Featured Articles

Monday, March 1

Chicago Area Project: A Community-Based Approach to Reducing Gang Violence

David E. Whittaker, MSW
CAP Executive Director

Seventy-five years ago, The University of Chicago sociologist Clifford Shaw developed an innovative approach to reducing juvenile delinquency. Back then, the city was plagued by gangs, as it had been historically, and Shaw created the Chicago Area Project to minimize gang influence on young people. Today, as officials grapple with the issue of youth violence, it is time to look at the remarkable story of Shaw’s work and apply the lessons learned to address gang activity and reducing violence.


In 1934, Shaw identified four areas of Chicago where crime rates were the highest. Within each community, Shaw rallied neighbors, parents, and local leaders to create programs that offered positive activities for youth. He reached out to young people who felt abandoned and listened to those who believed that no one cared about them. Through “curbstone counseling,” he recruited teens involved in gang activity and used their leadership skills to meet the community’s needs. In an even more radical move, he sought out ex-convicts as they re-entered the neighborhood and engaged them in

programs to prevent delinquency.

As a leading sociologist at The University of Chicago, Shaw conducted“ experiments” in community-building and

drew the following conclusions:

1.The problems of delinquency in low income areas are to a large extent the product of the social experiences to

which children and young people are customarily exposed.

2.Effective treatment and prevention can be achieved only so far as constructive changes in community life can be

brought about.

3.Effective rehabilitation entails the reincorporation of the offender into some socially constructive group in the


4.In any enterprise which is likely to be effective in bringing about these changes, it is indispensable that local residents, individually and collectively, accept the fullest possible responsibility for defining objectives, formulating policies, securing financial support, and exercising the necessary control over budgets, personnel, and programs.

From these conclusions, Shaw created a basis for his work and the creation of Chicago Area Project. His thesis was that communities could help themselves through the collective actions of local residents and create their own solutions to neighborhood problems. Since the 1930s, Shaw’s ideas and CAP’s work have spawned practices such as resident empowerment, leadership development, community organizing, and restorative justice—concepts that are now commonly duplicated in successful programs throughout the United States and abroad.

CAP was founded on the fundamental principle that the problems of juvenile delinquency and failure to achieve responsible adulthood are community problems that are best solved in the community by tapping its inherent leadership, knowledge, and resources. CAP successfully implements that principle by identifying and supporting indigenous leaders who can organize and motivate local residents to take responsibility for the positive development of their youth. From its inception focused on four neighborhoods, Chicago Area Project has grown to fifty-five affiliates and special projects, and reaches another forty communities in the state through the Illinois Council of Area Projects (ICAP). Each affiliate is an independent, community based organization focused on the needs and interests identified by its own leaders. In FY2009, CAP served over 16,000 youth through its affiliates, providing positive alternatives to gang activity.


The work of Chicago Area Project extends far beyond the neighborhoods where its affiliates are located to address the larger systemic issues that negatively impact young people and their families. The CAP network advocates on behalf of youth to bring about changes in the courts, the schools, and the health care system. For example, CAP played a significant role in reforming the Illinois Juvenile Justice System based on Restorative Justice Principles. Working with a coalition, CAP assisted the state in revising laws regarding the expunging of juvenile records and

addressing the issue of disproportionate minority confinement. CAP’s Juvenile Justice Diversion Project (JJDP) offers an alternative to court adjudication for first-time offenders. Through a partnership with the Cook County State’s Attorney Office and Division of Probation Screeners, JJDP provides youth the opportunity to participate in positive activities that integrate them into neighborhood programs which provide educational support, leadership

development, and other services in their own communities.

CAP often serves as a convener in bringing together others—sometimes very disparate groups and government agencies—to work toward improving the lives of young people and their families. For example, CAP was a leader on the Chicago Public Schools Task Force that achieved inclusion of Restorative Justice as a response to behavior problems and negotiated the elimination of zero tolerance from the discipline code. Since 2005, CAP has worked in

Partnership with others to train over 600 principals and assistant principals on restorative justice approaches. CAP partners with several CPS Administrative Offices, including the Law Department, Department of Specialized Services,

Student Development Department, and works either directly or indirectly with sixty CPS schools. Similarly, CAP advocated with others to have the state provide universal health insurance for children. Once the legislation was enacted, the CAP Network helped families throughout Illinois enroll their children in the state’s insurance program.

In addition to advocating on behalf of youth in the courts, schools, and health care system, CAP addresses the issue

of unemployment. The state looks to CAP to provide social services, such as employment training and placement,

particularly for the underemployed, chronically unemployed, and those recently released from incarceration. In the past decade, CAP’s Workforce Development Unit has grown from assisting an average of fifty people in finding employment each year to assisting 2,000 people annually today. Strong relationships with companies help CAP develop training programs that fit corporate needs while addressing issues such as transportation, substance

abuse, and child care that are barriers for potential employees.

