From Exception to Norm

Chasing23’s Darius Ballinger writes about how he’s channeling pain to elevate potential

I went through a lot growing up, had real pain: When I was five, my father died from a seizure; I’m the oldest of two, raised by a single mother. I spent most of my adolescent years in West Pullman. I didn’t see black men do anything other than be entertainers, athletes or criminals. There were men who worked regular jobs and did for their families, but you didn’t see them often. My view of life as a black boy in Chicago was sports, music and crime— my male family members were engaged in criminal behavior, and I looked up to them as a my father figures; as a young boy, I couldn’t understand and didn’t experience trap or drill music as separate from my reality because it reflected my reality. And life got real, real challenging…I was a high school dropout, expelled from two CPS high schools; I became a teenage father; I lost three friends to street violence; and I was a convicted felon, on the verge of giving up on life.

My homie — Wayne “Chase” Marion Drummer — always inspired me to think beyond my present struggles. Like all kids, I wanted to be somebody, do something; I believed that I could be an entrepreneur, be prosperous, be happy…and as I got older that dream was fading away. But he affirmed my dream, let me dream even when my mistakes and struggles made me doubt myself.

Then Wayne was fatally stabbed at the age of 23. He was gone.

I founded Chasing23 in the wake of his tragic loss. I may be uniquely positioned to do the work of bringing peace to communities because I was once part of the destruction of communities, but this work will take more than just me. I think it’s funny when people attribute the word “activist” to me; no doubt that activism is necessary, and in my mind, those are the folks who demand that institutions, that society, fix the wrongs of our communities, while I’m more concerned with building communal infrastructure that protects, promotes and creates positivity. Then, when we have that communal infrastructure, we can protest together, and when society says “no” we, together, can say, “YES!” Every resident of these communities plagued with gun violence, poverty and deficit, they are the solution, they can bring peace — I’m just one individual who’s overcoming insurmountable odds, with the No. 1 goal of inspiring and believing that others can to do the same. Peace will take all of us, and I hope the possibility for change can start with me.

Change is not an easy thing, especially when our culture suffers from generational trauma. It’s a constant struggle to make your voice heard when people — conservative, wealthy, educated, religious, whatever — have ignored or degraded you for so long. And then you must constantly humble yourself when helping other brothers and sisters overcome the challenges we face. When Chasing23 youth managers make follow-up calls, home visits and school visits, we have to remember how fragile things are, how volatile things can become. Leading in the midst of this requires a great sense of humility and responsibility, we must bring that to the work we do daily.

That’s part of why I started Chasing23 as a nonprofit; I definitely didn’t have tons of money I could dump in to it, but it also isn’t about having it survive only on philanthropic dollars, either. I just knew that I wasn’t going to make a for-profit venture off the passing of my friend, and I had to keep the spirit of what inspired me.

That means Chasing23 is for the world to embrace, and that can be hard. All my life I wanted to start something (that’s what I would talk to Wayne about), but I didn’t know that I wouldn’t “own” the first thing I built, and worst case scenario, that I can be voted out by the board! But the mission is bigger than profits, and if any at time I act in a manner that doesn’t benefit the organization, then I deserve to go: It’s about saving lives and developing the next generation of men, families, and communities.

I recently hosted my second Chicago Community Trust On The Table event, focused on improving life outcomes for black boys and helping them live to their full potential despite their circumstances. It was inspiring to see people come out, to know that I wasn’t the only person who truly cares: I’m only one man, but there are thousands of black boys who need help. Just before On The Table I’d attended the BME Genius Conference in Washington D.C., a gathering of black males from across America; it was an inspiring and affirming event, and one major insight I took away from the meeting was that philanthropies and organizations must use an asset framework when providing direct services and reaching out to communities. Put another way, people should be defined by their aspirations, not solely by their circumstances, and given my story,that really resonated with me.

And meeting President Obama in 2017 also was a great experience, something I’ll be able to tell my sons about when they get older.

On the Table is about listening. I heard from these young men that they love one another. They love their families. This emotional connection is forming a shield that is, at the moment, protecting them from a hostile world.

There is an enormous amount of emotional pressure on these (if not all) young men; for example, the young men who participated in the Chasing23 On The Table talked about the pressure to NOT be a “goofy,” someone who’s bullied or intimidated. They talked about being disrespected by teachers to the point that they want to lash out; specifically, one young man wanted to punch his physics teacher, but he didn’t…again, this is a black male teenager taking PHYSICS, and a teacher is provoking a reaction from him. And if he had hit the teacher, everyone would focus on the young person’s reaction instead of thinking about what the teacher may have done to make HIM feel bullied, put down, unsafe.

Thankfully, the young man had the opportunity to decompress with Darius and the group about how he felt in that moment — we need to support Darius and these young men, but we also need to create a world that sees them as young men who love, who think, who dream. Darius is a clearly the type of “rocket” we need in our community; his own personal journey propelled him to be at the center of a group of boys and young men who need the ear of someone who’s been where they are. The discussion is not possible without Darius.

—Daniel Ash, Chief Marketing Officer, The Chicago Community Trust

My platform isn’t about me. It’s about writing a new narrative for black boys in America. My story of redemption is one that I hope inspires other young brothers who face adversity and gives them confidence that they can overcome what we’re dealing with here in Chicago — our challenges are rooted in a history of segregation and corruption, I think that feeds the violence; local residents like myself are doing work to heal and build communities, but we’re fighting against large systemic forces that overshadow the good work that happens on the ground, AND we’re fighting in our communities. But Chicago is a global city, and what happens here can have an impact on the country and globe at-large: We’re making progress daily, and that’s what we need to hear about more.

For now, I may be an exception: In the future, I hope to be the norm.

This is a story about the Community Safety and Peace and Street Outreach, Support Services and Jobs strategies of the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities.