Transforming a Barbershop into a Library for Children: James’ Inspiring Initiative

One day recently James Offuh, 2022 Goldin Global Fellow and Founder of United for Peace Against Conflicts International (UFPACI) from Côte d’Ivoire, saw kids playing with his barber tools. Realising the hazards here, he instead offered them some books as an alternative which saw the creation of his Peace Library Project.

This seemingly random moment created a positive change for the kids in his community, highlighting how we can play our part in creating social change by leveraging the resources we already have.  

As a result, James, a peace advocate and educator, initiated the Children Transformative Literacy Peace Library Project and contributed to a visioning summit by launching a parenting toolkit in his community. 

In this piece, he speaks more about this initiative’s impact on the children and their families, the challenges faced, and the driving inspiration behind this transformative work.

Empowering Positive Change in His Community

Before the creation of the peace library, which is entirely free to use, James states that children loitered on the streets, playing harmfully like throwing stones at each other, interacting with abuses like rudeness and arrogance, showing hateful sentiments, and being apathetic to one another.

“In contrast, now major outcomes are that children around my community have found a safe space for learning virtues, values that support good moral behaviors.” he says.

Further, he believes – through such initiatives – children are more likely to be exposed to peace, justice, social cohesion, and accountability values.

“Most importantly children are developing interest in books, learning to read and always visiting the book station as a place of socialization.”

He highlights the role of the ‘Assets Based Community Development’ approach by valuing it as a critical principle to uncover gifts within our community, focusing on what’s “strong” rather than what’s “wrong”.

“When planning a community-driven social change mechanism and action frameworks, such as transforming my barbershop into a community peace library to address early child illiteracy and juvenile crimes, one should pay more attention to the gifts as opposed to deficits in society.” — James Offuh

James remarks that many children do not have the necessary parenting guidance or resources, which often leads to children and teens getting involved in criminal activities, hard drug deals, and the consumption of marijuana.

This often meant they were sent into juvenile crimes that became alarming in the Abobo town in Abidjan City. James gives a perspective on how this alternative education space outweighs some traditional ways to solve this social problem.

“I discovered that these children, most of them grew up on the streets, had no good moral education background, applying punitive, coercive measures will not solve the problem holistically, as police keep making arrests, imprisonments, etc.“ — James Offuh

United for Peace Against Conflicts International and Goldin Institute Merging Paths

Further, James speaks on how, in his everyday work at the UFPACI, he implements the knowledge gained during his time as a Goldin Global Fellow.

“Goldin Institute’s Gather program was an eye-opener to me; before the program, I did not know about the terms ‘ABCD’ approach and Community Driven Social Change action.”

Moreover, he recalls how adaptive leadership versus technical leadership helped him understand more conflict sensitivity, analysis, and ‘do no harm’ as a tool for diagnosis over individualistic versus relational context. 

Goldin Institute expanded his global connections, too.

“The Gather program expanded my networking, and I got a partner from the U.S.A. who visited me here in Cote d’Ivoire and got my details from the Goldin Institute website. He is also a member of the Gather Global Alumni network.”

James also gained free online training workshops, participating recently in Project Management and Strategic Planning, which helped him learn how to design, plan, implement, monitor, and evaluate processes and outcomes.

Conclusively, James leaves us with a saying from Fredrick Douglas:

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.”

With his tireless work and activism at UFPACI, James and his team promote social dialogue, a non-violent culture, and peace reinforcement. Read more about their work and find ways to support them by checking their website: You will support the library’s longevity and sustainability so it can serve as many children for as long as possible.

Currently, the library needs infrastructural support like stable internet connectivity, electricity, comfortable reading seats and tables, workshop toolkits like drawing materials, and story books in English and French language.

Anika Talent Show: Empowering Kenya's Youth for Environmental Education

Visual artists, dancers, poets, thespians, and vocalists between the ages of 14 and 25 were brought together in a lively event in Kenya promoting green skills and environmental justice, aligning with the International Youth Day 2023 theme.  

This event was made possible by Nicholas Songora, 2021 Goldin Global Fellow from Kenya and Founding Director Manyatta Youth Entertainment, and his dedicated team behind organizing the Anika Talent Show in celebrating International Youth Day in Partnership with the Forum civ Eastern and Southern Africa hub under the Wajibu Wetu; Jumuika Sikika Program with collaboration from the private sector, religious leaders, persons with disabilities leadership, national and county governments.

