Editor’s Note: On Friday, July 26, Andrea Stoudemire, thirty-five, and Chantell Grant, twenty-six, were shot and killed in Chicago, on the corner of 75th and Stewart, in the Englewood neighborhood. Both women were volunteers with MASK, or Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killing, an anti-violence initiative founded in 2015 by Tamar Manasseh. For four summers now Manasseh and an “army of moms”—volunteers like Stoudemire and Grant—have occupied this corner in a neighborhood devastated by gun violence, serving food to all comers and just being present. For four years, no one was killed. Kirsten Ginzky interviewed Manasseh last year for Belt Publishing’s Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook; that interview, now painfully out of date, is below.
Interview by Kirsten Ginzky
Tamar Manasseh: I realized something this summer. One day, there was a lot going on. All these kids were running around, making so much noise, and they were purple, from the magnetic slime they made. I thought, where else in Englewood would you see a sight like this? There are black kids, white kids, rich kids, poor kids…all these kids, running around, having a great time. Where else would you see this, not just in Englewood, but in this whole city? Nowhere.
I think in places like Hyde Park and some places on the North Side, there’s an artificial sense of diversity. It might be racially diverse, but not necessarily diverse in culture or background. You have to be able to afford to live there. If everybody is rich, it doesn’t really matter if they’re black or white, there isn’t economic or class diversity.
On the block, we have kids from all different places, economic backgrounds, and they’re just having fun. Their parents aren’t paying anybody to have this culturally enriched, diverse experience. Everywhere else you go, if you want to see black kids playing with white kids, you usually have to pay for that.
Kristin Ginzky: When you were growing up in Englewood, did you have public spaces like the block?
Manasseh: All the kids in the neighborhood would just come hang out on the front porch. You really don’t see people sitting outside like they used to. They’re so afraid of getting shot, and all sorts of stuff. Before everybody had air conditioning, people would sit outside in the summer.
Ginzky: It seems like social spaces are disappearing. When I walk around, I spot places that used to be basketball courts.
Manasseh: Basketball courts are a resource, right? Somewhere your kids can go play, get exercise, and work things out. High schools were also a resource, and now they’re gone. All the resources around Seventy-Fifth and Stewart have pretty much been zapped. The thing is, we’re a resource. The people who come down to sit on the block are resources. Everybody wants to do something. It’s a game changer.
Ginzky: You moved away from Englewood. Would you say you were “called” to go back?
Manasseh: Yeah. That’s how it’s supposed to be. You’re from there, you get out and learn some stuff, and then you go back for the others. You don’t just get out and stay out. You definitely don’t watch it deteriorate, just be- cause you’re too good to be there now, and you’re not part of that problem. If you have the tools to fix it, go fix it. I don’t hate Englewood or resent it; I understand that it’s a part of me, and I love it for the person that it made me. Do I like its condition? Absolutely not. But I love what I learned there.
Ginzky: What about the other MASK moms?
Manasseh: I love all of the people. I think the friendships are God’s rewards for creating MASK. I would have never met these people otherwise.
Ginzky: The men, too! Did you expect that you’d have men jump on board?
Manasseh: Nope. I guess I hoped that they would, but they just started showing up in droves!
Ginzky: Do you know how they found you?
Manasseh: DNAInfo. The idea was, if the press shows up one day, people will find out what we’re doing and show up. People thought it would just crash and burn.
Ginzky: What changed?
Manasseh: The fact that we didn’t go away. None of us were murdered, and we weren’t just passing through—it was a committed effort. No one thought it would last this long.
Ginzky: Over the past four years, you’ve cooked out every day during the summer—that’s almost your motto: “We do this every day that the kids aren’t in school.” That’s changing?
Manasseh: Yeah. At this point, we’re becoming a year-round, everyday party of the community. They wouldn’t help us keep the schools open, so we said, “We’ll just build our own school!” It gives MASK a greater sense of permanence. The kids can have a deeper attachment because they know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we’re not going anywhere.
Ginzky: Where do you find the energy?
Manasseh: I was on a panel recently, and somebody asked, “How do you stay so positive and upbeat?” I don’t. How do I not get burnt out? I got burnt out three years ago. I don’t know what I’ve been running on since then. If I quit, bad things happen. If I don’t show up, people will die. I can’t let that happen.
Ginzky: How much do you think the impact of MASK reverberates beyond the block?
Manasseh: I think it’s a lot bigger than we know. Seventy-Fifth and Stew- art was terrible when we got there. What if people from Seventy-Fifth and Stewart were the ones in a lot of different gang wars and altercations, and they stopped doing that when we came around? The thing about shooting somebody is they’ll come back to shoot at you. Who wants to bring that kind of danger to a block where moms sit on the corner and kids play? Who wants to be responsible for that? I think they’ve stopped participating in as many disputes as they were before.
Ginzky: You’ve had people turn over their guns?
Manasseh: Oh, yeah. Casual, like, “Here you go!”
Ginzky: You’ve gone four years without a shooting, yet CPD continues to dispatch more police?
Manasseh: Yeah, they said, “They sell drugs on that corner.” You know why they sell drugs on that corner? Because they don’t have jobs. I really used to think people who really want jobs can get jobs. They just make excuses. I started to drink that Kool-Aid. Those kids put all of their trust in me—I told them to stay out of trouble and go to school, and they did. Do you know how bad it hurt when I couldn’t find them jobs, and they would end up in jail?
Ginzky: What jobs are there for the kids who go to school, graduate, and stay out of trouble?
Manasseh: I don’t know. First of all, who’s going to hire them? Second of all, some of them don’t even have clean shirts to put on. They have so few resources. They don’t have anybody to help them prepare for an interview. They don’t know how to fill out an application or how to dress for an inter- view. Most of them don’t even have bus fare to get to an interview.
Ginzky: You had a first phase where you were on the corner, and then you acquired the lot, poured a concrete pad and got some storage. . . . Now, you’re creating something with a more permanent footprint.
Manasseh: Crazy, isn’t it? Who says, “Fine, we can’t go to that school? We’ll make our own.” We had to do it. The kids hang out there every day. They get to the block at 7:30 in the morning. They should be in school, but they hang around the gate all day. To watch the machinery, to watch the holes being dug . . . they are in awe of it.
Ginzky: Do you think they know, as they’re watching, that you’re building it for them?
Manasseh: They know. I overheard them talking about the subjects that they could help other kids with. “I can help tutor in math, and you can do this . . .” I’m so glad that they want to chip in and help with the younger kids. It’s not like these kids are just selling drugs. They’re tutors. They can do math. They are smart.
Ginzky: During the summer, they were already taking up the lead, serving food.
Manasseh: Yeah. All they want is to do something. Everybody wants to contribute, even if it’s just putting some food on a plate. Normally, when people come and build things in neighborhoods like that, they’re not building it for the people who live there.
Ginzky: Do you ever think of yourself as a kind of alternative developer?
Manasseh: I rarely think of myself as anything other than a mother. That’s just it. Momming looks different to all of us, and this is what it looks like to me.
Ginzky: You’ve created something that people want to be part of, and they’re proud to be part of.
Manasseh: You know, I think the whole city could learn from that. You can build community anywhere, and you need community everywhere. One can never be too wealthy for community. You’re always going to need your neighbors—they’re your neighbors. ■
This interview appears in the Chicago Neighborhood Guidebook, available for pre-order from Belt Publishing.
Kirsten Ginzky is an Illinois native from a family of downstate farmers, steelworkers, and public school teachers. Ginzky is an AM/PhD student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, where her research focuses on diversity and creativity in the community provision of social resources.
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