Taking back a lost neighborhood: Two students win grant to launch a youth peace project in Chicago

Liam Lawson ’14, left, and David Rojas ’14 have been awarded a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant to launch a youth peace project for teens from one of Chicago's worst neighborhoods.
Liam Lawson ’14, left, and David Rojas ’14 have been awarded a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant to launch a youth peace project for teens from one of Chicago's worst neighborhoods.

“Walking in my neighborhood can be like walking through a combat zone,” says David Rojas ’14. Hailing from Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, Rojas is all too familiar with the influence of gangs.   

“It saddens me that so many lives are being taken away by gun violence,” he says.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Rojas and Liam Lawson ’14 have watched their communities struggle with low high school graduation rates, poverty and gang violence. But this summer, the two are doing something about it.

Lawson and Rojas have been awarded $10,000 in funding from Davis Projects for Peace, a program that encourages students to design summer projects that promote peace and conflict resolution around the world. They will use the grant to create a youth leadership program, Agents for Change through Unity and Peace (ACT Up).

The ACT Up initiative is a six-week summer program designed by Lawson and Rojas to “expose youth from the Little Village community to the concepts of community organization and civic responsibility.” As co-directors of ACT Up, Lawson and Rojas plan to connect with 10 to 15 rising high school seniors from the Chicago area. To teach the students to be agents of change in their communities, Lawson and Rojas will lead team-building exercises, bring in guest speakers and take the students on trips to various locations around Chicago. The program will culminate in a community soccer tournament, planned and executed by the students in the ACT Up program.

Rojas and Lawson play club soccer at Connecticut College, and believe in the power of the sport – which is “huge” in that region of Chicago, they say – to bring people together in a way that can promote positive change.

“The neighborhood has a rich cultural side that must be preserved. There is too much potential good there to let the evils of the street ruin it,” says Rojas, a Hispanic studies major and sociology minor at Connecticut College.

“We kept asking ourselves, ‘How can we use our privilege of receiving a Connecticut College education and bring that to a community that is in dire need of attention?’” adds Lawson, an anthropology and music major and scholar in Connecticut College’s Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy.

The two drew inspiration for the ACT  Up program from their involvement with the Posse Foundation, a non-profit organization that identifies, recruits and trains student leaders from public high schools to form multicultural teams called "Posses" of 10 to 12 scholars who attend a highly-selective college together. Connecticut College partners with the Chicago branch of Posse, and currently has more 42 Posse students, including Lawson and Rojas.  The Posse Foundation has agreed to allow ACT Up to use their office space in Chicago this summer.

“We want to reach out to people who want to be involved and who strongly believe in the change that needs to occur. We particularly want to target seniors because of the low graduation rate in our area—we will advocate for higher education,” Lawson says.

The program is designed to help students attempt new tasks and develop new hobbies through which he or she can experience success, Rojas says. “We will work on creating and maintaining a ‘safe place’ for each student to feel part of a family away from home, enabling them to participate in activities in a place where mistakes are welcomed.”

Rojas and Lawson hope the soccer tournament the students put on at the end of the program will serve as a community engagement learning experience for the students, a community-building event for participants and a fundraiser that will help sustain ACT Up into the future.

Both are eager to use what they have learned at Connecticut College and through the Posse program to launch ACT Up.

 “There is a sense of social awareness in every one of my classes, so that’s something I’ve immediately applied to what’s happening in my home town,” says Lawson.

Rojas adds, “Connecticut College has empowered me to find my passion and study it while constituently thinking about ways I can give back to my community.”

- By Bailey Bennett '14

May 15, 2013