Today, larger municipalities such as Chicago have seen an increase in gun violence that has not only taken the lives of so many people but has also changed the lives of those who regularly witness the effects of violence in their communities. One organization that has been engaged in organizing communities, faith partners, and churches, to work against mass incarceration and violence, is Live Free USA, founded in 2012 by Rev. Michael McBride. Rev. Ciera Bates-Chamberlain, a community organizer, born and raised on Chicago’s south side, learned about the organization and Rev. McBride’s work, and eventually connected with him, sharing her desire to open a Live Free office in Illinois.
A Passion to Organize
In 2017, Rev. Ciera Chamberlain launched the Live Free Illinois chapter of Live Free Illinois. In her role as Executive Director of Live Free Illinois, Rev. Ciera is committed to the fight for social and economic justice, working closely with African American church congregations to develop economically viable and self-sustained Black communities. She shared that over the years, she had a sense of doing what was right for her community. “I think growing up on the south side of Chicago – there are a lot of things we experience in the community, such as a lack of access to resources and the trauma of violence,” Rev. Ciera added. Raised by her grandmother, her own life experiences showed her the importance of advocacy, particularly for people in the criminal justice system. “I recall going into the courtroom and while white offenders were extended grace for major infractions, their black counterparts were receiving larger sentences for smaller infractions and were denied release from probation.” Rev. Ciera shared that being in the courtrooms and seeing the court system’s continued unfair treatment of Black offenders, she decided that it was time to change the system. “If we don’t change the system, the system will continue to produce violence, poor health, and broken families, because people are placed in situations that do not help them thrive,” she explained. My purpose is to organize Black churches and work to ensure our liberation is grounded in Black Liberation Theology.
The Work of Live Free Illinois
According to its website, Live Free Illinois has worked at the forefront of public safety and criminal justice in Chicago and Illinois, to transform laws and practices that keep Black communities from exercising their right to live, free. The chapter has worked to advance this vision by mobilizing faith leaders across the state and spurring significant policy changes and investments, as well as elevating the voices of people directly impacted by the policies Live Free Illinois seeks to reform. In Chicago and Illinois, two core issues have an outsized impact on Black communities: public safety and criminal justice. For decades, Chicago has led the nation in shootings, disproportionately impacting Black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. As a faith-based organizing force, Live Free Illinois seeks to grow the chorus of voices advocating for policies that transform Black communities, save lives, and actualize God’s grace in our justice system. Live Free Illinois doesn’t just organize churches. The organization has done extensive public safety work, such as Gun Violence Prevention, which develops gun violence reduction strategies, and rejects policies that criminalize Black communities; The Fund Peace Campaign, which decenters policing from public safety and centers public health strategies, agencies, and community partners; Violence Reduction Training, which develop gun violence reduction strategies. In addition, Live Free continues to address mass incarceration and police accountability and works for Criminal Justice Reform by developing a Decarceration Advisory Board consisting of community leaders who were formerly incarcerated. The Board leads efforts across the state in partnership with the organization’s Decarceration Organizer. Other areas of organizing include Fully Free Campaign, which gathers people across Illinois to push for policy change that eliminates permanent punishments; the Clean Slate Illinois Coalition, which is committed to addressing automatic expungement and sealing in Illinois. This coalition is currently working to pass comprehensive Clean Slate legislation by the end of the 2022 legislative session; and, ending Mandatory Supervised Release (MSR) which continues to oppress returning citizens by keeping them under surveillance.
Rev. Ciera provided that much of Live Free Illinois’ work over the next few months will be a community-based conversation on clearance rates for cases that are closed. “Many times, the city (Chicago) will report that they have cleared cases; however, that does not mean the cases are solved,” she added. “Live Free USA is the most powerful Black organization working at the intersection of criminal justice reform and public safety. Because we have the ability to mobilize and activate thousands of faith leaders across the country because of our unique relationships with Black churches, this equates to Black voters,” Rev. Ciera added. The organization is also planning to launch a fellowship that supports formerly incarcerated citizens by giving them tools to organize and transform policies that affect them and tools for higher success rates as they reenter the community.
For more information about Live Free Illinois, visit www.livefreeillinois.org
Donna Hammond is a freelance writer and seminarian. Social media: Twitter, @DeeLois623; Facebook, DeeLoisSpeaks.