Nicholas speaks more to the Goldin Institute about this activity and why it represents a movement that harnesses the power of art to drive change.  

He believes that people together can create a sustainable world where everyone, through artivism, contributes to a brighter future. Already, he is leaving his mark on infusing positive change and possibilities among young people.  

Nurturing the Youth as Change Agents for Environmental Issues 

This gathering equipped young people with green skills and a profound understanding of environmental justice while utilizing the transformative potential of arts to foster sustainability in society. 

Nicholas delves into how they incorporated sustainability and environmental justice in this event. 

He highlights that photographers pledged to vividly portray environmental issues, ecological beauty, and the consequences of unsustainable practices through art exhibitions.  

From the interactive discussion, participants, including village elders, engaged in addressing climate change challenges. They shared personal experiences and ideas for climate action, including sustainable agriculture, waste management, and energy conservation. 

Strengthening Community Work through Networking 

Further, he expresses his gratitude to several collaborative partners who contributed to the success of the Anika Talent Show.  

Therefore, Nicholas adds building partnerships and collaborations places the organization at the center of decision-making tables at the county, regional, and national levels.  

“This has fostered community ownership and has enhanced sustainability. We collaborate closely with the national and county governments, the private sector, and religious institutions. Also, we collaborate with youth, women, and persons with disabilities networks while forming part of the civil society leadership in Kenya's Coastal region.”

He sees collaboration as fostering cost efficiency and effectiveness, sustainability, and long-term impact accepted by the masses. 

The Lasting Impact of the Goldin Institute Fellowship and Looking Forward 

Nicholas acknowledges that he applied the key strategies learned from the Goldin Global Fellowship, from planning to executing the Anika Talent Show. 

“Through design, we applied the concept of community asset mapping, which we learned during the Goldin Global Fellowship. In this step, we reflected on the available stakeholders at the grassroots and national levels.”

Further, he elaborates on how they divided into mapping the available resources and funding to support the initiative. 

“Identifying potential collaborators was easy, including nominating young people to lead in the activity. Mapping of potential artists within the Anika Community Hub and inviting more from the community.” 

Conclusively, drawing from his experience, Nicholas shares his advice with aspiring young people and how they can play a proactive role in their communities. 

“The #YouthTribe is a powerful family with all it takes to change the existing narrative and achieve a green economy as a global identity.” he says. 

“In most countries, youth form the largest percentage of the population; for example, in my country, Kenya, we are approximately 80% of the population but cannot make a difference if we keep working in isolation. We must unify our voices, be counted, and influence our way to the decision-making table through dialogue and collaboration.”

He draws our attention to the fact that youth cannot win by competing or fighting other stakeholders but by embracing the unity of purpose and fostering collaboration. 

Nicholas calls youth to “rise and start building partnerships and networks with multi-stakeholders.”

Suggested article: Empowering her Community for Peace: A Goldin Global Fellow’s Journey 

Embracing and Respecting Differences to achieve Shared Goals in the Philippines

This July Andy Alegre, 2021 Goldin Global Fellow from the Philippines, engaged in the Regional G20 Interfaith Meeting in Manila (the capital city of the Philippines), moderating a session focused on the online sexual exploitation of children.

In this piece, he speaks to Goldin Institute about his experience at the meeting and lessons learned. He also shares a few tips on communicating and working with people from diverse backgrounds while respecting differences to solve issues affecting the community.

Andy, a people person, also emphasizes the importance of being a Global Fellow and how it has offered him global perspectives obtained from his peers during the weekly roundtable discussions and connections, and as part of the monthly Alumni network roundtables.

He starts our conversation with the Regional G20 Interfaith Meeting in Metro Manila. The five issues highlighted in the meeting were: 1. the interacting demands of climate reform and humanitarian action, 2. emerging challenges of online sexual exploitation, 3. trafficking and modern forms of slavery, 4. children’s education concerning their rights, especially in conflict and abuse situations, 5. protection of freedom of religion and belief.

