Mastering the art of storytelling to drive change.

Interview with Eddie Bocanegra, Gun Safety Leader and Senior Director at READI Chicago

01 / 08 / 2020

Michael Golden: I’m speaking today with someone who’s a leader in Chicago, and he’s a guy who walks the walk because he’s lived it. His name is Eddie Bocanegra, he’s a senior director at Heartland Alliance, and he basically runs the READI Chicago program under Heartland which is geared toward slashing gun violence. And for people who don’t know about this, Eddie and his staff work with people all over the South and West sides, in particular, to give folks opportunities and the kind of opportunities that they never had, not even the first time around. I’m going to let Eddie talk about his background, how he got started in this, what motivates him and then we’re going to get into a little bit of the program, and how people can get involved and help. Eddie, thanks for coming and doing this today. 

Eddie Bocanegra: Well, thanks, Michael. I appreciate the opportunity of being here today, and just to be able to amplify, the work that we’re doing, but also why is this critical for our city. We think about safety, what does that really mean? What does it mean to really have a safer Chicago? And it’s not necessarily arresting our way out of this issue and it’s not necessarily about simply hiring more police, it’s really about tackling an issue that needs a different approach to addressing this issue.

In many cases, it’s really being honest with each other and creating some healthy tension to recognize that race is an issue, in terms of how we got here to begin with, that we are fighting a system that for decades, was really designed to really marginalize certain populations in our city, but also across the country, especially when you look at large urban communities, urban cities like St. Louis, Milwaukee, and the like.

Michael: Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about your childhood, where you grew up, and then you talk openly about the trouble you got into, and where it led you and how you came out on the other side doing this work. So start early for me.

Eddie: Sure. So first and most importantly, I’m a proud Chicagoan, and I love our city, despite our weather at times. But the truth of the matter is my parents migrated here in Chicago back in the late 50s, early 60s, and I was born in the late 70s and for the most part, we lived a large portion of our lives in Little Village, and I recall the first exposure to violence was actually at home, unfortunately. So imagine six, seven years old being in your home in a place that you would consider to be safe. Well, that was a first exposure to violence for me. Constantly seeing my mother being physically assaulted, not recognizing that my father had some challenges with alcoholism, but also as a result of poverty, my father had a hard time sometimes making the payments, and so he would lash off on my mother.

I was the oldest of five siblings, and on top of all that, I remember attending our CPS schools and recognizing that also violence was extremely prevalent in our school system as well. So again, second place you would think you’re safe, seeing a lot of the violence taking place there, and then you step outside and you see a lot of the shootings and all the guys hanging out. And for whatever reason or another, and as I reflect now, I still remember at 13 witnessing my first homicide, and just the following year, Michael, I actually got involved in the street gangs. I got involved at an early age and ironically, I actually got involved for safety purposes.

That was the first thing, I wanted to make sure that in this endeavor that I was embarking myself in that my siblings also felt a sense of protection, because as a gang member, I felt that there was a sense of ownership, a sense of buy-in. I had a say in what was taking place in my life, and therefore, if anybody tried to recruit my siblings, I was able to intervene there.

But the second reason why I was also involved with the streets, honestly is because of identity. I think about who my neighbors were. They were landscapers, they were construction workers, they were people that were working in hotels and restaurants. I thought about my mom’s work, working in the manufacturing companies and factories, and my father working in cars, and for whatever reason, I wasn’t gravitating to that. I didn’t see that for me, as something that I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Particularly when I would see sitcoms shows like Diff’rent Strokes and The Bill Cosby Show, and I (asked) why is it that the issues that I would see in terms of problems in those sitcom shows were not necessarily similar to the ones that I saw in my day-to-day life or what was taking place in my home?

And at a very young age, I realized that there was kind of these two worlds, and from 14 to 18, arrested multiple times, and then shortly after 18 years old, two of my friends were shot, one was paralyzed, and shortly after that, I went back to retaliate. My intention was never to have the outcome that I actually had, which was I took a young man’s life, a young man whose name was William, who was 18 years old, who came from a single parent home. And these facts, I didn’t know until after the fact I was incarcerated, after the fact that I was in front of a judge being accused of a first degree gang-related murder.

