Ameena Matthews: Interrupting Violence on Chicago’s Streets

 By Tonesha Townsel

The daughter of a former gang leader, Ameena Matthews turned her own life around and is devoted to saving lives in Chicago.

The daughter of a former gang leader, Ameena Matthews turned her own life around and is devoted to saving lives in Chicago.

Ameena Matthews has devoted her life to interrupting violence on Chicago’s streets, as well as teaching respect and responsibility to inner-city youth.

The daughter of a former gang leader Jeff Fort, Matthews turned her own life around and now pushes for positive change through Pause for Peace. One of her goals is to stop retaliation on the front end, as reflected in the organization’s motto: “Don’t let 30 seconds of rage change your life forever.”

Matthews previously spent just over seven years working with the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention’s Ceasefire Program. The community activist was featured in the 2011 Emmy Award-winning documentary “The Interrupters.” She is known for her effectiveness in encouraging young people to resolve conflicts without violence, avoid the streets and minimize interactions with the police.

While Matthews and other anti-violence activists have been credited with interrupting dozen of incidents in 2016 alone, they stress that they could mediate more conflicts with greater resources and support from the city and community.

The Chicago police department has recorded at least 700 homicides so far this year — up more than 50 percent from 2015 and the most since the late 1990s, according to the Chicago Tribune. The peak was 970 homicides in 1974.

Matthews has also emphasized the need for a comprehensive approach to dealing with violence, understanding it as a public health issue and recognizing other factors that exacerbate it such as the lack of jobs, resources and education.

She also advocates preventive measures to keep adolescents from a life in the streets. Through Pause for Peace, for example, she offers counseling, educational programs, a summer camp, spoken word and volunteer work at a food pantry.

While her own life has been interrupted by a 2014 diagnosis of multiple myeloma that required a bone marrow transplant, she refuses to let cancer interfere with what she has described as her life’s calling.

Beyond raising awareness about the plague of violence sweeping through the city of Chicago, she has also made time to lead a Girl Scouts troop. For her work, she has been invited to speak all over the world and has received several honors, including Chicagoan of the Year, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom From Fear Award and a Community Activist Award from Black Girls Rock!

TAKING IT TO THE STREET: Ameena Matthews in the Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary “The Interrupters.”

Tonesha Townsel is an independent journalist in Washington, D. C. who frequently writes for Fierce.