“We’re your kids, too.” Why Shay Knox won’t give up on her neighborhood

Her Chicago neighborhood has seen better days. But Shay Knox doesn’t want to move somewhere else – she wants to build a better community.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A mural on the side of a church in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood alludes to the violence on the city’s Southwest Side.

Shay Knox knows a few things about change. 

Raised on Chicago’s Southwest Side, she’s seen firsthand what can happen when a community takes a downturn. Her beloved neighborhood, Back of the Yards, is a shadow of the place she fell in love with as a child.

“It was beautiful in the summertime,” she recalls. “You would see just a ton of young people with colorful beach towels all heading to the pool to have fun. ... Nowadays, kids can’t go to the corner store to get a loaf of bread because of fear of getting shot.”

She’s not even considering moving, though. She aims to “be part of the change to bring things back how they used to be.” Today she is an outreach supervisor for the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago and works with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, the subject of a recent cover story. But she has her own story to tell.

Titi Shay, as she’s known around the neighborhood, has become many things for her community, from friend and counselor to job coach and violence interrupter. At one point, though, it looked as if the forces pulling her community down might take her with them. 

At age 14, she was eagerly anticipating her eighth grade graduation. Her parents were separated and she had been looking forward to seeing both of them at the ceremony. On the phone just days before, her father told her how excited he was to watch her graduate. But when she scanned the crowd, he was nowhere to be found. He had been arrested and ended up spending 32 years behind bars.

Her father’s incarceration became a turning point for the family. As additional burdens shifted to her mother, “me and my brother, we had to kind of survive from the streets,” Ms. Knox says. “I began selling drugs and was back and forth, in and out of jail.”

During one stint in jail, she met a woman who seemed particularly strong to her, but nevertheless the woman broke down crying with worry that her children weren’t getting proper care in her absence. Recalling how devastating her father’s incarceration had been, Ms. Knox promised herself, “If I ever have children I’m never coming back to jail.”

Shortly after her release, she became pregnant with her first child. True to her word, she found an inventory company willing to hire formerly incarcerated people and got to work. Soon promoted to supervisor, she encouraged friends to join her. “We would take the bus together,” she says. “Previously, maybe a year before, you would see us in gang colors. Now you would see us in work uniforms. It was just great.”

That story plays prominently in her work with young people who come through Precious Blood. She tells them, “It’s OK to change. Change is good.”

Over time, Ms. Knox has witnessed the growth that can come from even one individual deciding to invest in positive change. Helping young people to see that is a constant tightrope. One minute she’s gently feeling out – never probing – whether a teen has enough to eat. Another she’s helping a mother mediate between sons caught on opposite sides of a gang battle. The work is both rewarding and draining, particularly when she encounters her own personal struggles.

When her oldest son died after illness, “I almost wanted to give up and forget everything,” she says. 

Then she got a call from a young man she had been working with in the community. “Please don’t leave us. Please don’t quit the job,” he said after offering his condolences. “We’re your kids, too.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” she assured him. “I love and appreciate you. And I’m right here when you need me.”

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