Tamar Manasseh didn’t once stop painting while preaching from the makeshift pulpit of a doorway of an empty shipping container. A bandana corralled her hair as she dipped a paintbrush into a fresh can of “MASK pink.”
“I’m tired of going to funerals for teenagers who only expect to wear a suit when they’re in a casket,” says Manasseh, founder of Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings, or MASK. “If I can help keep them alive, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Ground zero for MASK is at the corner of 75th Street and Stewart Avenue, the intersection of Gunfire Violence and Mourning Mothers, in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Across from a liquor store, a once long-vacant, long-neglected lot now houses a few empty trailers that will soon become improvised classrooms for residents.
“In 2015, me and few other mothers sat on this corner for an entire day to make sure nobody else got murdered here,” says Manasseh, mom of two adult children, ages 23 and 20. “Here we are four years later still doing it. Violence happens every day here. So this is how I fight it every day.”
MASK’s new educational center will offer GED classes for local kids who never graduated from high school, as well as job skills training and other life skills.
“Kids want to believe that someone loves them, someone cares about them, someone gives a damn about their future,” Manasseh says. “If they’re here at these classrooms, then they’re safe, they’re protected, they’re doing something about their future.”
Englewood is a 3-square-mile community on the city’s south side with an estimated 26,000 residents, depending who answered their door that day. The average life expectancy here hovers around 60 years old, much younger than other more affluent, safer neighborhoods in Chicago, according to a New York University School of Medicine analysis from earlier this year. It was based on data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2010 to 2015.
Since 2015, MASK mothers have been doing everything they can to keep residents safe from gun violence, mostly by engaging with them on a daily basis while creating a new paradigm of “policing” its neighborhoods. On one summer-like weekend in early June, at least 52 people were shot, 10 fatally, by shootings across the city, Chicago police says.
Lori Lightfoot campaigned to be Chicago’s mayor on promises to better focus City Hall’s resources on neighborhoods such as Englewood, in part by injecting economic development, new jobs and school improvements. Manasseh, who hasn’t met a door she hasn’t opened, is determined to meet with Lightfoot as soon as possible.
“Let’s show the rest of our country what can happen when we educate, not legislate, our way out of our gun problem,” Manasseh wrote in an opinion piece for Crain’s Chicago Business.
Manasseh, who’s Jewish, abides by the concept “tikkun olam,” defined by acts performed to repair our cracked world. “If this cracked neighborhood don’t scream for repairs, I don’t know what does,” she says as a police siren screams in the background.
Manasseh doesn’t see problems. She sees cracks that need to be filled with whatever it takes—hard work, tough love, persistent encouragement, dogged determination or good old-fashioned grit. She’ll accept help from anyone who can use a broom, fix a broken door or has a passion to repaint the world in brighter hues.
“You leaving?” Manasseh asks a young man who helped clean up the MASK lot.
“Yeah, I got to make some money downtown,” he replies.
He’s one of the fabled Chicago Bucket Boys, the mannish boys who turn upside down buckets into makeshift drum sets to perform for tips at touristy spots across the city.
“I hear ya, Baby. Be careful!” Manasseh replies while continuing to paint.
Kendra Snow, one of MASK’s first members, is a mom of seven, a grandmother and “big mama” to dozens of other neighborhood children. In 2015, when MASK just got rolling, her teenage son got shot, twice in the back, near this intersection.
“I felt betrayed by my neighborhood,” Snow says, looking across at the liquor store on the opposite corner. “It hurt my heart, bruised my soul.”
Two other relatives also got shot near here.
“This is why I do what I do for MASK every day,” says Snow, who once snatched a loaded gun out of the hands of a young man. “I said, ‘Give me that (expletive) gun!’ And he did.”
Englewood pride runs through Snow’s veins.
“I don’t remember ever not living here,” she says. “Over the years, the violence just got out of hand.”
That’s how she met Manasseh four years ago, in the bloody wake of gunfire.
“We met because of what she do for Englewood,” Snow says.
That first day, Manasseh checked the size of Snow’s shirt so she could give her a MASK shirt to wear.
“That’s how I became a member,” Snow says.
“That’s how MASK grows, one T-shirt at a time,” Manasseh says. “You gotta do what you gotta do. You can’t give people a chance to say no.”
The two mothers love each other like sisters. They also bicker like sisters.
“All she do is walk around and holler,” Snow says, only half-jokingly.
Englewood resident Kohmee Parrett believes in the MASK cause. “Tamar lives in the clouds. Kendra lives on the ground. I’m somewhere in the middle, turning obstacles into opportunities. That’s my job. We need to franchise MASK in other communities.”
There are currently five MASK chapters in other communities across the country.
“We didn’t do this for people to only help us here in Englewood, but to also do this in their own community,” Manasseh says, dipping her paintbrush into a can of bright pink hopefulness. “I encourage mothers–and fathers–to do this where they live, too. We can all be better parents, right?”
For more info on MASK, visit the organization’s website at ontheblock.org
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This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.