And so, I think about how I ended up doing this work, and a large part has to do with my experience as a child, as a teen, but then going through what we call the criminal justice system. What I was exposed to, what I got to witness, and a part of it was connecting the dots and drawing the parallels between what I had experienced as a young person, and what I saw so many other people in prison experience as well, which was issues around racism, lack of mobility, lack of access, lack of education, single parent homes, or homes where there was a lot of issues around substance abuse or domestic violence, and the list goes on. But simply, I was able to draw those parallels and I started really asking myself, “How can this change and why is it that people are not necessarily picking up a fight on this issue?”

Michael: What was the “aha” moment where you thought, “I can do this. I can take all this knowledge I’ve accrued in my own experience, and start applying it in a more formal way,” in work?

Eddie: Yeah. So when I first came home and in late 2008, my cousin, Juan, he was a probation officer for the juvenile system, he connected me to a local church called New Life Urban Life Skills. And they had just started off a program in which there were mentoring young people who were currently on probation, and so I started there until a couple of months later, I had somebody from CeaseFire approach me if I wanted a job.

It wasn’t until about the third time that I said, “You know what? I’m going to give this a shot.” I did. My objective was to diffuse conflicts and mediate them. I was constantly being sent to these hot spots, with the idea of, again, decreasing the shootings by all means, but I also realized that a lot of the times, I was compromising myself, I didn’t have all the tools that I needed. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know better. So it wasn’t until I went to undergraduate school, where I had a professor, multiple professors, but professor Luis Ortiz and Frank Guytan who really spent the time to really kind of coach me and really draw those connections for me, to better understand the alignment of my work and what I was learning in school, and how to apply it.

So as a result of that, I started various art programs. I started advocacy groups for people who were formerly incarcerated. I started off, this is how I met my wife, a support group of parents who lost their kids to violence, and all this with no funding — but simply with this mission of atonement and wanting to give back for those who I’d taken so much from.

Michael: Yeah. And for folks who don’t recognize CeaseFire, which you mentioned, this started more than a decade ago. Gary Slutkin at University of Illinois, Chicago, basically was making the issue of gun violence into a public health epidemic, and spoke around the world and started Ceasefire. And as you said, folks like you who are working in what used to be called CeaseFire Zones, 10 of the highest crime, high violence neighborhoods, would intervene when there were these crises, but then you, at some point, and especially leading up to READI, you took this to the next level to address this in a more holistic way.

As we started this interview, you were talking about how all these things are related, poverty, and education, culture and the way you grew up, and the gangs, and even sometimes in the schools, and family violence. All those things that you listed, there’s a multiplier effect to all of it, right? So there’s not this one-stop solution, even if you got one thing really right. Talk about how that informs your work at READI Chicago inside Heartland.

Eddie: Sure. So Michael, before I answer that question, let me just go back just a little bit. When I think about all the programs that I just highlighted a moment ago, including some of my work at the YMCA when I was an executive director there, it was always with this kind of lens of trauma-informed approach, to really tackle the issues around exposure to trauma, particular chronic trauma, and the idea was to really get people to recognize that trauma, and equip them with some tools to kind of help them process some of that.

Now, there is no accident with my next kind of set of data, but when you think about a recent study that was conducted by an array of folks, particularly with St. Anthony Hospital, they looked at the number of clinicians that were serving the West side of Chicago. And so, the number was 0.01.

Michael: Clinicians.

Eddie: Clinicians — licensed therapists providing mental health services for those who are coming from this particular community, and you compare those numbers with the Gold Coast, which was 365 plus clinicians per thousand. So you think about the disparity there, and the level of who has access to those resources and who does not. So for me it was, in a way, to bring some level of understanding of mental health services into the community, and some of the ways that I did that was being creative by leveraging US combat vets for example, and their trauma, and really making the connection with young people who are involved in the systems or in gangs, and drawing those parallels and providing what we called cognitive behavioral therapy, but also a sort of social justice approach to the work.

