(Photo: Diane Latiker)
Long before this summer’s intense crescendo of gun violence in Chicago, Diane Latiker, mother of eight and founder of youth organization Kids Off the Block, felt something stir inside her in 2003 as she shuttled her then 17-year-old daughter and her friends to a dizzying flurry of activities around the city to keep them from the perils of gangs, gun violence and drugs and alcohol.
Latiker instinctively felt that if her neighborhood's children were engaged, they would be less likely to fall victim to the pitfalls of the streets. But in response to this feeling, Latiker didn’t just sit on the idea. Instead she began welcoming neighborhood children into her apartment for mentoring, homework help, meals or just to hang out — and she hasn’t looked back since.
In light of Chicago’s recent struggles to stop gun violence among the city’s youth, BET.com spoke to Latiker about her mission and how she developed the courage to open a door that many others would have closed.
BET.COM: Now that the program has moved out of your home, what does Kids Off the Block do today?
DIANE LATIKER: We do tutoring, mentoring, music, sports, community service. When funds allow, we take young people out of town to meet other young people like them on the same block. We’ve been in 21 cities so far. We go to those cities on the weekend when they’re out of school. We go out and let them walk the blocks. We target those violence-ridden blocks and let them talk to the other kids about changes and things they can do.
Then we do non-traditional stuff like buy coats in the winter for a kid who wears four or five hoodies to stay warm during zero-degree weather. Or, we take them back and forth to school when they get into it with other young men on different blocks and they can’t walk to school anymore or take that bus through there. We do whatever’s necessary.
What were the early days like?
They [children] would come sometimes at 12:00 and 1:00 at night, whenever they needed help. Some of them didn’t have clothes for school in the morning. Some of them were homeless. Some of them were in trouble in the gang and they needed help. There was just all kind of stuff. They would come at 3:00 in the morning. They would come at 6:00 in the morning.
How do young people find out about your organization
If you ever want to get anything out all you’ve got to do is get some young people to like you because they’re the best advertising that you’ve ever had in your life. If they like something they will tell the world about it. When we were growing there were people that would tell each other, “You need to go see Miss Diane, she can help you with this. She can help you with a job. She can help you get in school.”
Were you ever scared or apprehensive about inviting people into your home?
Well, I was scared. But I realized I would be more scared if I didn’t do anything. I want to walk my block. I have family here. I want them to be able to barbeque in their backyard. I want my grandkids to come over and they’re safe to ride their bike up and down the street. The only way that’s going to happen is if I get involved with my neighborhood and my community.
I’ve been afraid over the years. I’ve had my van shot up. I’ve had bricks thrown at me and my mother on the porch. I’ve had gang members arrested right in front of my house who didn’t like their friends in the gang were coming in my house. I’ve been afraid. But, like I said I’m more afraid not to do anything.
What is your opinion on Chicago’s recent spike in gun violence.
Well, what’s going on is everyone thinks its gangs. But only the older young people are still connected to the gangs in the way that we think when I was growing up. The younger generation is connected to cliques. The cliques could be five gang members of different gangs on one block but they’re holding down that block. So, when you talk to these young people and you see that they’re so disconnected from society and mainstream, I mean even regarding morals and respect, nurturing and caring and discipline, they’re so removed from that.
To me, it’s a matter of poverty. We can’t give them jobs the way they should have because they’re not trained. They’re reading at second, third, and fourth grade levels and they’re 18 and 19 years old.
They don’t trust anyone, including each other. They figure, “I’m not going to live past 24 or 25 anyway. I might as well do my damnedest while I can.” So, it’s just when you look into the eyes of those young people and you see that hopelessness, it’s a feeling you never forget.
Overall, what has starting an organization like Kids Off the Block been like for you?
I was 46 when I started this. So, to find something that made me feel as good about myself and I felt so passionate about it, it was like I had an awakening after 46 years. I was always a people pleaser, so I never had that ah-ha moment in my life and that rewarding feeling of seeing those young people in gangs, dropping out of school, troublemakers, just coming to me for help, to a lady they didn’t know either. It’s just great.
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