Since 2002,CAP’s Training Unit has worked with national and local partners to offer a continuum of youth worker

Training leading to certification and academic credentialing. These training programs, offered to both affiliate and

non-affiliate staff, have given numerous community-based youth workers the chance to gain a credential that advances their professionalism both within their own organization and with other agencies in the field. CAP is the designated trainer of choice for Advancing Youth Development (AYD) training to Chicago Department of Family & Support Services (DFSS) Delegate Agencies, Chicago Park District employees, and After School Matters instructors.

These are the types of broad-based partnerships that allow CAP to bring about significant change on issues

impacting children’s lives both locally and throughout the state. Early on in the development of CAP, the state recognized the importance of reducing delinquency and provided funding for CAP through the Illinois Commission on Delinquency Prevention. Even after the disbanding of the commission, the state continued to view CAP as its primary prevention arm by supporting youth programs and services. Today, with a budgetary crisis at the state level, funding has been severely reduced for youth programs, and that impacts the communities’ ability to serve their young people. And yet, the inherent cost savings of providing youth activities remain obvious. It costs $1,000–$3,000 to offer positive activities per child compared to an estimated $30,000–$75,000 to incarcerate a youth in Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. The challenge for community-based organizations is to serve more youth with fewer resources in an economic downturn.


One important way that CAP helps local groups do more with less is by assisting efforts to build their capacity to serve youth and families. Capacity-building at the organizational level means fully developing the structure of a community group. This includes board development, diversifying funding, and increasing resources to ensure the sustainability of an organization.

Capacity-building at the program level helps local leaders identify their most serious problems and develop their own solutions. This involves reviewing current programs to analyze who the organization is serving and exploring ways to both improve and expand services.

Capacity-building also takes place at the individual level, as CAP provides staff and leadership volunteers with the knowledge and skills needed to address complex issues. Whether it involves a youth worker, an executive director, or a board member, raising the individual’s level of expertise enhances the operation of the entire organization. This type of capacity-building is much more valuable than bringing in an outside consulting firm whose efforts to improve the organization yet dissolve once the consultant leaves. In partnership with the Compassion Capital Fund through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, CAP implemented a three-year initiative designed to address gangs and youth violence by strengthening the infrastructure of emerging grassroots organizations, enabling them to expand programs and enhance youth services.



According to Clifford Shaw, “Every neighborhood has the leaders it needs to solve its own problems.” The concept of indigenous leaders developing their own solutions is the key to CAP’s work, whether it’s providing direct services, advocating, or community organizing.

CAP’s original mission has not changed since its origins. By recognizing young

people as assets in their communities, CAP promotes Positive Youth Development. Young people and adults work in

collaboration to implement projects geared towards crime prevention and community development. Through the ICAP

Network, this approach has been successful in reducing delinquency throughout the state of Illinois, in cities

from Rockford to Cairo. The principles of indigenous leadership apply in rural communities and suburbs, as well as inner-city neighborhoods. To reduce the gangs’ influence on young people, Illinois residents need not search far and wide. The solution lies in identifying local leaders within each community and supporting their efforts to take responsibility for developing their youth.

David E. Whittaker, MSW, has served as CEO of Chicago Area Project since 1986.Prior to that he was dean of educational administration at Daniel Hale Williams University. David received his master’s degree from The University of Chicago School of Social Services Administration. David was recently appointed to the new Illinois Human Services Commission by Governor Pat Quinn. In addition, he currently chairs the Social Services Advisory

Council which provides policy and program recommendations to the Illinois Department of Human Services. The Chicago Area Project will mark its 75th anniversary with a conference on delinquency prevention and positive youth development on April 29–30, 2010, at The University of Chicago Gleacher Center. Those interested in attending can contact 312.663.3574 or visit chicagoareaproject.org for more information.

Posted on 03/01/10 at 10:14 AM


Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Starting, Maintaining, and Expanding a Successful Private Practice 2018 (Chicago)

More Information

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Chicago District Event: BYOB Dine and Paint (Chicago)

More Information


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Starting, Maintaining, and Expanding a Successful Private Practice 2018 (Chicago)

More Information

Thursday, November 15, 2018

CO-SPONSORSHIP: Trauma - Strategies for Resolving the Impact of Post-Traumatic Stress (Chicago)

More Information

  • 11-14-18

    Starting, Maintaining, and Expanding a Successful Private Practice 2018 (Chicago)

  • 11-15-18

    CO-SPONSORSHIP: Trauma - Strategies for Resolving the Impact of Post-Traumatic Stress (Chicago)

  • 11-17-18

    Chicago District Event: BYOB Dine and Paint (Chicago)

  • 11-27-18

    East Central District Networking Event: November 2018 (Champaign)

  • 11-30-18

    LSW/LCSW Review Course 11.30.18 (DePaul Center)

Calendar »

Become a member of NASW today!


Visit the CEU Opportunities page to find free CEU events for NASW Illinois members!

Continuing Edcuation

Consider joining one of our social networking groups.