And then that experience, coupled by my education at UFC as a social worker, really allowed me to leverage all that knowledge and bring it into the fold of READI Chicago. And at the end of the day, READI Chicago is focused, as you mentioned earlier, to individuals who are at the highest risk of gun involvement. So we use police data, hospital data, an array of other data points in partnership with the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab.

Michael: Predictive analytics.

Eddie: Predictive analytics, correct. And the idea is to saturate them in resources. In this case, the main resources that we provide the young men in our program, the young men who are 18 and older, are first and foremost, subsidized employment for about 18 months, about 29 hours a week, and the rest of that time, the next 11 hours or so, it’s really around providing them cognitive behavioral therapy in which they are compensated for $25 for every session, which is three sessions a week, and then professional development as well. So we compensate them for that as well.

And the idea is that the jobs, that’s kind of the carrot to the stick. We recognize that in order for us to really provide the CBT, the cognitive behavioral therapy, we need to engage them, they need to be coming to our facilities. It’s not these young men are knocking on our doors, we’re not going out there and we’re looking for them. Typically, the way this works, Michael, is kind of three-way. First and foremost, our community partners, community partners like the Institute for Nonviolence, Lawndale Christian Legal Center, UCAN, and Heartland Alliance outreach in Inglewood, they are able to identify people who are at the highest risk of gun involvement, and we take their names and we send them to the Crime Lab, and they see whether or not they fit the criteria, so to speak, and they spit them back out, and 50% of them were able to provide a service for them, given the fact that there was an RCT, a randomized controlled trial study.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot convinces READI Chicago participants to take a work break for the camera.


Another pathway for us is through our partnership with the Department of Corrections and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. Again, people who meet the criteria, given the fact they might have gun offenses or violent offenses, that’s exactly who we’re serving. And then finally, is this kind of new innovative way in which we’re identifying people, which I pointed out, which is through the Crime Lab. This is a way that we’re disrupting the way that we have done traditional street outreach. So think about how maybe in the past, Cure Violence might go out to these hot zones and maybe meet people where they’re at. Well, in this case, we still do some of that work, however, we’re also equipping our outreach staff with a list of names, a profile picture, last point of arrest, and say, “We believe, given what we know about these men, that they’re also at the highest risk of gun involvement. Go out there, go get them, go get them a job, and let’s get them into CBT.”

Michael: And the people you’re talking about who are doing this recruiting, who are going and knocking on doors, correct me if I’m wrong, Metropolitan Family Services runs a training academy to get you the folks ready to do this work. Do they contribute to sort of your army of folks who are going out there and knocking on doors, and doing the real work of saying, “Hey, we got X, Y, and Z for you, all you gotta do is say yes.”

Eddie: Well, so the best way that I can answer that question is, so MFS, Metropolitan Family Services, has an initiative called CP4P, which is combining about nine to 10 different street-level organizations in various communities, some that are in the same communities where READI Chicago is at, and some that are not, and their idea is kind of looking at… the best way that I can explain this is almost taking what Cure Violence has done in the past, where you’re engaging individuals in a community that also meet a specific kind of high risk profile, and you’re also providing a street level outreach worker, some cases, intervention specialists, and their idea is to connect with them, provide some resources. That might vary from community to community, from agency to agency. In our case, we have, again, an overlap with some of the partners, but the outreach workers that we have are slightly doing a little bit of different approach to the work, right?

Eddie: So they’re trained on how to co-facilitate CBT, for example. They’re being trained on community organizing, they’re being trained in best practices around trauma-informed, a number of things that we’re doing maybe slightly different, but in other cases, very similar. So the academy, I’m extremely proud of that initiative, simply because Chicago needs to also lead. Years ago, Michael, Chicago was front and center for many other cities, other metropolitan cities in our country, where they would come here, look at our work with street intervention work, look at our street detachment work. Historically, the YMCA for example, in the 60s was really good at that. Then in our late 1990s, already 2000s, you got Cure Violence, for example.