“It was an excellent opportunity for me to actively know, engage, share, and learn from faith leaders and experts from the government, non-government organizations, and communities on issues that affect most Filipinos.” -- Andy Alegre

The engagement and meeting were significant for Andy, his advocacy, and his community because, according to him, they amplified the issue to various leaders and promoted collaborative recommendations and action.

The Importance of Embracing Differences

After the plenary session of experts sharing the five topics, almost 90 meeting participants were divided into five groups based on the thematic areas. Andy moderated one of the breakout sessions, focused on the online sexual exploitation of children, with 29 attendees which he states did not go without its challenges.

“The breakout session was designed to elicit recommendations from attending representatives from various government agencies, non-government organizations, faith-based communities, and networks. I started by calling in some discussion starters to share challenges, best practices, and initial recommendations on the issue.”

Andy recalls that one of the challenges moderating the session was balancing the time for all breakout attendees to elicit valuable input and stay on the course of the discussion quickly.

“Some participants wanted to share much input, but the session had a limited period, and I had to gently remind them to wrap up so as not to take the time reserved for others.”

Another challenge, Andy adds, was summarizing the main points shared and ensuring that all recommendations were captured when wrapping up the discussion.

Since he engaged with representatives from the government, church institutions, academia, and faith-based organizations, he also shared some advice on how to best work with people from different backgrounds.

He reminds us of the importance of valuing anyone with a unique way of expressing, responding, and contributing to solving an issue that affects us.

“Embracing differences and respectful acceptance are approaches I use when working with people from various backgrounds. I also ensure to address them with the title that they want to be addressed. It is also helpful for me to engage these various representatives because of my experience serving in these institutions and knowing the system and culture.” -- Andy Alegre

Andy believes that being respectful and open are valuable traits that allowed him to be successful in his engagements.

GATHER Platform - An Inclusive and Diverse Program

Andy met grassroots leaders from around the world two years ago to learn and work together, as a Community of Practice, through the Goldin Global Fellows program, which he cherishes today.

“My experience as a Goldin Fellow has been excellent as I learned valuable lessons, methods, tools, and approaches in my community development and engagement work.” he says.

While discussing influential resources, Andy mentions the GATHER platform:

“The GATHER platform tremendously contributed to my learning as a professional and community activist. The platform was easy to navigate and use and facilitated intuitive and practical learning by providing useful concepts and examples for community leaders like me." -- Andy Alegre

In addition to the content on the platform, what enriched Andy's learning was his fellow cohort members' meaningful and valuable reflections and contributions.

“I also appreciate that the program is so inclusive – multi-generation, multi-faith - with fellows from all over the world with diverse backgrounds and identities” he says in a conclusive note. 

Suggested Article:

Meet the 2023 Goldin Global Fellows English Language Cohort

Empowering Her Community for Peace: A Goldin Global Fellow's Journey

In this captivating piece, Santoshi Wagle, a 2022 Goldin Global Fellow, shares her experience and reflections leading an event for International Peace Day 2022 in her own country, Nepal. 

Santoshi unpacks her challenges, the invaluable lessons she learned, and the profound impact she is making by using the skills she gained through her Goldin Fellowship and the transformative Gather platform

She initially highlights the experience as extraordinarily enriching by further explaining that students, youths, and community groups came together through this celebration: “The participants explored the existing conflicts and causes of violence, the role of peacebuilder, qualities of peacebuilder peace-building process, emotional awareness, emotional regulation, and conflict transformation.”

According to her, coming together was necessary for the community to address common issues and find practical solutions and action plans for sustainable peace and social change: "With the growing conflict among humans at internal and external levels, the event turned out to be a self-reflective program.” she adds. 

These meaningful community initiatives come with challenges and hardships too. While discussing this, Santoshi brings up the challenge of bringing the women group together: "Despite their [women’s] interests and will, it was challenging for women to find the time for this activity because of their responsibility to care for their children and daily work.”

Nevertheless, in collaboration and coordination with her local partners, namely NVC practice group Nepal, Radha Krishna Aama Samuha (women group), and Srijana Secondary School, they covered travel expenses and some allowances for women participants: “We also managed a caregiver to care for children during the event, so we could include the mothers having small children.”

