In a span of less than 48 hours, Diane Latiker sat in on separate events attended by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The First Lady had returned home to pay her respects to Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old honor-roll student gunned down just days after celebrating the couple’s second Inauguration.
Shortly thereafter, President Obama addressed Hyde Park Career Academy students and their city-wide peers, asking them to rise above the temptation of violence which had claimed too many lives on Chicago’s streets.
“When a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government can’t fill, only the community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole,” he said. “And so that means this is not just a gun issue, it’s an issue of the kinds of communities we are building, and in that we shall a responsibility.”
It’s then that Latiker began to wipe away the stream of her tears to muster up light applause. Each day she had been among first to arrive among the overflow crowds, prayerfully weighing on the Obamas’ every word and action.
As someone who’s been fighting crime and gang violence in her Roseland neighborhood for more than a decade, someone who’s had as many as seventy-five young gang members at once sitting in the living room of her home, Latiker finds herself confronting the issues the president spoke of daily.
But something about his address left her feeling even more angst and agitated than usual. As one of the president’s biggest admirers, Latiker was among those leading the charge in summoning him back home to confront the city’s violence.
Now, she wasn’t so sure if all the pomp and circumstance meant anything significant.
“We are fighting an epidemic like no other,” she said. “If we’re going to save our kids, do what this needs to be about, we need unity and single-minded purposefulness. I looked at all the ‘oneupsmanship’ that went on during his visit among those who would be our leaders and I just couldn’t help feeling we missed a golden opportunity to make a greater impact. I’m not afraid to say this isn’t, or shouldn’t be, about me; it’s only about helping to save our kids.”
Regardless of her emotions, the 55-year-old mother of eight and grandmother to 13 will not be moved when it comes to what she perceives as her life’s work.
For the last ten years, Latiker has essentially stood as a force of one in her Roseland neighborhood, steering kids off the streets and empowering them in the ways of self-discovery. As irony would have it, it all began when she herself was at her weakest moment.
Back in 2003, Latiker increasingly grew disheartened over seeing her then 13-year-old daughter Aisha relegated to the confines of their single-story home. Gang violence and drug war shootings were becoming rampant in her neighborhood and she simply wasn’t willing to take any chances with her youngest offspring.
She promised then that she would do all she could to again transform the neighborhood into what it was when she moved her family there from the Woodlawn area many years prior.
In the meantime, her home would become a safe house for Aisha and all her friends, a place they could all come to exhale. Soon, her doors were open to all neighborhood kids and since those early days, more than 2,000 youths have passed through her home, all of them desperately in search of that peace and sense of security the entire neighborhood has now come to expect from the woman they simply revere as “Miss Diane.”
“It doesn’t matter where they come from or what they’ve done,” said Latiker. “We’ve had as many as six gangs in my living at one time… but that was the safe place to be. And you know what? They all respected that; they all wanted to be better than their circumstances.”
In time, Latiker’s abode would officially come to be known as home of the Kids Off the Block Community Center. To purchase the not-for-profit’s first six used computers, she sold the family’s TV and various other possessions. She tirelessly worked to make kids aware her doors were open 24 hours a day, and quit her job as a hairdresser so she could always be there to greet them.
For the first seven years, all KOB functions began and ended in the Latiker household. As word of her good deeds spread, kids and individual supporters alike grew mesmerized. Soon KOB had attracted enough individual backers to purchase the abandoned building adjacent to her home that now stands as its headquarters.
Serving youths aged to 11 to 24, KOB offers mentoring, tutoring and training in such disciplines as drama, music and sports. More than 80 percent of all the programs offered are geared toward males with Latiker reasoning they are the most likely to be perpetrating or confronting street violence, which, in turn, also renders them most vulnerable to it.
Maurice Gilchrist is one of those very teens. Back in 2011, he admitted to CNN he’d been a full-fledged gang member since he was just 12-years-old. All of his days were spent looking over his shoulder for those who might mean him harm.
“We always used to jump on people, rob, steal, everything” he said. That all changed when he discovered KOB, where he spent his time connecting with others his age, eating pizza, doing homework and just talking.
By the time he finished high school, his grades had improved to the point he had set his sights not only on attending college but playing football. “Miss Diane, she changed my life and I love her for it,” he graciously said.
Latiker recalls Gilchrist as if she only met him just yesterday. She’s equally proud of a group of six KOB youth advisors who have created a music group known as “Tha Movement.” The group’s voice is aimed at combating all the negativity now current music and aimed at youths. Aisha Latiker, Jermel Barlow, Lakeesha Pace, Abdullah Brewer, Raymond Dockery and Ronald Stagger compose the group’s core.
“Our young people need help,” said Latiker. “All of them are not gang-bangers; all of them are not dropouts. But the ones that are, they need our help too. Somehow or another, something ain’t right. And why don’t we ask them about it and try to deal with it? Kids, especially those in crisis, seek attention; asking for our help is all part of what we’re witnessing.”
In an attempt to shock more community folk to action, Latiker set up a mini-headstone memorial in a vacant lot across from her home for all young people who have lost their lives to violence since 2007. Early this year, there were more than 220 stones lining a nearby lot, each of them representing the name of a victim.
During their recent spring break, students from Howard University came up to aid Latiker in planting the more than 200 additional stones she had failed to keep pace with. It served as both a sad and proud testimonial for Latiker.
“They just called me and said they wanted to spend their free time doing something positive,” she said. “That’s the unity I’m talking about, that’s the kind of togetherness we’re going to need. They understood the mission is bigger than any of us.