Chicago Tribune | Lurie Children’s Hospital and Communities United have a shot to win $20M to transform mental health for Black and brown youths

By Darcel Rockett | Chicago Tribune | Sep 21, 2021 at 11:10 am

The deaths of Marques Watts’ 16-year-old brother, Derrion Umba Ortiz, and friend Caleb Reed in 2020 due to gun violence led Watts to the doors of Communities United, the survivor-led, grassroots, intergenerational, racial justice organization in Chicago.

The 18-year-old senior at Stephen Tyng Mather High School says seeing the work that Reed was doing with the organization, which centers on leadership development to achieve social change and racial justice, changed him. Watts said Reed transitioned from being “one of the goofy kids that he hung out with” to a young man using his voice to make his community better.

Reed’s “death caused me to be like ‘That’s something I want to do,’” Watts said. “The work he was doing, he was really out here trying to better his community, better the streets and stop the killing, stop all the violence. I wanted to continue that work, especially when it came to losing my little brother as well a couple of weeks before Caleb — having all that death around me really changed me mentally and I had two options: Stay in the grieving stage or use my voice like Caleb did and change what is going on.”

Caleb Reed was a leader with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, a coalition of community organizations advocating for justice in the education system. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune) 

Watts has been a youth leader with Communities United for a year, and in that time, he’s seen his school council vote in favor of removing the police offers who work as school resource officers. Parents and students said the decision was made to honor the organizing work led by Reed. Now, Watts is setting his sights on changing the mental health landscape for youth by participating in helping Communities United, in partnership with Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, develop a holistic plan for youth that moves the mental health conversation from one focused on individual treatment to one that supports community healing.

“The vast majority of kids who have been traumatized survive and recover, but they don’t always use their traumatic experience or their lived experience to do something transcendent — that is to grow post-trauma,” said Dr. John Walkup, chair of the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Lurie Children’s Hospital and professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“If you look at human beings in general that’s how we’re all built,” he said. “We have bad times, we come through those bad times, we never forget those bad times, and hopefully we learn enough from those that we can do something better in this world because of our bad times. (Communities United and Lurie) began to put together this idea: If you’ve been traumatized in your community, but you get mentorship and support, and you come together to do something to heal your communities, that you will heal yourself in the process. ... Healing your community breaks the cycle.”

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