In hindsight, she also reflects on the importance of the event timing (holidays seemed better) and the arrangements of essential expenses for participants and pre-sessions. For this, Santoshi emphasizes the pivotal role of safe circles: "Those safe circles are where we can discuss and empower the groups to discuss widely in the community event, so every voice can be expressed and fully heard.”

She also acknowledges how this one-time event turned out very challenging to balance the power and openness among the participants: “Regular meetings and follow-up events are important for sustainability, awareness, and empowerment for promoting peace and social justice.”

On a positive note, Santoshi connects the successful completion of this event with the skills she learned during the Gather course while being a Goldin Global Fellow: “The creative insights that I learned during the course, in identifying community assets, community visioning summit, the idea of technical challenges and adaptive challenges, the importance of bringing the community together into the discussion for the collective issues and developing shared agreement and follow up were constructive in successful implementation and create wider impact in the community.”

“Gratitude to the Goldin family for the profound wisdom that I received during and after the fellowship”, she adds in extension to her appreciation for Goldin’s journey.   

She and her team also organize regular meetings, community events, and international day celebrations due to community visioning to strengthen grassroots communities and promote sustainable social change. 

This year, she is conducting workshops on nonviolent communication for teachers and women groups, continuing with women groups conducting safe listening circles and awareness programs against the dowry system and caste discrimination as a follow-up to last year's activities: “I invite the wider community to join this program and synergize to create a wider impact. Let's join hands to have peace and harmony in this land.”

Conclusively, she invites volunteers to join the programs in schools and communities, organized with her partner organizations The School of Nonviolence and Srijana Secondary Schools: “We offer an opportunity to learn, share and play with the wider community.”

Meet the 2023 Goldin Global Fellows English Language Cohort

by Yusuph Masanja, Co-Facilitator, Goldin Global Fellows

The Goldin Institute is proud to introduce the 2023 Goldin Global Fellows (English Language Cohort)!

2023 Goldin Global Fellows

We invite you to learn about each of the outstanding Goldin Global Fellows who live and work in Albania, Bangladesh, Burundi, Cameroon, Ethiopia, India, Kosovo, Malawi, Mali, Nepal, Nigeria, the Philippines, Senegal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, the United States and Zimbabwe. This diverse group of fellows will learn and work together as a Community of Practice, building on the talents of their neighbors and the assets of their communities to make real and lasting change around the world.


The Fellows are learning together through GATHER, which is both a mobile platform for shared learning and a curriculum for people who want to build on the talents of their neighbors and the assets of their communities to make real and lasting change. Gather Fellows learn and work together through an innovative curriculum that comes pre-loaded on a tablet device with all the connectivity, materials, videos, practices and tools necessary to provide a mobile classroom and toolkit for community leadership.

The Goldin Global Fellows connects and equips grassroots leaders across the world to lead community driven social change. The 2023 Goldin Global Fellows is the fifth international cohort to utilize the GATHER platform, an online learning hub built by the Goldin Institute to empower grassroots leaders. They will engage in a 22-week course of intensive shared learning as well as group projects, culminating in a graduation event in Fall 2023. The curriculum has been designed and refined in collaboration with the Fellows themselves, based on their practical knowledge and hard earned wisdom, with input from a wide range of civic leaders. 

To follow along the learning journey with the Goldin Global Fellows, please sign up for our newsletter and follow up on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

Meet the 2023 Goldin Global Fellows Spanish Language Cohort

by Lissette Mateus Roa, Co-Facilitator, Goldin Global Fellows

The Goldin Institute is proud to introduce the 2023 Goldin Global Fellows (Spanish Language Edition)!

We invite you to learn about each of the outstanding Goldin Global Fellows who live and work in Chile, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Russia, the United States and Venezuela. This diverse group of fellows will learn and work together as a Community of Practice, building on the talents of their neighbors and the assets of their communities to make real and lasting change around the world.

The idea to have a Global Fellows program for Spanish speakers was suggested by 2018 Global Fellow Lissette Mateus Roa from Colombia who is the lead facilitator for this cohort. Lissette recognized that her home country of Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries to be an activist or social leader, and where solidarity and collaboration with other grassroots leaders and change makers was critical. We are proud to launch our first ever Spanish language cohort to expand the reach of the Goldin Global Fellows community of practice. We are excited to see what the Fellows achieve together.


