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Podcast / November 15 2021

From gang member to gang mediator

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On the show this week, we hear from a former gang member in Chicago who became an interrupter — a person who intervenes in potentially violent situations to prevent people from getting killed. Ameena Matthews was born into violence. Her father ran a gang and her brother was killed on the streets of Chicago. Eventually, she left that world and joined a group called CeaseFire. The idea was simple: former gang members using their street cred to mediate conflicts between warring factions. Ameena is now the executive director of the anti-violence organization Pause for Peace and a candidate for US Congress in Illinois’ 1st district.

Full Transcript

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.




From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. 




JENN: This week, we’re going to hear from a former gang member in Chicago who became an interrupter: That’s a person who intervenes in potentially violent situations to prevent people from getting killed. Ameena Matthews was born into violence. Her father ran a gang, and her brother was killed on the streets of Chicago. Eventually, she left that world and joined a group called CeaseFire. The idea was simple: former gang members using their street cred to mediate conflicts between warring factions. In this PBS documentary from 2011, you can clearly hear what a gift Matthews has for negotiating. 


And when I was about your age, I was making some real stupid decisions and some stupid calls that was causing me — my life — blood on my hands and my head. Stop.


JENN: CeaseFire was actually created by an epidemiologist who saw similarities between violence and infectious disease. His thinking was: If you go after the most infected areas, you can stop the problem at the source. The group eventually became known as Cure Violence. So you’re going to hear two stories about interventions that Matthews led, including her very first one as an interrupter. 


AMEENA: A really good friend of mine from the streets that I was raised from — at the age of 15 — called me. He had, you know, did some penitentiary time, came home, got a job at CeaseFire. And he called me and asked me to help them. He said, “Ameena, look, I know you’re just getting in, and I know you got your husband, and I know you don’t want to leave, but I need your help. There’s a guy — he plays football for Leo High School — and his mom just called Tio, saying that he’s loading up a AK-47. And we need your help. He’s going to go up to the school, and he’s going to shoot his teammates.” 


So, I couldn’t understand it — “OK, fine. What do you want me to do about it?” [LAUGHS] “I don’t know this guy. I don’t know his mom. I don’t know his teammates. I don’t know his brother. I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” So, me — sat down for maybe about — it seemed like 30 minutes, but my husband said it was three. And he was like, “You got up. You put your shoes on, and you said, ‘Bae, I’ll be back.’”


At that time, I made a couple of phone calls of some friends of mine that I knew — older guys that I knew lived in that community. And I asked them to ride with me, and I’ll tell them when I get there. And so I told them what the circumstance was. And at that time, I had a Nissan Quest, and that was the first, really, van that was so cool that you can pop it on the side, and it opens up and it looks like you didn’t do anything. You know, it was just hocus pocus. 


And OK, we found him. He was walking down the street in the direction of the school, and the guys was like, “There he is.” And they popped the back door, and he saw me, but I never knew this kid. He bailed. He ran. He jumped over a fence, and then he called back, maybe about 20 minutes later, to one of the guys and said, “What do you have sister Ameena in the car for? What’s going on? What do you — what’s going on?” Now he knows what’s going on, because he knows that his brother has been bullied by the team, his brother has autism and, you know, these guys need to be educated. But he tried to, and they didn’t, so this was the end result. So he knew — he knew what was going on with him. He didn’t know why I was looking for him. 


So they gave him the phone, and I just told him, I said, “Look, first of all — ” I said, “Do you want to talk to me?” He said, “Yeah, I’ve been wanting to meet you for a long time.” I said, “OK, fine, cool.” But a long time? I hadn’t done anything. I wasn’t an interrupter. I wasn’t — I just was a person in a community. And, and he said that he had been wanting to meet me, because of — his family knows my family. So I said, “Throw your book bag. I don’t care where you throw it, but throw it away from me. And let’s meet.” And after he threw it, I made him and the older guys go get it and give it back to me. And that’s what he did. That’s when I got the weapon. I melt the weapon down, so it would not be another firearm, another weapon of mass destruction, another death from gunfire coming from that weapon. 


