November 13, 2015 03:10 PM

Cobe Williams grew up on the streets of Englewood, Chicago’s violent South Side neighborhood, and embraced its criminal ways.

“All my life I knew right from wrong, but I still chose to do the wrong thing, because that’s what I saw every day,” he tells PEOPLE. “My father was a known gang member, big-time drug dealer, making a lot of money, driving Cadillac cars, all fancy cars and jewelry, so that’s what I wanted to be like.”

That life led his father to a fatal end when Williams was 11. “He got beat with some baseball bats by so-called friends on the streets,” he says.

Williams, 43, eventually redirected his ambitions. He joined the model Cure Violence program launched in the city in 2000 to “interrupt” what its founder sees as an epidemic of shootings and killings, using ex-offenders to build relationships with those at risk to stop violence before it happens.

Independent studies have proven the effort works. Under different names, Cure Violence, which is backed by government and foundation grants and was shaped by University of Illinois-Chicago public health professor and epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, now operates in cities including New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Kansas City, Missouri, and is expanding to Central America, South Africa and the Middle East.

Cobe Williams
Sam Comen

But long before Williams became a Chicago “interrupter” who now trains others, he clung to what he knew, earning four convictions and prison terms – two for drug possession, two for aggravated assault – by the time he was 22.

The turning point came when he watched his then 4-year-old son, Latrell, react in court as his father was taken away yet again. “He just broke down, ‘I want my daddy, I want my daddy,’ ” Williams recalls. “I said, man, I got to make that change. I wanted to be a father to my son. I wanted to be there for him. I didn’t want to see nobody else raising him.”

“While I’m in jail, I’m seeing all this senseless killing on the news. Grandmommas can’t sit on their front porch; little kids can’t play Double Dutch in the streets like they used to. I was like, I was part of that problem. Now I want to be a part of the solution.”

A Credible Messenger

He’d seen Cure Violence – in Chicago the program goes by the name CeaseFire – in action on TV, as its participants staged marches and held barbecues to raise their community profile. After his release from prison in 2002, Williams was introduced to CeaseFire organizers by the founder of his former street clique, who thought Williams, with his hunger to turn himself around, would be a good fit.

“I know the community,” says Williams. “People respect me in the community, you know. I’m a credible messenger.”

Indeed, says Slutkin, the backgrounds of those hired by Cure Violence are key. Like healthcare workers who infiltrate an infected population to halt the transmission of disease, those who do so most effectively know and understand the affected population without judgment.

“This is the same you would do for Ebola or for AIDS or for TB,” says Slutkin, who fought the spread of infections in Africa while working for the World Health Organization. “You are looking for where it is and who you need to reach, and then who can reach them. ‘Cause not everybody can.”

Because Williams had made a name on the streets and spent time in lock-up, maintaining one-on-one relationships in both places, “he has access, he has credibility, he has trust,” says Slutkin. Also, “he’s got really good antennae. It’s kind of unconscious for him; his sensors are real good as far as when to withdraw and when to move forward. He’s got this really good balance of being able to listen deeply and thoroughly, and kind of say what he needs to say too.”

Says Williams, on sensing grudges before they flare up: “Everybody talks about this being ‘gang-related.’ It ain’t about gangs at all. All this stuff is interpersonal: He looked at my girl. He disrespected me. He owes me some money. People just react to things out of anger.”

“They’re not thinking it through. They’re just thinking at the time, ‘somebody did something to me, I got to deal with it.’ ” The chorus on social media – where many conflicts are born – often raises expectations, egging on the aggression. “A lot of people don’t like it leading to violence,” says Williams. “There’s a lot of people trapped inside their self-esteem. They just want to save face.”

Cultivating Bonds

Williams and other “interrupters” cultivate bonds by going beyond the conflicts, guiding those who ask for help toward jobs or substance abuse treatment, or handing out book bags to kids who may then get rides to school around dangerous streets. They hang with them on the corner and in their homes, playing videos or sharing pizza.

Then, when conflict does erupt, they hope to get the first call.

“It’s all about that relationship,” says Williams. “Or whole focus is to stop the stuff on the front end. Once it happens, then you want to stop retaliation. But it’s going to go back to the relationship I have with somebody. If I’ve got that relationship, I can talk ’em down.”

But’s it not just a matter of saying “drop the gun.” “You got to validate what they’re saying,” he says. “It ain’t so much talking to ’em, you just listen to ’em. Keep following up with them. That’s great to mediate, but the follow-up is the most critical part.”

“You got to give ’em other ways to think about things,” he says. And while the aggrieved may lie at the center of a dispute, “interrupters” also fan out to still the expanding ripples by floating compromise and offering themselves as the fall guy. “Man, I’m going to leave it alone just ’cause Cobe’s here,” Williams recalls one person saying at the moment of tension.

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Says Williams: “All the time he wasn’t going to do anything anyway. But let that be the reason, and I’m happy

“I ain’t saying this job ain’t dangerous – it can be,” he says. “The good thing about that is, we work in communities where we’re from anyway. I love my brothers and sisters in the community, and I’d do anything for them. And so I just don’t see it like that. I’m feeling like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s why I’m doing it.

“I lost a lot of friends to gun violence – a lot of friends locked up. Some of my friends lost their sons while they were in prison to gun violence,” he says.

“To me, this was my calling,” he says. “People can change. I changed.”

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