The Fellows are learning together through GATHER, which is both a mobile platform for shared learning and a curriculum for people who want to build on the talents of their neighbors and the assets of their communities to make real and lasting change. Gather Fellows learn and work together through an innovative curriculum that comes pre-loaded on a tablet device with all the connectivity, materials, videos, practices and tools necessary to provide a mobile classroom and toolkit for community leadership.

The Goldin Global Fellows connects and equips grassroots leaders across the world to lead community driven social change. The 2023 Goldin Global Fellows is the second international Spanish language cohort to utilize the GATHER platform, an online learning hub built by the Goldin Institute to empower grassroots leaders. They will engage in a 22-week course of intensive shared learning as well as group projects, culminating in a graduation event in Fall 2023. The curriculum has been designed and refined in collaboration with the Fellows themselves, based on their practical knowledge and hard earned wisdom, with input from a wide range of civic leaders. 

To follow along the learning journey with the Goldin Global Fellows, please sign up for our newsletter and follow up on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

A picture of women posing at Purpose Over Pain's 2023 Mother's Day event.

A New Resource for Victims of Gun Violence

By: Zeki Salah, Communications Associate

A new resource for families of victims of gun violence was recently launched by 2020 Chicago Peace Fellow, Pamela Montgomery-Bosely. Her organization, Purpose Over Pain, recently launched a 24-hour crisis response hotline for people coping with the loss of a loved one from violence. The hotline is active from 7pm on Friday to 7pm on Sunday and can be reached by dialing 872-3CRISIS  or (872) 327-4747.

Since its inception in 2007, Purpose Over Pain has expanded from a small non-profit run by parents of victims of gun violence to an organization with full-time staff that work Monday through Friday. The organization provides positive development activities for children and youth, advocates for and promotes safer communities, and strengthens families by providing crisis support to parents or guardians whose children have been victims of gun violence. Most of Purpose Over Pain’s services are provided on weekdays, which up until now has left a gap in the services provided to families of victims of gun violence over the weekend.

The crisis response hotline is intended to serve families at any point during the weekend, which is when gun violence tends to peak. Prior to opening the hotline, Purpose Over Pain would receive messages and calls throughout the weekend from people needing support after friends or family members had become victims of gun violence. Pam explains:

 “Over the weekend, people struggle, because that's when the violence is extremely high. So, while we are available Monday through Friday, I wanted to be available on the weekends, but not my full time staff since they are survivors too.” 

Purpose Over Pain Staff pose for a group picture.

Purpose Over Pain hired four operators to work the gun violence prevention hotline over the weekend, so that Purpose Over Pain’s existing staff would not be overburdened. 

All of the operators have first hand experience with gun violence, having lost either children or relatives, and are trained to listen to and provide guidance to people dealing with a tragic loss. Pam describes the role of the responders:

We want to be there to support people and let them know that they’re not alone. Our staff is there to listen. Many parents have their children shot and killed in the middle of the night and might receive a call at 2 in the morning with the news. You can’t sleep after news like that, so we wanted to make sure that there is someone there to listen to them, to provide support, to provide guidance, and to provide resources.

Pam also works on the hotline covering for the other responders in case they are unavailable or if it is the anniversary date of their loved one being murdered. 

Purpose Over Pain held a mother's Day event in 2023 for mothers of gun violence victims.

Resources that the operators can link victims include support circles, counseling, financial resources, and job programs. Purpose Over Pain offers memorial services, support days, and mentoring sessions as part of its regular programming. Hotline operators can also link victims to outside resources. For instance, hotline operators often help victims fill out a Crime Victim Compensation Form. This form is part of the Illinois Attorney General’s Crime Victims Compensation Program which is intended to reduce the financial burden imposed on victims of violent crime and their families by providing up to $45,000 for expenses incurred by eligible victims as a result of a violent crime. Purpose Over Pain also has a full resource book that can link victims to programs that provide housing, food, clothes, and jobs. They network with other organizations, such as St. Sabina’s, so that they can connect victims with resources close to them and that are relevant to their needs. 