I took him to Olive Garden over in Ford City, and we talked about his mom. We talked about family life. I let him in — in my life and talked about my hot mess of a family that I have, and how much of a hot mess I can be sometimes as a family member. And then we talked about the conflict just a little bit. And really, what I talked to him about was that — “Where do you see yourself in the next 18 months?” Because I know me, personally — I didn’t think I was going to get out of life past 12. I didn’t. I really didn’t. My birthday was September 28th, and it was just a little bit overwhelming for me being, you know, the age that I am. I was just so overwhelmed. But just asking him, “Where do you see yourself in 18? In a penitentiary, if you go up there and shoot in this Catholic school?” And I gave it to him in the raw, about what happens to young guys when they go into those penitentiaries. And guys that are lifers — how they treat you, you know? And then I told him, I said, “Do you trust me?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “OK.” I walked away from the table for maybe about 20 minutes, and him and the other guys was talking. And I called a friend of mine in Morehouse, and I told him, I said, “Look, I got a guy that I need you to holler at.” 


What I did tell the young guy’s mother is that, “I need to take him out this day,” because I need the other side. The football team was active as well — even though they was at a, you know, Catholic school, going to basketball — they still was actively in gangs. And they knew that he was coming. So I needed — from the other side — to work on their egos, chill them out. So I — that’s the way that I hit her, was that, “Let me take him out. I want to take him and show him some things that he’s never seen before. We’re going to go to Atlanta.” I let her know what we were going to do just a little bit. And if it’s OK with her, if he likes it, you can come. 


She allowed me to take her son over one, two, three, four states. Indiana as well. I let him drive the Quest through the Smoky Mountains, and I used some cash that I put away that, you know, the husband said, “Don’t spend this unless it’s a emergency, it has to be a tsunami coming in Chicago.” But I spent it and it was well worth spending. 


We made it to Morehouse. He’s never been on a college campus such as that, and he was having a great time. He got a brick from Morehouse. And timing is everything for me. He was able — at this time, they were offering for young African American kids to take, men to take the GED test or their high school equivalent test and their college entry test. And he did both. By the time we got back to — I think we were maybe 85 miles outside of Illinois — they were calling me saying, “I have to have this guy.” His scores was phenomenal. Not just passing the 12th grade. We’re talking about, he’s doing sophomore answers when he gave essays on these questions. “Can we have him?” So 80 miles out, I’m on the phone talking to his mom. She called me the whole weekend: “When are you bringing my son back?” Because he’s the man of the house, right? He’s the oldest, you know, he’s taking care of his brother the best way he could, but she still needed some help.  And her and I, we had a conversation of getting out of Chicago. And I said, “He enjoyed himself, and if I can get him in a good school and you don’t have to worry about him, and he likes it, if you give me 30 days, we’ll move you down there too.” 


And 30 days we moved him down there and hit the family. And him and his family, they have not been back to Chicago since 2006, 2005. Family goes to visit them. He’s going into his Ph.D. At first, he went into his — he’s just amazing. I see him on Facebook. He’ll call me and say, “Hey, what’s up?” But he will not come to Chicago. 


Even though we know other places have their struggles too, and the traumas that they’re having in other places, he didn’t adapt those traumas that was there. He merely took care of what he dreamed to be 18 months later, after we had that conversation. 


One thing my dad and my husband taught me — they used to tell me, “Ameena, you need to listen more.” [LAUGHS] “You need to listen more. You get more. You get more. You can hear more.” And once I became a violence interrupter, I really understood that, because eight times out of 10, what the person is going through has nothing to do with the conflict. The conflict was just the reaction. So if I listen, and just be quiet and let them talk about — if the conflict — if it’s their mom, whoever they love the dearest. And that’s the common effect: they always talk about — there is someone that they love, and they were bullied in school and different things. So I listen to those type of conversations. And one thing that I learned about being a Girl Scout leader is that we have more alike than different. We have more alike than different. And once you hit that alike point, the whole energy of the relationship with the young guy or girl that I am having — it turns into a real relationship. It doesn’t turn into, “Well, they said I’m a bad kid on the block,” or “I’m the bad girl. You come to me, you act up, you get snatched up,” or whatever the song is, you know. And it doesn’t become that. It becomes a human conversation, a human interaction. 


JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators. We’ll be right back. 




JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators, a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. I’m Jenn Williams. So in the first half of the show, you heard Matthews’ story about a high school football player who wanted to get back at his teammates for bullying his brother. Her second story involves a young woman named Amanda, whose relationship with another woman led to a violent confrontation. 


AMEENA: This particular person, Amanda, was a basketball player at one of the high schools in Chicago. And she was seeing this girl. They were spending the night together, they were kicking it. And the girl that she was seeing was, like, also seeing this guy. And so after the basketball game, Amanda thought that, you know, the girl was going to go with her. So she told her, “Come on, let’s go.” She didn’t. And the guy stepped to Amanda and punched her, like a guy, in the face. 


