The Interrupters: Inspiring Leadership in the Streets

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.

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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.

Additional resource: For a thoughtful commentary on the source and culture of the black underclass, see this article in the Atlantic.  It offers an overview of the problem which underlines the need for leadership for transformation on every level.

4 comments

  1. This documentary was shown at the AFI documentary series in June two years ago. Ameena was on the panel afterwards. The documentary and commentary afterward showed amazing energy and was very insightful. Its too bad that no one in the community has come forward to solve the murder of the girl who was in the inauguration ceremonies(sorry can’t remember her name). The interrupters do show such courage, such an example.

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    1. Yes — such courage! I was really inspired and felt humbled by their willingness to stand up for peace in the face of such despair. It must have been amazing to hear Ameena speak in person. The most powerful message, I think, is to stop the domino effect of retaliation — whether something is solved or not. It is horrible, how so many young lives are wasted, ended before they really have a chance to blossom. At least with these activists, more young people survive and clean up their acts so they can make a difference, too.

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  2. […] Chicago’s Interrupters, who lead for peace amidst the violence of that city’s gangs, despair and poverty, these […]

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  3. […] needs. I have written in this blog about active community-based leadership programs, including the Interrupters, who step into Chicago's impoverished communities to support healing and prevent violence. I've […]

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