader. What if you were leading boys to do the right thing? What kind of impact could you have?”

Jordan was silent for a moment. “I don’t want to be a negative leader,” he said. “I don’t want everybody to be scared of me. But this place ain’t safe. I can’t trust nobody. Now this dude beats up my sister. And I’m supposed to let him just get away with it?”

I sat down next to him and placed my hand on his knee. “You have a right to feel like that. You’re right. This place ain’t safe. But you could change that.”

He shook his head. “How am I supposed to do that?”

“You can start with your situation. How you handle it. If you shoot this boy, that ain’t gonna make the neighborhood safer. It sure ain’t gonna make your family safer.” I looked into his eyes, so dark I could see my reflection in them. “I can’t make the decision for you. You have to do it.”

Jordan must have sat in my living room for two and a half hours before he finally picked up his backpack. “I want to get out of these streets, Miss D,” he said as he stood. “I really do want to change.” I exhaled as he walked out the front door, trying to slow my pounding heart. God, I don’t know which way this boy is gonna go, I prayed. I said everything I could. Please let him make the right choice.

Jordan the mentor

I barely slept that night. When I finally drifted off, I heard gunshots in my dreams. I startled awake, sure that I heard my phone ring, sure that somebody would be on the other line telling me Jordan was locked up for murder. But when kids arrived for programming the next day, there was Jordan, smiling.

“Hey, Miss D!” he called like nothing had happened. He nodded slightly as I locked eyes with him. He didn’t say anything else, but I knew he’d done the right thing.

I wouldn’t learn the full story until months later, when Essence magazine called me up asking for an interview. They were looking for a kid to include in their story. Jordan was the one to pop into my head. By then, he was known throughout the streets as Jordan the Mentor. He’d taken my words to heart. Nobody could call him a negative leader now. He was on a mission to lead young boys down the right path. So I gave the Essence writer his phone number.

When I read the article, I nearly dropped the magazine. There in black-and-white print was a quote from Jordan saying that night in my house, he had the gun in his backpack. He had every intention of leaving my house and walking straight to that boy’s house to shoot him.

I’ll never know what made him come to my house. I’ll never know what made him turn around and go home. I look at boys like Jordan, boys who walked into my house one way and walked out completely different. I look at the conversations we had, the advice I gave them, the prayers I prayed when they left.

Truth is, nothing I said was particularly special or unusual. And yet God used it. God used me. These boys turned their lives around, and I got to play a role in their story. Those are the moments that light my heart on fire, the moments that get me out of bed in the morning and push me to keep going.

Something to live for

I’ve been working with young people long enough to know that the number-one factor leading to violence is hopelessness. Kids who see no path for themselves beyond the gangs, who see drug dealing as their most likely profession, who don’t have a prayer of getting into college, much less paying for it—these are the kids who think they’re worthless.

In their eyes, their lives are disposable. When they have nothing to lose, they’re not afraid to take risks. Risks like carrying a gun in their backpack and shooting somebody who looks at them wrong or who says the wrong thing. A kid with nothing to lose is dangerous.

If these kids had skills, if they were employable, if they could make a big, fat paycheck, it would change the game completely. They would have something to live for. Something to lose. I truly believe that violence wouldn’t be an issue if kids had the right training and could get good jobs. I can’t redevelop my neighborhood myself or convince city officials to bring businesses, jobs, and places of entertainment to Roseland. Those investments would make a huge difference, but I also understand a violent neighborhood is a tough sell to a major corporation.

Excerpted from Kids Off the Block: The Inspiring True Story of One Woman’s Quest to Protect Chicago’s Most Vulnerable Youth by Diane Latiker with Bethany Mauger (Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Copyright 2020. Used by permission.