And of course, everyone that wanted to fight Amanda jumped in. Everyone that did not like the guy jumped in. So, what I had to do is make sure that Amanda was fine. At one point of time, I put my body in between her and the guy — he had to be about 17, 18; he still was playing high school ball — and making sure that he doesn’t get hurt. And at that point, when he saw that it was me, you know — you can see in his face that he calmed down. But they ended up taking it outside where Chicago P.D. was, with guns loaded. And the last thing that I wanted CPD to do is shoot some young kids because they were fighting. 


Amanda was just totally wild. She wasn’t listening to me, she wasn’t listening to her mom. So, at this point, I had CPD close a big street, so no one can come through or go back. And I made sure that she wouldn’t get to this guy. 


After she calmed down, we talked about the behavior of relationships, and that was something that she really did not understand. She’s part of the LGBTQ community, but she wasn’t understanding that there’s girls that would also see guys. And looking at how angry she was, it really — for me, when I looked into her soul and saw that anger, that rage, it had nothing to do with the girl. It’s about that — she’s struggling inside, you know. “Should I be gay or should I not? Should I act like a guy or should I not? Should I fight this guy like a guy or should I” — you know, it was things like that. And that was a conflict within herself. You know, because people, we struggle with those type of conflicts that we don’t know how to handle. And you know, the point where she was going to go get the gun? That was it for me. 


I asked the young guy’s mother, “Can we meet?” It was really kind of hard to talk to her. She wanted to fight me, wanted to fight, you know, Amanda’s mom, wanted to fight everyone. And, you know, threatened to blow our heads off. But still not hanging up, because she didn’t. And I asked her the way that we can meet. And this is part of one of the conflict mediation rules that I have, is that it can’t be more than four people. Two on one side, two on the other, because the third person is the agitator. They’re not going to listen to what we’re saying. So as I spoke to, you know, Amanda, and spoke to the mother and spoke to the gentleman, I told a story about my niece. That my niece and her boyfriend was slap boxing, and he hit her in the wrong area of her temple. And she ended up dying. She ended up dying. 


Once I told that story, you can see the mother, you can see the son, you can even see Amanda drop their heads. And Amanda did apologize to the young man. She did say, “We’re young. We’re going to be with some — a lot of relationships, like Dr. Ameena says. We have to get to know ourselves before we can even embark in a relationship with another person. I did not know that she was dating you.” And he said, “I didn’t know that she was dating you.” And at the end of the conflict, the guns were gone. The police was gone. The mothers was hugging, and the son was hugging Amanda. 


Amanda is out of high school now. She plays basketball with some young ladies, and softball with young ladies — and guys — that are part of the LGBTQ+ community. And now she’s thriving and, you know, she knows exactly who she is. She’s not fighting. She has a healthy relationship, and they have a little poochie, and they’ve gone to Loyola school. And you know, what more can I ask for? 




AMEENA: When I was asked to come to the table of CeaseFire, I thought that we were just going to be breaking up fights. “Stay on your side. Stay on your side.” But it was more than that. I learned how to listen and find the common and then build on that. 


My dad has been locked up for years. I’ve lost my brother to gang violence and had to identify his body in the Wolf River, knowing that his friends had something to do with his murder. And I had to allow the Creator to give us ease, to give us comfort and to show the wrong of each and every one of those guys that harmed my brother. So when you ask me, “What did that look like coming onto the table of CeaseFire?” I did not want another person to have to go and identify — [SNIFFLES] identify their brother in the way that I saw my brother. 




JENN: Ameena Matthews is now the executive director of the anti-violence organization Pause for Peace. She trains people around the world to become violence interrupters. She’s also a candidate for U.S. Congress in Illinois’s 1st District. 




The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today’s show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Mary Mathis, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you like the show, please follow us on your favorite platform and leave a review — it really helps. And if you appreciate Foreign Policy and are sick of reaching your article limit, we have a special deal just for you. Head over to to become an FP subscriber, and use the code “negotiate” to get a 10% discount. 


So next week, we’ll actually be off for Thanksgiving. If you’re one of our listeners outside the United States, that’s the holiday where we Americans stop and think about the people we love and the things that we’re grateful for. And then, of course, we eat insane amounts of turkey. When we come back, you’ll hear about negotiating with the Taliban. 


WOMAN: One year of negotiation was the most stressful and challenging times of my life. I could see how much people were actually hoping for a political settlement that will end this war. 


JENN: That episode in two weeks, on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.