Damien Morris, 2020 Chicago Peace Fellow and Chief Program Officer at Breakthrough Ministries, an organization providing comprehensive programs in Garfield Park in Chicago, speaks about his long-standing engagement with one of the organizations’ key programs: violence prevention. Being incarcerated at the age of 17 for a decade provides him a lived experience with the justice system, and equips him with the knowledge and know-how in creating transformational and lasting change towards a more just society.

In this piece, Damien highlights the importance of being involved with Breakthrough Ministries and serving as his platform for helping others get second chances. He emphasizes the high crime rate in East Garfield Park, and discusses his involvement in violence prevention through the Flatlining Violence Inspires Peace program, and reiterates the crucial role of community involvement in violence protection.

A Personal Adversity Transformed into a Community Activism

Damien feels strongly about people deserving second chances in being part of the community. Reflecting on his own experience, he says: “I have lived experience. I was once involved with the justice system at the age of 17. After my release at the age of 27, I got a second chance, I got an opportunity to redeem myself by working with Breakthrough Ministries.” He has been with the organization for more than 15 years now. “What keeps me going is that I know what happens and I know the good results that come with supporting a person.” he adds.

Take me for example,  I was incarcerated for ten years, and then I was released. I was in a program, they gave me an internship and after I proved myself they offered me a job- and I never looked back. […] Now I am in a position to give people opportunities for a second chance.

– Damien Morris

Reducing Violence in Garfield Park with Community Involvement

Damien further explains why Garfield Park on the West Side of Chicago needs the resources to create deep, holistic change in the neighborhood in preventing violence: “The crime rate [in Garfield Park] is 55 people per one hundred thousand, and so with this being said the community has been begging for violence prevention efforts, and the Breakthrough became the leading agency on that.”

Violence has touched nearly every person in this area, directly or indirectly, and people like Damien, who is close to the issue are leading social change from the bottom.  “Despite having a lived experience, I also made a conscious decision to help with this. Now together with my team, we have identified nine areas within the East Garfield Park that are being charged with increasing the violence in this part.” He elaborates more on a unique program that Breakthrough is implementing called Flatlining Violence Inspires Peace (FLIP).

FLIP leverages the influence of community residents by partnering with young men and women who live in neighborhoods that are at a high risk for violence. These individuals are given a stipend to act as peacekeepers and mediate conflict in their communities: “This program allows me to identify those men and women who are connected to the streets and have a good relationship with the community but also have the mindset that they want to see a better community and reduction of violence.”

In this piece published in the Chicago Tribune, Damien calls for the involvement of the community in violence prevention: “People can help us by simply just showing initiative when they see us out doing work. There’s not solely one answer to solving or reducing violence, so we cannot just wait for the police to reduce the violence. It takes all of us- we all need to get involved and be on the same page. We all need to get engaged consistently.”

“When we are hosting community meetings, come, help, and share your doubts, share your creativity. Help us think outside the box, help us make a greater impact. We cannot do it all ourselves,” he continues, “The community needs to govern themselves.”

A photo of Damien with other violence prevention workers seeking transformational change in the background

The Value of Community Assets

Damien’s participation in the Chicago Peace Fellowship, in 2020, remains important in his activism. “I was referred to the Goldin Institute and I have seen it as a challenge, I have seen it as a way for me to see outside the box, and to challenge who I am as a leader,” he says.

He learned tremendously from this experience, and Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) and asset mapping stand out. “I gravitated to these two exercises. Indeed, I started a little company due to the impact and learnings from the asset mapping approach. I identified those who are an asset to the community and engaged with them to provide the services we are experts in. I still do that to this day.”

Breakthrough Ministries served more than four hundred people, 48 individuals served with case management services and the percentage of drop in shooting victimizations in East Garfield Park last year was 29%.

You can donate to Breakthrough Ministries here