He Dropped Out Of High School After Witnessing A Murder. 10 Years Later, He’s Graduating.

Youth Peace Center in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood
Lorenzo Taylor, sitting in the Youth Peace Center in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood on Aug. 16, 2021. Patrick Smith / WBEZ
Youth Peace Center in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood
Lorenzo Taylor, sitting in the Youth Peace Center in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood on Aug. 16, 2021. Patrick Smith / WBEZ

He Dropped Out Of High School After Witnessing A Murder. 10 Years Later, He’s Graduating.

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Lorenzo Taylor was just 17 when he saw a man shoot and kill his cousin. Taylor was outside trying to help some friends who had locked their keys in a car when a man came out of an alley and fired at them. His cousin was hit in the back.

Violence was not completely new to Taylor. He had been involved in a gang and had started carrying a gun when he was 13 after some rival gang members shot at him on the way to school. After witnessing his cousin’s murder up close there was only one response for him and his friends: hyper vigilance.

“We literally didn’t go in the house after that. We was on the block every day, everybody dropped out of school, everybody,” Taylor said. “Because we just had to protect everything around us like, ain’t no losing no more people. Now you’ve got to protect everything that’s on this block. Which is each other.”

Taylor dropped out of school as he tried to stay alive. The gang — and the escalating violence — became his life. He spent the next decade locked in it.

“It’s easy to say just stop, but stop and then do what?” Taylor said. “We can’t move, so what, are we supposed to stay in the house forever?”

Last year, Taylor was shot by rival gang members while he was walking to the store. His first thought was revenge. But anti-violence workers from the Youth Peace Center in Roseland and the gun violence nonprofit Chicago CRED heard about the shooting and were worried about retaliation.

They got Taylor’s number from a CRED participant who knew Taylor from the neighborhood. They called him and helped talk him out of going back at the group who shot him.

This time the people telling him to put the gun down were actually offering an alternative. The CRED program offers life coaching, job training, a salary and online classes to get a high school diploma.

On Thursday, Taylor, now 28, will be one of 46 men and women from the CRED program to celebrate earning their high school degree. These are people fighting to get out of a life of gun violence. People who, like Taylor, have already started down a new path, and who are hopeful their high school diplomas will be as big a turning point in their lives as when they joined a gang or first carried a gun.

Richard Blackmon, a Chicago CRED life coach, pointed to data showing the vast majority of prison inmates do not have a high school degree as evidence of what a difference the diploma can make.

“Every time one of my guys gets a high school diploma, I shout for joy,” Blackmon said. “Because now they can check that box on job applications, they can apply for financial aid, they can go to college.”

“Understand we love you”

Also getting his diploma Thursday is Taylor’s lifelong best friend, Dantrell Jelks. Their lives have been intertwined as they descended into violence, and as they struggled to move out of it.

Jelks, 27, dropped out of high school when he was 15, after he was shot multiple times at the beach and temporarily bound to a wheelchair. He said he “forced” himself to walk again. But he was committed to his Roseland gang, and witnessing the killing two years later of Taylor’s cousin pushed him all the way into a life of violence as well.

Jelks got out of prison in 2019 after serving time for being a gang member in possession of a machine gun. At the end of May 2020, two of Jelks’ cousins were shot and killed. Then came the shooting that injured Taylor a few months later. It felt like things were snowballing.

Youth Peace Center in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood
Dantrell Jelks, sitting in the Youth Peace Center in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood on Aug. 16, 2021. Patrick Smith / WBEZ

“I had to get my head on straight and just dig deep to find myself at the time,” Jelks said.

For a long time, the close friendship between Jelks and Taylor reinforced each of their gang involvement.

But in the CRED program, the pair keep each other on the right track.

“When we were younger, we were the two that were gonna hold it down in the hood,” Taylor said. “If we could do that and be committed to the streets. We could do that with anything else.”

It only took six months for them to work through their classes and earn their high school diploma through the online school Penn Foster.

The two also quickly became leaders in the program, designated as peer mentors. Now, they’ve started their own Youth Peace Center subsidiary called “Understand We Love You,” aimed at reaching teenagers caught up in the Roseland streets.

They are working with about 10 younger guys, all between 15 and 18 years old. They bring them to the Youth Peace Center, try to give them the safe space and the guidance they’ve been getting from CRED.

“We’re coaching the younger guys from our neighborhood, the ones that we’re trying to get off the block to show them a different life right now,” Jelks said. “CRED showed us, so now we’re trying to give back to them. To show them the same thing.”

Jelks said just the other day he saw one of the kids out on the block and told him, “go home and don’t let nobody send you off, having you doing nothing you shouldn’t be doing.”

“It’s very hard, but we’re trying, and like, each day is something new with them, because … at that age, you think you know it all. So we hope seeing us change, and actually being from the same neighborhood, is going to inspire them,” Jelks said.

“Doing different with you”

On June 17, 16-year-old Deshon Reed, one of the kids who was a part of Understand We Love You, was murdered in his bed.

His friends in the program are the same age now as Jelks and Taylor were when a murder locked them into the cycle of violence. The two were desperate to prevent that from happening to their own mentees, but they were also devastated by the killing.

The two had known Deshon, who they called D-Money, since he was a baby.

“And that was a big effect on not just them, but us too. And once again, we had to grab a hold of ourselves and not go do something,” Taylor said.

The two turned to their own life coaches in the CRED program to help them make sense of their own feelings as they were trying to counsel the kids looking to them for guidance in a moment of crisis.

Taylor said they talked to the teens, told them they were at a critical moment, a moment they went through themselves and implored them to take a different route.

They knew the fear, anger and confusion the kids were feeling. And the impulse to close ranks, push everything aside except survival and violence.

“We were trying to prevent that from the start, and then just to let them know that … you’re coming to the age where this stuff starts getting real, because that’s when it got real for us,” Taylor said.

Taylor and Jelks said they are not just providing mentorship, but a model to follow; showing the younger generation they can survive in their tough neighborhood without turning to gangs and guns; offering a safe place to hang out and guidance on better ways to cope with grief and anger and despair.

“We try to show them like, we’re just not saying ‘do something different,’ we’re going to be doing different with you,” Taylor said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.