Michael: Community policing before it went out of style a bit, but that’s when it was right in the 90s.

Eddie: Correct. So there was all the different styles of engaging and doing street level work. And so, we need to make sure that the outreach staff who’s doing this work are being trained, they are receiving the basic skills, but also that this academy further helps legitimize the profession, and that’s something that’s been a huge gap in this field overall, nationally. So I think that this outreach training academy, it’s going to actually help fill that void.

Michael: So I want to address two things that I’m curious about, and I know other people are curious about, two questions. First of all, you talked about trauma. Let’s talk about that for a second. And you said that you brought in combat veterans, and you’re basically talking about making a comparison and seeing what being a combat veteran and that kind of trauma is like.

I think that most people think about that is trauma in a war, but they don’t think about the, for lack of a better term, and you might even use the term, war zone, that’s going on for someone like you who grew up in this, and you’re not taught to believe that it’s trauma, right? And now you are describing it as trauma. So my first question is, how much overlap, psychologically, however you want to describe it, have you found when you’re doing this comparison between trauma for combat veterans and trauma growing up in the “CeaseFire zones” that you work in?

Eddie: Sure. So I think, Michael, this program is called Urban Warriors, which is still being run out of the YMCA Chicago, the initial thought really came between a conversation that one of my younger siblings, who was a combat vet. So I come from a family who, many of them have served in the armed forces. This particular brother, Gabriel, he did two tours in Iraq, one of the first units deployed into the Iraq war in 2003, and then he went back for a second deployment in 2005, during the rebuilding of the war. However, in both of those deployments, he experienced a lot of door-to-door combat, so he was a reconnaissance infantry soldier.

It wasn’t until after his second tour that doing a prison visit when he came to visit me, we were sitting across a small coffee table and he was in his green uniform, and I remember looking at his left lapel and seeing all these beautiful ribbons of all of his accomplishments, 32 missions that he was a part of, the trainings, his Bronze Star, and all these different decorations. And I couldn’t help to wonder at that moment how my brother, his acts of violence were legitimized by our country. And as I was reflecting on that, right, my brother pointed out to me, he’s like, “Eddie, when you come home, you to do me a favor.” And I asked, “What is it?” And he says, “You just see a therapist.” And I was like, “Well, what do you mean?” He said, “All the symptoms that I have around PTSD, you actually have as well.” And of course, I was in denial, because I never saw my experience of growing up in the streets as kind of a combat zone.

Michael: It’s what you knew.

Eddie: It’s what I knew. It’s growing up in the 1990s, early 1990s, when Chicago was seeing up to a thousand people being killed a year, my reaction to what happened was very common to a group of people that lived in that kind of world. And so, when my brother drew that parallel and I came back to my living unit, I started connecting all the dots with so many other people that I saw there. Long story short, years past, I came home and I told myself, “How can I legitimize the trauma and the experience of violence that these adolescents, that these teens, in our city are experiencing?” We as a country spent billions of dollars in foreign aid on child soldiers, and we spent a lot of money, a lot of billions of dollars in supporting veterans who are returning back from combat.

Now, I think both are extremely needed, and I support the both of them. However, in our own backyard, we have our own child soldiers, but we don’t see them that way, we don’t value them that way. We see them as thugs, as gang members, and so on. And so this idea of bridging combat vets with at-risk youth, was to really start shaping the narrative of who is a victim of violence, and who is worthy of resources and supports for people who actually experience trauma.

So what we recognized in our early findings, and this is with the Dean at SSA, Deborah Gorman-Smith, that through a number of surveys and studies that we did, a lot of our youth had more symptoms of PTSD than our own combat vets. So think about that for a minute. We have our own children in our own backyard, who have more symptoms of PTSD than some of the vets that are returning back home from war. So just something to think about, something for our society to chew and digest for a minute.

And so, when I think about READI Chicago and I think about why is it so important for us when people ask me the question, “Eddie, tell me more about your violence prevention program,” or when I ask the question, when I mention the violence prevention program, “Who do you think I serve?” And most of the time, the answer is, “You serve gang members, or you serve people who are formally incarcerated,” all to which is true, but the number one fact about who I serve is that they are victims of violence. And so, for whatever reason or another, Michael-

Michael: And/or trauma.

