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Former Chicago gang members seek new lives through writing, reading memoirs

Just days before his daughter’s first birthday in 2006, Leronn Johnson was shot once in the shoulder and twice in his back. He says the bullets remain inside his body, a permanent reminder of the gang life he was part of growing up on the streets of Chicago.

“My shirt went from fresh white to blood red,” Johnson says. “Ambulances and firefighters is all I heard.”

On a recent night in Chicago, Johnson was joined by a dozen other former gang members and at-risk African American men in their 20s who are trying to escape gang life.

They’re part of a voluntary rehabilitation program that includes writing and reading their own memoirs.

‘New Beginnings’

Sitting on a tall director’s chair under a spotlight, Johnson read from his memoirs, which he titled “New Beginnings,” in front of an audience of more than 100 people.

“It saddens me to have to wake up every day and see these wounds on my body,” Johnson read into the microphone. “What if I retaliated and put myself in a hole, which would prevent me from seeing my daughter?”

Former gang member Bruce Knights read from his memoirs he titled “The Deepest Truth.”

“Why do we live in a world together but yet feel alone? Who truly understands why? Does the pain I receive define who I am? Do I live in a fantasy, or is reality so real that I wish I was living in one?”

Writing and reading their memoirs is part of a program called CRED, or Creating Real Economic Destiny, which places the young men in “cohort” groups while teaching them job skills, providing intensive life and trauma coaching, and tutoring toward their high school diploma or GED.

CRED says the memoirs idea came from a program in El Salvador that began in 2012. It targeted gang-affiliated young people in public schools, prisons and juvenile detention centers, with the published works used to engage with families, guards and the general public. The homicide rate in El Salvador hovers around 69 per 100,000. Chicago’s rate is about 15 per 100,000.

The Chicago program was launched last year by the Emerson Collective and former US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who moved back to Chicago after his years working in the Obama administration to find that violence in the city had gotten worse, not better. Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, was part of the audience listening to the men read from their memoirs.

“It’s emotional. It’s inspiring. It’s heartbreaking, but these are remarkable young men, who are telling unbelievable truths and making themselves vulnerable,” Duncan told CNN.

An honest day’s work

The training can last up to 18 months and some of the young men, who had been making thousands of dollars selling drugs on the street, now arrive at learning sessions at 7 a.m. as they work toward getting jobs in manufacturing, retail and construction that pay $12 to $20 an hour.

Duncan said the group’s goal, which includes bringing former rival gangs together to try and form a “brotherhood,” is simple: “We want to make Chicago safer, we want to reduce shootings, we want to reduce the homicides. And we work directly with the young men in the communities who are most likely to shoot or be shot.”

Duncan admits that fixing the problem isn’t easy. He calls the program “a work in progress,” but says he’s encouraged by early signs.

“Some of the guys from the first cohort are now mentoring, supervising the other cohorts,” he said.

“I know we are keeping guys alive. I know we are preventing retaliations, but as a city we have a long way to go.”

Dressed in a black suit, crisp shirt and neatly fitting tie, Lonnie Williams read from his memoirs, “New Steps and New Moves,” which described what it was like being raised by an aunt.

“Until this day I can’t decide what made me lose respect for my aunt. But between watching her snort coke and being locked in the basement the majority of my childhood, who could blame me? So I left.”

Williams later moved in with his sister and struggled to get by. In his memoir, which he read to an audience that included family and friends, as well as strangers, he said, “My brother was selling crack, so I chose that as a means to survive.”

After watching his uncle get sentenced to a long prison term, and having a son of his own, Williams is now part of the CRED program in hopes of finding an “honest life.”

“I think about the 35 years my uncle just got,” he read, pausing occasionally to look up at the audience. “Or that my son asks me, ‘Dad, why you keep leaving me?’ or ‘Why don’t you love me?’ I would be speechless. Although my moves are to protect his future, I also have to remember that I’m a big part of his present. He is getting older and so am I. And to be part of the solution, I have to stop being part of the problem.”