This past quarter, 30 students enrolled in Senior Lecturer Chad Broughton's practicum course worked closely with local nonprofit Future Ties. Not only did they dive into the worlds of qualitative and quantitative research, grant writing, and organizational strategy, they worked with Officer Jennifer Maddox.
Maddox, who grew up and now lives in the South Side of Chicago, founded the organization Future Ties in 2007. While working as a security guard in Parkway Gardens – a low-income housing complex in West Woodlawn – Maddox saw 1,200 children within a three-block radius with nothing to do.
"The kids needed somewhere they could come and just socialize, where they can get off the streets and know that there is a safe area for them to feel comfortable enough to come in and stay out of trouble," Maddox said.
Knowing this, Maddox transformed an empty space in the basement of a Parkway Gardens building into a place where children can come together. Future Ties started off as a drop-in center with snacks and board games, "but then kids started coming, and then they started coming in with their homework," Maddox explained. "Things started evolving, and so we turned this into an afterschool program to provide a safe space and meet educational needs."
Throughout the first few years, Maddox laid the groundwork for what developed into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2011. She talked with kids, with parents, and with the community at-large. Essentially, she was conducting a needs-assessment of Parkway Gardens. It was not long before she started visiting the homes of children and having one-on-one meetings with parents. Meanwhile, Maddox was a full-time police officer with the Chicago Police Department, had a part-time job, and had a family.
However, Maddox never let her busy schedule stand in the way of prioritizing Future Ties. Despite still being a full-time police officer, Maddox remains the driving force behind Future Ties. This commitment to her community is something that the UChicago students who worked with her both admire and found influential in their work throughout the quarter.
"I learned how much work people like Officer Maddox put into their communities every single day. I still have no idea how she does it, but it's incredibly inspiring," third-year Eleanor Khirallah said.
Khirallah is one student who worked with Maddox over winter quarter. While this is the first year that Maddox has been the class’s client, she has previously interacted with Broughton’s students in other classes and had also been affiliated with UChicago’s Community Programs Accelerator.
Maddox also turned out to be an ideal client for the practicum course.
“I thought she’d be a great client because she could actually use our help,” Broughton said. Unlike previous government organizations, Maddox works on a shoestring budget. The grassroots nature of Future Ties enabled students to work more closely with both Maddox and the children. The students, however, were unaware of what they were embarking upon before the first day of class.
"I didn't really know what to expect when I showed up [on the first day], but then Chad said we were going to be doing a small community-based organization, which I think is really beneficial," third-year Sarah Wasik said. Wasik then cited the fact that the University has been making an effort to give back to the community, and she thinks working with Future Ties "was a really beautiful opportunity to do that, and the work that we did really affirmed that thought."
The students hit the ground running week one of winter quarter. "In the first class, we were brainstorming what Office Maddox might need from us," third-year Tristan Kitch said. "By the second class, we decided what groups to divide into."
The five established groups were 1) the Quantitative Analysis Group, 2) the Grants and Fundraising Group, 3) the Qualitative Group, 4) the Organizational Strategy Group, and 5) the Programming and Evaluation group.
The quantitative analysis group looked at crime statistics surrounding Parkway Gardens in attempt to determine Future Ties' impact on the area over the past 12 years. The grants and fundraising group developed grant proposals and found potential grants to which Maddox could apply. The qualitative group told the story of Future Ties using the voices of parents and children from Parkway. The organizational strategy group evaluated relevant literature that could help Future Ties reach greater success as it expands. And the programming and evaluation group analyzed the impact of Future Ties on children.
Over ten weeks, students worked to provide Maddox with deliverables that would assist her in the foreseeable future, and in doing so, they learned a lot.
"I believe that working with Officer Maddox has made me see the solutions to problems that exist beyond policy alone," Khirallah, who worked on grant proposals, said. By the end of the quarter, Khirallah had secured a 20-laptop donation to Future Ties through a government grant program.
Kitch worked on the quantitative research. Having never done work in this area, he was eager for the challenge. "The hardest part was figuring out what to do with the crime rates," Kitch said. His team had to analyze specific crime rates according to city census blocks, which they had to re-block to narrow in on the particular area around Future Ties. Kitch realized through researching the impact of Future Ties that the practicum course “provides an insight into how policy directly impacts people in a way that no other class can; the seminar takes the students out of the ivory tower and puts them into the real world.”
"It's really easy to spend time in class learning about policies without ever really knowing what people are already doing to fix the problems on-the-ground, and this practicum opened my eyes to that. Community organizations like Future Ties are wildly important in the public policy realm, and I think some of my courses by nature overlook that in favor of engaging in the policies at hand, so this course made us all more aware of that," Khirallah said.
Wasik also found this to be true. Wasik recalled that "the hardest part [of the course] was coming up with a cohesive message… We wanted to exemplify the amazing work that Future Ties is doing." Over the quarter, Wasik spent two hours each week getting to know the children, so she got to experience first-hand the impact of Future Ties.
Officer Maddox also valued the attendance of student volunteers greatly. "I think [the UChicago students] enjoyed the experience. And they learned a lot as far as the challenges and the struggles that the kids go through daily – they're not always happy campers," Maddox said.
"I had this face full of whip cream, and it was pretty terrible. But the kids were having a great time," Wasik said about the time she played Pie Face with the kids.
Similar to Khirallah, Wasik found value both working with Future Ties and the practicum course in general. "Professionally, [the practicum course] is an opportunity to do actual work in the world. If I were to put forward a not-so-great policy recommendation for Future Ties, there are going to be 45 kids who are impacted by that. It really changes the stakes and changes the quality of work you want to put forward. It brings out different aspects of your ability and your personality which I thought made the practicum really valuable."
"You can do whatever you want with your life, but, at the end of the day, there are people who need your help to reach their full potential," Wasik said. And Officer Maddox is one of these people. "She is such a powerhouse, and nothing is going to stop her because nothing has stopped her yet. I have full faith in her abilities to push this forward, and I hope that we provided some resources that she can use."
Maddox recalls being able to roam about the South Side when she was younger. She lived on a block where everyone knew each other. However, over the years, some South Side communities have suffered from depopulation, a lack of public and private investment, and the erosion of social ties. Maddox established Future Ties in effort to reinforce the community in which she grew up.
"In Parkway Gardens, we are still trying to establish this sense of community," Maddox said. For this reason, she hires Future Ties staff from within. "If you're taking care of those children in the sense of the afterschool program, you have a vested interest in protecting, supporting, and making sure those youth are okay. Because not only is it a part of your job, it becomes a part of your community purpose or well-being of keeping those kids safe." (Read more about this in UChicago Civic Engagement article here).
Being a police officer, Maddox also has the unique opportunity to establish a rapport between the Parkway Gardens community and the Chicago Police. "Everybody knows I'm the police and they respect that," she said. Maddox's goal is to create opportunities for people to engage with the police. She wants police officers to become a part of the community and not just someone who works in the community.
Maddox's commitment is the reason that Future Ties is a highly-esteemed, inter-generational organization. "She is what holds it together — her personality, her as a person, the commitment that she puts in — is really what inspires these women and is holding this organization up," Wasik said." Jennifer Maddox is a woman in her community, and she saw a problem. She went out, and she changed something. And the fact that our class could help with that was amazing.”
The story of Future Ties did not end with the end of winter quarter. "It's an ongoing story," Maddox said, recalling the fact that there is a never-ending waitlist of kids. "To see the kids, coming in, every day. Just seeing their faces. Them knowing that they're about to receive a meal after being in school all day — that's a story in itself."