Eddie: And/or trauma, exactly. So, they’ve been victims of violence, which carries the trauma with them… We did a great job just a few years ago doing a study, by pulling, I believe, six or 800 people, and they realized that the majority of the people that were incarcerated in the state of Illinois were also victims of violence. And so, if we know that to be true, why do we stop looking at them as victims? Why not continue to support them, even after the fact they committed a crime?

Michael: There’s a misapprehension that a lot of the young people who are in gangs don’t want an alternative, that they’re making so much money in the gang culture, business, drugs, whatever you want to call it, that they don’t want to be offered an honest job. That it’s not going to pay enough. But Arne Duncan (at Chicago CRED) says that’s just not true…. And I noticed in your program, and feel free to tell a story of someone, because I’ve read a bit about this, there’s a hell of a lot of esteem and pride among the people who take you up on your offer and are given a first, not a second chance, but really, a first chance. Talk about that as an opportunity, and kind of at the same time, talk about who are the folks that are coming into your program?

Eddie: Thanks, Michael. That’s a great question. So the truth is, and I’ll answer the second question first, but to give you a quick snapshot who it is that we’re serving, and when we hear this word, “at-risk” communities, or “high risk,” and so on, let me give you some real facts in terms of who we’re serving. First and foremost, Eddie Johnson, our superintendent a couple of years ago, said that he believes that between two and 5,000 people are the drivers of violence in our city. And right now, the close to a thousand men that we have targeted, to which 585 of them have taken up READI Chicago, are coming to the program. So, who we’re serving, to give you a snapshot, who they look like, on average, they have between 17 and 18 arrests, between four or five of them are felony arrests. Sixty percent of our men have done prison time, 87% of participants are between the ages of 18 and 32. So think about just that number itself. When you look at the violence in our city, about less than 20% of our violence are between the ages of 17 and under. The 80% of the other violence is those who are 18 and older, with the highest concentration being between the ages of 18 and 29.

Michael: So when I say, quote young people, it’s really a misnomer. It’s young adults.

Eddie: It’s young adults, typically the ages of 24, 25, 26. That’s exactly the people who are more likely to be victims of violence, right? In fact, just to give you another quick snapshot of how this works, so the University of Chicago did a quick study recently and like I said, they’re our research partner. So in Chicago, men who are 18 and older have a 0.3% per 1000, in 12 months, of being a victim of violence. In neighborhoods that READI Chicago is in, North Lawndale, Inglewood, West Garfield, Austin, men who are 18 and older are 1.2 more likely out of a hundred, to be a victim of violence. But participants in READI Chicago are actually 7.2 per 100, more likely to be a victim of violence. That’s 70% more than your average 18 year old in Chicago, and 60% more likely to be a victim from your regular peers who are coming from these communities like North Lawndale and Austin.

Michael: Now, this is the power of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, and the predictive analytics, right? This is who you’re targeting.

Eddie: That’s exactly who we’re targeting. So when we are referring to we are working with the highest risk, we have the science to back that up.

Michael: Right, it’s not just at risk, it’s highest risk.

Eddie: It’s highest risk, and this is the notion that I’m hoping your audience, and the government, and the mayor’s office are really listening into, because we believe that we have not only the systems or the metrics and the data to prove who we’re serving, but also that the intervention is showing signs of progress. To give you an example, a young man, Kevin, and this kind of goes back to what Arne Duncan’s comment, right? So we have Kevin out of Austin, the mother died at a very young age, he was just a teen, and then that caused the family to kind of separate themselves, where he ended up going to his grandmother’s house. From that point on, he kind of took a different direction in life that ended up in prison, but also he became a victim of gun violence.

