A lifelong resident of North Lawndale, Derek Brown grew up in a community where gangs and drugs were a part of everyday life, especially for young people. "My environment dictated the fates of the majority of the youth in my community, and I was one of them," Brown says, explaining how he joined a gang at the age of 13, sold drugs on the streets and ended up in jail. Now a restorative justice coordinator and the leader of a recreational nonprofit for North Lawndale youth, Brown will guide a group of cyclists through his neighborhood during the Street Love Ride on Saturday, August 15, aiming to spread a message of hope and peace through his community.
The bike ride grew out of Brown's work as the leader of Boxing Out Negativity, a program centered around boxing that he started in 2008 to provide youth with an alternative to becoming involved with gangs and violence within their communities. "Boxing wasn't even necessarily a sport he liked, it's just what hooked in the kids," says Julie Globokar, chairperson of Boxing Out Negativity's board.
The organization operates year-round, providing at-risk kids with coaching, training, mentorship and tutoring as well as the ability to compete in boxing tournaments organized by the Chicago Park District and USA Boxing. Before the pandemic, Brown had a gym where he'd bring the group to train—now his home has turned into a makeshift community center, hosting boxing equipment in the lawn and outdoor programming like cookouts and movie nights.
During the summer, bike rides through North Lawndale and other parts of Chicago have become a regular part of Boxing Out Negativity's programming, with Brown leading young cyclists through the streets. Many of the rides run through different gang territories, but according to Brown, his standing in the community keeps everyone safe. "All the gangs in the community respect Boxing Out Negativity, so it’s like Boxing Out Negativity is the neutral part of all of that," Brown says. "When we ride past these blocks where these guys are at, they would always just give us a fist."
The Street Love Ride: Rolling Deep for Peace in North Lawndale event is free and open to the public, serving as an extension of Brown's efforts to spread positivity and unity through the streets of his community—and a way to draw attention (and additional resources) to the work that Boxing Out Negativity is doing. Brown teamed up with Oboi Reed, co-founder of Slow Roll Chicago, to welcome the city's cycling community to the event, which will begin with a gathering and cookout for participants at St. Agatha Catholic Church (face masks and social distancing are expected). At 8pm, cyclists will embark on a two-hour ride through North Lawndale, winding through the same streets where Brown once became involved with gangs.
"A lot of these guys on the streets we ride by, in their minds they can’t leave those blocks," Brown said. "We want to show them that, hey, you get with the right groups and the right people, and we can all create a safe passage for all residents."
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