Purpose Over Pain’s hotline is the first of its kind in Chicago, previously there was no 24-hour crisis hotline for the friends and families of victims of gun violence. Now, victims can be supported by community members that have lived through similar experiences. Pam emphasizes, “When you call and they pick up the phone you’ll have a survivor, someone who understands what you’re going through. It’s not like you’re getting an automated message, you’re getting a live voice. I don’t want people to think they’re alone because they’re not, we’re here for them.” The Purpose Over Pain hotline has been created by community members for community members and will continue to provide pertinent and needed care to victims of gun violence.

Goldin Institute Summer GATHERing: The Power of Solidarity

We invite you to join us for the 2023 Goldin Institute Annual Summer GATHERing on XX from YY to ZZ at ABCD place. This year we'll celebrate those on the front lines of building the trust and solidarity necessary to defuse situations when they arise. More and More.

Camp Duncan Brings Social Engagement and Smiles to Chicago’s Youth

The girl in this picture is Malia Causey, a nine-year-old from the Austin community in Chicago who lost her brother, Malik, to gun violence in 2016.

Her life has not been the same since the loss of Malik, who was 14 at the time of his death.

For Malia and other kids in similar situations, social activities and meaningful engagements with their peers are warmly welcomed.

"Ms. Davis, can we please ask the Goldin Institute and Talk2mefoundation to bring me back? This was really fun.''

Those are the words that Malia says to Nicole "Coco" Davis, 2021 Chicago Peace Fellow and CEO/President of Talk2mefoundation, who recently took young Chicagoans on a trip in the great outdoors at Camp Duncan.

"I like it here; no one will ever get shot or killed." Malia says further.

Malia's wishes lie in the heart of Talk2mefoundation. This non-profit organization supports kids whose parents and caregivers are incarcerated and need healing and peace through belonging to a community.

Speaking briefly to Goldin Institute about the importance of this youth camp, Nicole emphasizes the need for such support in the first place.

"They say money cannot buy you happiness, but the Goldin Institute brought 25 smiles for youths at Camp Duncan." -- Coco Davis

Thanks to the generous support of her peers in the Chicago Peace Fellows Mutual Aid Collaborative, she made it possible for these young people to socialize, learn, exercise, and dance together.

"Shout out to the Goldin Institute and the Mutual Aid Collaborative for making it possible for me to grant the wishes of 25 youths by giving them a chance to experience life outside of their normal living."

“I have so many sponsors to thank it's unreal" she wrote in this Instagram description, where you can also see the smiley faces of participants after a dancing challenge.

When becoming a Chicago Peace Fellow, Coco highlighted wanting to be part of the solution. She joined the Chicago Peace Fellows program to become a vital contributor to bringing healing and peace to communities in Chicago.

As one can see, Coco is an active voice and advocate for social justice; she keeps ties with with the Mutual Aid Collaborative made up of 74 Alumni of the Chicago Peace Fellows program as a valuable part of her community-driven approach to needed change. But the work continues beyond there.

Talk2mefoundation still needs support to continue its vital work in the community. Coco passionately advocates decriminalization and knows it takes a community to make a difference. That is why she's calling on everyone who believes in second chances and fundamental human rights to support her organization's work.

Every little bit counts, whether through a donation, volunteering, or simply spreading the word.

The connection between Goldin Institute and its fellows goes beyond the length of the program. When Fellows graduate from the Fellows Program they become part of the Mutual Aid Collaborative and the Global Alumni network that connects Chicago leaders like Coco with peers from over 40 countries across the globe.

Follow us to stay tuned for more opportunities:



Spark Center: A New Community Resource Center for South Side Chicago

The community of South Side Chicago will soon have a new center serving them: Spark Center, thanks to the tireless contribution of Jennifer Maddox, Executive Director of Future Ties and 2020 Chicago Peace Fellow. Spark Center will hopefully open in 2024, at 6330 S. King Drive, and provide much-needed opportunities for residents in West Woodlawn, including social services and other engagement activities.

Jennifer says the Spark Center name itself will hopefully spark others to see that people need resources, accessibility to programming, and community engagement "in an area that was really one of the worst blocks of the city of Chicago."

This is why Jennifer decided to establish the center, to attend to the community's vital needs and strengthen ties among young people and families in the area. The Spark Center will offer a range of programs, such as after-school clubs, workshops, assistance for parents, and a year-long program to build young people's capacity to engage in employment opportunities.

