CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. (WCIA)– It’s no secret that teenagers have been caught in the crossfire of gun violence in Central Illinois.
Kids have lost their lives on both sides of the trigger, some by way of a bullet. Others have been sent off to spend most, sometimes the rest, of their lives in prison.
The adults who have been there and found a way out of this cycle know kids’ involvement is no coincidence.
Jobie Taylor and Maurice Hayes are all too familiar with it. Both men are from Chicago. Each spent more than ten years in prison on drug charges, but they’ve since moved on and up.
Hayes and Taylor have been in Champaign-Urbana going on a decade and they spend much of their time working with kids, but the job comes with a sad reality.
“It’s literally been a funeral every week for the past two months,” Taylor said.
Taylor works at the Housing Authority of Champaign as the Case Manager for Youthbuild, an alternative education program. Taylor also volunteers with non-profit H.V. Neighborhood Transformation, a program Hayes launched in 2020.
The pair said the violence is cultural, particularly for historically disenfranchised children and teenagers. In the last few years, gun violence has become glamorized in pop culture, they added, and now it spreads rapidly on social media.
“They aspire to be these rap guys that they see, that’s talking about killing, but they’re rich” Hayes explained.
“So if I could talk about killing and say I killed seven people, and ride around in a Bentley with $50 million on my neck, that, an influential mind, especially in the ‘high hope’ areas, would gravitate towards.”
Taylor said it may be about “being recognized, or what we used to call, back in the day, ‘earning stripes.’”
Taylor and Hayes have been in those shoes, a place where violence not only felt like the only option, but it was something to aspire to.
“When we were growing up it was the dope dealer’s era, the era of the ‘dope boy’, and we aspired to be dope dealers. We sold drugs, we did. It cost us a lot of time in prison,” Hayes said, adding, “Now it’s the era of the shooter.”
Taylor said the glorification of gun violence is just the tip of the iceberg.
“The root of the problem is there’s nothing for the kids to do here, Taylor explained.
He and Hayes have spent much of their time doing outreach in places Maurice has coined “high hope” neighborhoods.
“We can take a seven-year-old baby and ready that baby to be the next mayor or the President of the United States, the next engineer, the next social worker, the next whatever. It’s up to us to choose to do it,” he said.
“The hood to going to have to save the hood,” Jobie simplified.
Although, it’s been a tough cycle to break.
“If we continue to feed and perpetuate the same nonsense over-and-over-and-over again, we continue to regurgitate the same generation that we have now,” Hayes said, with frustration.
“I’m part of it, too. I failed at it as a father. My son is serving 50 years in prison right now,” he shared.
After making it out of the cycle, Hayes and Taylor are working hard to reverse it. They said parents need to be careful about how they’re influencing the next generation of parents.
But beyond having a good example to look up to, are kids being taught about the danger and responsibility that comes with carrying a firearm?
“That’s a good question,” Taylor began.
“You literally have kids raising kids, so kids can only teach these kids that they raise what they know. And if they weren’t taught — like you just touched on — you know, what it means to carry a gun, you know, what it means to go out and take someone’s life, you’re not being taught these things, and this stuff is being glorified over the TV and through the music…that’s what [the children] are being taught.”
Taylor and Hayes said the investment in giving kids other outlets isn’t happening in the right places. For example, Hayes said kids in northwest Champaign, in the Garden Hills neighborhood, can’t always find a way to get to summer sports programs at the University of Illinois in east Champaign and Urbana.
They said we need programs to be built in the areas that need them.