The spirit of leadership shows best when individuals put themselves on the line for the good of community. I write about this heartfelt, courageous form of leadership as aloha leadership, a committed, holistic practice of leadership that works with core values of integrity, self-knowledge, and respect for relationships. Certainly, the Interrupters are a living example of aloha and community-centered leadership. They “interrupt” violence in the streets of Chicago, sometimes putting themselves in the line of fire.
The documentary about their work, The Interrupters tells the moving and surprising stories of three Violence Interrupters who try to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they once employed. From acclaimed director Steve James and bestselling author Alex Kotlowitz, this film is an unusually intimate journey into the stubborn persistence of violence in our cities. Shot over the course of a year out of Kartemquin Films, The Interrupters captures a period in Chicago when it became a national symbol for the violence in our cities. During that period, the city was besieged by high-profile incidents, most notably the brutal beating of Derrion Albert, a Chicago High School student, whose death was caught on videotape.
The film’s main subjects work for an innovative organization, CeaseFire. It was founded by an epidemiologist, Gary Slutkin, who believes that the spread of violence mimics the spread of infectious diseases, and so the treatment should be similar: go after the most infected, and stop the infection at its source. One of the cornerstones of the organization is the “Violence Interrupters” program, created by Tio Hardiman, who heads the program. The Interrupters — who have credibility on the streets because of their own personal histories — intervene in conflicts before they explode into violence.
As leaders, these interventionists are authentic, courageous and transformative. Their personal risk goes far beyond being shot, although that may be the most frightening of the consequences of their commitment. They develop complex relationships with community members at pivotal moments in their lives — moments of loss, rage and decision. They experience a lot of joy from their successes, but there is an emotional toll from creating meaningful relationships and yet keeping enough distance to mentor people who may not choose peace over violence. Grief piles on grief in this important, difficult work.
Here’s a link to an amazing clip from a funeral of a teen boy. Watch it and you’ll see how powerful the Interrupters can be in a community, and how exhausting the work can become: Ameena speaks at a young man’s funeral…
“My brothers, we got a responsibility to bring up our community to be vibrant. Cease the fire, call a truce…” she says. And then, community member Spencer Leak talks about his work with Martin Luther King, and the senseless violence. “While I’m seeing the President of the United States (a black man) on television, I’m still burying black kids. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Leadership cannot only come from the top, but must be integrated into communities. Followers must always be leaders, just as leaders must have the humility to be followers. The fantasy of leadership makes us wish our presidents inherited a leadership wand, to fix the problems we face. And certainly, when we see something as groundbreaking as a two-term black president serving only 150 years after slavery was abolished, we must have greater hope than ever before for change.
But it is people like the Interrupters who make it possible to raise our next leaders – the next Obamas, Martin Luther Kings and Langston Hughes.