Broadening the Positive Impact on Community

The community has benefited from the work of Future Ties throughout the years, and things are only going to get better whereby they will touch even more lives with this center.

In 2021, we got a donation from BODi to purchase a Walgreens building. Purchasing this building means we can expand our programming which is currently being offered in a basement, which means we are limited in what we can provide. Our new space will allow us to triple our programming. In the basement, we have to be very selective because we don't have a lot of space." --- Jennifer Maddox

Now, with more space and opportunities, she explains how the narrative can be rewritten for good.

"We want to change the narrative about the community because what we see happening over there is a lot of trauma, crime, disorder, and chaos. We want to alter that to show that families within communities are trying to be successful. Still, they need help and support."

Although they are still in the zoning process, she gives us a sneak peek of what families and youth can expect from a day spent in Spark Center.

"Some of the programs that we offer are after-school programs. Typically, the neighborhood schools offer after-school programming, but they have over 700 students, so their capacities are limited. We get referrals from the schools and then do our community outreach to provide an after-school program. We offer an evening meal when they come in; they get a snack, they get help with their homework, if they have any issues with reading or something, we talk to their parents and see how we can help them."

Young people will also have a year-long program through which they can benefit.

"Here, we are building young people's capacities for employment opportunities. We provide training for resume building, interview skills, elevator teaching, and some soft skills they need to be job ready."

Speaking about the versatility of this center, Jennifer also elaborated on their plans to open a commercial kitchen.

"Once we build up the kitchen, it will also allow small businesses and entrepreneurs to use our space to get their brand out to people. It gets the community more engaged in what we are doing and contributes to building healthy eating habits among people."

 A Community-Based Space

Jennifer believes such community-based initiatives are crucial for the well-being of that community. She elaborated further on the engagement process of the community:

“We had community meetings, and community members had the chance to ask questions about the program, about the design. They also spoke about what they wanted to see in this space. We considered all that and worked with our architect to see if things are in the way the community was saying."

She adds that this space is for the community, and they are the ones utilizing it. She recalls that as a non-profit, they want people to see Spark Center as a place they can turn to which acknowledges them and meets their needs. For this, she understands that input from the community is vital in genuinely including and adjusting to its needs.

“We do not want a building that sits empty. We want people here. By this, we know that people in the building are using our services. We constantly wired the community. We have a flyer where people can scan a code, fill it out as a survey, and let us know what they think is working and what is not. They can also give us ideas on how they can be more engaged. We are always open to hearing new ideas.”

Building On Her Experience as a Chicago Peace Fellow

During our conversation, she touched on the importance of authentic community engagement:

"In the near future, I aim to have more parents included. We have a parent mentor program, where we work with parents and build their capacities to get them to see their best. Sometimes parents live through their children […].”

Speaking to parents, she adds "you are never too old to learn anything. We are supporting parents with their passions and things they wanted to do when they were younger."

Jennifer further explains that Spark Center has partnerships to help parents to get their high school diplomas, skills to be ready for a job, and driver’s licenses. And sometimes they also hire the parents and want them to be involved in the organization.

“Those simple things that people do not really think about are big to some of our parents, who never had someone to support them to get the things they wanted for themselves.”

When speaking about grassroots work, we could not leave aside her participation in the Chicago Peace Fellows Program in 2020.

“It was an honor to be a Peace Fellow because it made me feel I was not here alone. It made me feel that there are people across the city that were just as passionate and just as committed."

She adds that she loved listening to the other fellows' challenges and successes.

“They were so supportive of each other. It can make one have more connections; you have a whole cohort of Peace Fellows that you can call and say, ‘Do you know someone who does this or that?’ We want to know more about the work that others are doing. This is because to have peace and connectivity, we need to cooperate and spread the knowledge we have.”

Jennifer continues to implement her knowledge by dedicating herself to serving the community. As we wrapped up our interview, Jennifer shared that she is "just a woman trying to make a change in the community, coming from one service job, being a Chicago police officer for over 25 years, and now still maintaining a relationship with the community because that's the most important element to building trust."

She states the community needs change-agents that are credible and whom people trust and value.


If you would like to support the Spark Center’s cause, visit their website to volunteer, donate, or host your workshop.

You can also follow their work on social media:

Instagram, Facebook, Twitter