He was shot multiple times, and it got to the point where he wanted to be different, but just didn’t know how, so he was still kind of entrenched in the lifestyle until an outreach worker knocked on his door and said, “Hey, we’ve been looking for you. You fit the criteria. We got a job for you,” and this guy was like, “Who the hell are you?” Right? “Are you the police?”, and he’s like, “No, we actually have a legitimate job.” So this young man realized that other peers that he knew were actually calling him as well as like, “Hey, your name’s been coming up, we’ve been seeing your picture. Man, these folks who are at READI Chicago have a job for you.” And it was actually his peers that actually got to sell the product. So this young man went there, and I’m telling you right now-

Michael: That’s credibility.

Eddie: That’s instant credibility when you have a peer telling you that, “Hey, something is here, you’re going to get paid for your time, and you’re learning the skillset.”

Michael: In other words, don’t be suspicious, this is a good thing.

Eddie: This young man right now has been with us for almost a year, and his trajectory is that we’re going to be able to find him full-time employment. He’s been very consistent with our work, but he’s also someone who continues to grapple with trauma. We have other incidents where, we have young people who are fathers who have full custody of their kids, that are actually living in shelters right now, but they’re making every effort to come to the office and they recognize, “Hey, what I’m making right now is not even enough to sustain my family, but I know that in order for me to be where I’m supposed to be at, I’m going to have to trust this process, and trust this journey,” and we’re seeing that.

Eddie: Now, I’m going to be really honest with you. Progress is not linear for a lot of our folks, and what I would tell you that we’re learning too, is how grossly we have underestimated the kind of support systems that these men actually need.

Michael: How hard this is.

Eddie: It’s extremely hard.

Michael: And that sometimes, it’s two steps up, one step back. When you say nonlinear, I don’t want to use the word recovery, but it’s not a straight line towards changing your life.

Eddie: Yep.

Michael: Right? And taking you up, and getting into that swing of, you’re talking about cognitive behavioral therapy, and work, and coaching. This is wholly new to anybody who takes you up on this offer.

Eddie: Absolutely. But think about our own kids, right? For parents who were fortunate enough to send their kids to college, sometimes there are setbacks in that. Sometimes after graduating from high school, some kids don’t want to go to school right away and want to take a year off, they want to explore the world, right? And some parents had the luxury to provide that kind of freedom.

Michael: I’m 52, and I’m still going through that every so often!

Eddie: Well, I’ll be really honest, I tell myself, I was born and raised in the 60632 zip code, and my little girls are being raised in a 60526 zip code. And one of the big differences between the two zip codes, is really, at the end of the day, is access. Who you’re born to and what community you were born into, it makes a huge difference of what your future’s going to look like.

And so, just as much as I want the best for my kids, I also want the best for our participants, and it is not their fault who they were born to, it is not their fault to the community they were born to, and the circumstances of the community in which they were born into, and I think it’s up to us to find that common interest, to think about what is our investment, and why should I be involved with this? And the truth is, for folks who are from Winnetka, or Glencoe, or Skokie, or Lincoln Park, or Hyde Park, you name it, and even sometimes from these same communities who have this mentality of picking yourself from your bootstraps and so on. Listen, trauma, all the signs in the world are telling us that people who are impacted by trauma need additional supports.

There is no different when you go to a doctor, and you’re being diagnosed with a stage two, stage three cancer, the more advanced the cancer is, the more support systems that you need, the more intense the intervention actually is, and that means the most costly that intervention really is as well, you know? And we want the best surgeons to do that work, right? We’re not going to a hole in a wall kind of clinic and saying, “Hey, I’ve got a stage three cancer, I want you to cure me,” that’s not how it works.

And so, for our participants it’s no different. READI Chicago is the intervention, and the 120 staff that are behind READI Chicago, they are our surgeons, they are the ones that are grinding every day, that are trying to figure out how to cut that cancer, how to provide support systems while recognizing that yes, you might have been diagnosed with one thing, but guess what? You have other impediments that are getting in the way.

Michael: It’s a great analogy. And in the last question, we talked about the term random control trial. It’s such a cold sounding word when you’re applying it to real lives, and you and I have talked about how at One Million Degrees, we’ve gone through a random controlled trial test for our scholars, and look, we help our scholars, but they are the heroes of our program. They are the ones that work their asses off, some of them two and three jobs while they’re going to school full-time at the city colleges or other community colleges. But at the same time, if you’re running a program and it’s designed to help people, well, you want to know if the program is effective and making a difference, and that’s what we did with One Million Degrees, and thank goodness we were right.

You guys just started doing this just over two years ago, and now have some early indicators. You must be excited about this? 

Eddie: Well, yeah. So, first of all, my goal, I’m a very competitive person, right? I believe in the work that we’re doing, I believe we’re doing it with the best integrity, and I would pop our hood open for any person who really wants to examine what we’re doing. I’m very open about what’s working and what’s not working, and that’s really critical because those lessons are what’s important for both philanthropy, government, but also our community partners to really fully understand we’re doing something at a scale and a level that has not been done, and certainly in our country. To say that we’re serving over 580 men, that’s impressive.

Michael: And by the way, 580 men, you said 2,500 before. You mentioned that 2,500 number of the people that basically, are responsible for most of the gun violence in Chicago. You’re already at 20% of that whole number that you’re targeting have taken you up.

Eddie: Yep. So, I think about all of our venture capitalists who might be listening, all the investors, right? Listen, when you send someone to prison, on average, it’s about $30,000 a year and you get very little to no return on investment. Your ROI is nothing, right? And when somebody gets shot or gets killed, it’s costing taxpayers millions of dollars, and again, your return on investment-

Michael: I’m sorry to interrupt, without even taking into account recidivism.

Eddie: Exactly. Exactly. So we have this opportunity right now with READI Chicago to demonstrate the effectiveness, to demonstrate that some of the things that we’re doing seem to be working, but they we’re also learning through this process, and this is why it’s really critical and it’s important that the mayor’s office, the governor’s office, are really paying attention because right now, the city of Philadelphia, city of Detroit, city of St. Louis, and among other cities, are reaching out to us to learn more about READI Chicago.

And I think this is where we have an opportunity to really create a national model that other cities could be coming to Chicago and figuring out, what are your best practices, what are you really learning? What is the research telling us? And I could tell you right now, that we are seeing some good strides in that direction. Now, I’m not ready to celebrate this yet, Michael, that’s not how I run. We could be playing basketball, we could be 10 points up. So things change overnight, right?

Michael: Gotta finish the game.

Eddie: We’ve got to finish the game, because who we’re serving is a moving target. And so, while we are seeing positive indicators right now, I would also tell you that the lessons that we’re learning through there, is going to help us also strengthen the quality of services that we’re doing.

Michael: Thank you for doing this. I just have such admiration for how you guys have built this model and how passionate you are, and we’re recording this on a Monday, and I know that over the weekend you were out there and overseeing activities, and you’re a director of this program. You’re also a cheerleader, right? You’re a brother, you’re a father to so many people. And this is really exciting, isn’t it?

Eddie: It is. It really is. I come to this space very humble and hungry to learn more.

Michael: You know a lot.

Eddie: Well, I know some things, and I think my experience and my own journey in life has taught me quite a bit, and one of those things it has taught me is to be humble, to put my faith first and foremost as an Orthodox Christian, just think about, treat people the way that you would want to be treated. See the goodness in people, even if (it’s just) 2%, build up that 2%, because the other 98%, you’ve got to better understand it, how did they get to that point? And that’s part of my job. We, at READI Chicago are approaching this kind of work with a lot of inquisitive kind of thoughts and questions, right? And right now I would tell you Michael, is that who we’re serving are worthy of investment.

Michael: I’ll leave people with this, just to echo what you just said. I know the sergeant of community policing, Jermaine Harris, was on a program with you recently and he said, “Making assumptions is not going to work,” end quote. You’ve got to find out the why, and that’s what you guys are doing, person to person, one at a time. Thank you for doing this today, Eddie.

Eddie: Thank you, Michael.

(This interview with Eddie Bocanegra is from The Golden Mean podcast published on Jan. 8, 2019, and has been edited for length and grammar)