Even though he grew up under a dictatorship in Chile, Brother Juan Acuña says he had not been exposed to the levels of violence he sees regularly in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
“I never saw a lot of people shooting on the streets, but there were a lot of people missing and disappearing,” he said. “I can relate to the violence and the abuse of the police.”
He draws on that understanding in his work today with the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, which helps people who have been affected by community violence in Back of the Yards. Acuña, two priests and two sisters focus on ways to repair damage caused by gang and gun violence—and ultimately, to prevent youth incarceration.
“Wherever we see blood being shed we feel called to work there,” said Acuña, who has degrees in industrial engineering and theology. “This was the most evident place to work because you actually see the blood on the streets here.”
....Our policymakers are finally seeing [restorative justice] as an alternative [to incarceration]. What we are trying to show them is a different approach to dealing with this issue of violence: investing in the communities, in building relationships, in programs to help these kids with mental issues or substance abuse and creating a network in the community. The jails are overflowing, and (the punitive approach) is not working.
What we are trying to do now is partner with different organizations and create what we call restorative justice hubs. There are different groups around the city that do this type of work and we are trying to collect the same type of information. We are sharing the same database so we can give data to policymakers and show that this is working in our neighborhoods. We know that we are helping these kids; otherwise, we would not be here. If we do a good job in collecting data, they can hopefully increase the budget for next year and invest in this alternative, and not in more prisons.