18 Jun 2020

On the Ground: Tony Raggs, Safe Streets Program Manager

Tension from racial injustice, racism, violence, Covid-19, high unemployment, and other related issues continues to plague and oppress communities around the country. During this time, ALSO’s outreach team continues its important work. 

Tony Raggs, Safe Streets Program Manager, is wearing a neon yello ALSO face mask to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

In a time of social distancing, Safe Streets Program Manager Tony Raggs is sometimes asked how ALSO can be out in the community during Covid-19. One answer, he says, is that members of the organization’s outreach team are recognized as essential workers by the city of Chicago. They practice social distancing, use hand sanitizers, wear masks, and pass out public information about the pandemic while working to prevent violence. In sum, they have adapted and are still closely connected to the community during this crisis.

During Memorial Day weekend this year, the outreach team responded to two shooting incidents in Humboldt Park. “When that happens, we get calls from personal contacts as well as hospital responders,” says Raggs. “Once the team is on location, we gather information about what happened and follow up from the victim’s standpoint. We also try to mediate with the people who are involved. Every situation is different, and every response is different.”

Raggs says that the team responds to multiple forms of violence – including interpersonal or domestic violence incidents that may spill into the community.

Outreach workers not only know each other, members of the community know them as well. The diverse outreach team reflects the largely African American and Latino community that it serves.

“Members of our outreach team work hand in hand,” he says. “Every outreach worker gets a mapped zone of where they will work, based on where they are more influential and have the most credibility. Outreach workers also stay in touch with participants and their families.”

Outreach during Covid-19

Outreach work, of course, has been different during the pandemic. “These days, we’re doing mobile monitoring in places where there are large gatherings,” Raggs says. “Community hot spots change periodically, and we keep an eye on them.”

“Memorial Day came the week before the state reopened many places,” he adds. “There were a lot of misconceptions that because of that, there is an end to Covid-19. But we still have a long way to go. The older generation is a lot more cautious than the younger generation. Many in the younger generation think they can’t catch it or may not have underlying or pre-existing conditions. But we really don’t know, because it’s invisible.”

Raggs adds that, in some cases, people may think that the quarantine is over because it’s getting warmer out – and that the heat will kill the virus. But that’s not true. “We get the word out that the virus can be transmitted in any kind of weather,” he says.

“Overall, more people,” he adds, “are starting to understand what this means. We remain vigilant about getting the word out. For us, it’s about being persistent, doing the work – and practicing social distancing.”

Partners in Outreach

Meanwhile, Raggs emphasizes how the outreach team connects with partner agencies that work in other communities. “Outreach workers know other outreach workers, and that helps us mediate. It’s about relationships, and we are often dealing with the same issues.”

For example, during Covid-19, the Safe Streets outreach team receives boxes of dry goods from partner agencies that can feed a small family for three days. Partners in neighboring communities include Breakthrough in East Garfield Park and the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago (INVC) in West Garfield Park and in the Austin communities. ALSO, Breakthrough, and INVC are all part of Communities Partnering 4 Peace, a partnership of leading outreach organizations working to impact Chicago communities most affected by gun violence. 

 “Elderly people in the community who are on a fixed income have been hit the hardest, and we are also donating boxes to families that have three or four people in the household. We have also offered boxes of food to families of recent shooting victims. That can lead the way to informing them about other services.”

For ALSO’s Safe Streets team, there is a deep personal component to providing outreach services every day in Humboldt Park. Outreach workers not only serve the community – they are from the community. “Our families and loved ones live here,” Raggs says. “We know what’s at stake for everyone in the community – and that includes our friends, neighbors and families.”