Smile Politely

First Followers of Champaign-Urbana combines community service with activism

Back in February, which seems like a lifetime ago, I spoke with James Kilgore, Advocacy and Outreach Director of First Followers. The organization, according to their mission statement, looks to “build strong and peaceful communities by providing support, guidance, and hope to formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones through peer mentorship.” Kilgore says there are two primary things that formerly incarcerated people are looking for: Jobs and housing. First Followers is an organzation that helps make those connections for the people they serve. It’s more than just about providing these services, however. “It’s about building relationships,” says Kilgore. One of the ways they’ve done that is through their drop-in center at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Champaign. 

As the First Followers team began to reach into communities most affected by incarceration, they saw another need develop: Transitional housing. With data collected through surveying the community, they were able to start talking up the idea. Eventually, through the support of the Housing Authority of Champaign County, they were able to establish FirstSteps, a re-entry home for men leaving the prison system. It can house four individuals, and it’s more than just a place to live. The residents maintain a connection with the staff at First Followers, who are mentoring them through the process of rejoining society; from helping them obtain a driver’s license to teaching them how to use new technology to helping them work through the social and emotional effects of being in prison.

A few things have changed since that initial conversation. COVID-19 dominates our lives, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake have led to renewed calls for racial justice, and incidents of gun violence are on the rise in C-U. In the midst of all of this, First Followers developed a platform of action that included these components:

  • Defund the police and reallocate the funding to support projects that lift up the community.
  • Eliminate School Resource Officers (police) from our schools.
  • Continue our mobilization against community violence.

Recently, I spoke with Founder and Programs & Services Director Marlon Mitchell to follow up on the status of FirstSteps, and to find out more about their new plan of action. 

Smile Politely: What is the status of the FirstSteps house now? How have you had to adapt due to COVID?

Marlon Mitchell: We have three individuals in the house right now. We have one vacancy, so we’re looking to interview someone soon. Our latest resident has been there three weeks now. Early on (in the pandemic) we had a gentleman come home. We had a COVID protocol where we would pay for a hotel room for quarantine for two weeks. This was before the testing. If there were no symptoms we’d allow him in the house. We’ve done that twice. Now that we have all these testing sites here, our last guy we put in a hotel for just a couple of days. His tests came back negative so he was able to transition sooner.

SP: Part of your plan of action is defunding the police. What sort of services would you like to see those resources diverted to?

Mitchell: Generally, police officers have to be mental health experts. We’d like to reallocate police budgets into places and things we can do to address mental health. Another option would be trying to find more community based organizations who can help with their own situations in their own community as far as training. One of the things we’ve talked about is a group like ours being able to go into community spaces with some training on descalation techniques and conflict resolution. When people use the term “community policing” I see that through a different lens. I see community policing coming from the actual community, neighbors policing their own community. So what does it look like if I live in a housing complex where there are two or three people that live in that community space and have official training to descalate and resolve conflicts versus calling the police and things escalate to a point where it becomes violent?

Shifting over to the context of schools; we’re trying to get the SROs (School Resource Officers) out of schools. We’d like to bring more mental health services into the schools, more social workers, people who are professionals and have licenses that the police officers do not have.

SP: It seems like there’s been an increase in community violence, particularly gun violence, in C-U. What sort of goals do you have to ramp up prevention efforts?

Mitchell: Back in April, May, and June we started a media campaign to bring awareness, Aim for Peace. We did social media, billboards, canvassing, flyers, posters, resource brochures; we marched on Juneteenth, to bring about awareness on what’s happening in the community, trying to start a conversation. Something else we have on our plate are what we call transformative justice hubs. In that space we’re going to have programming and a safe space where people can come and talk about their conflicts. Another component is having a safe space where people can grieve. We have a lot of people who are hurting that may not have a place to talk about how they are feeling. We’ll have trained individuals who can help with that process. We’ve also gone through some training in restorative justice practices; using healing circles, conversation circles, celebratory circles. Trying to dig deeper into how people are feeling and why these things are happening, having those critical conversations.

And of course we have our drop in center, and we want to expand capacity there. Our mentors, who we call community navigators, are going to get out into the community and be “boots on the ground” and start to build relationships with individuals and family members; building trusting relationships so that we can invite them into our transformative hubs.

We are starting to collaborate with other community based organizations, particularly those that have contact with youth. We want to move further upstream to start to build relationships, not only with that particular organization, but to be able to come as a collaborative to address the issues of youth and young folks.

First Followers recently raised $20,000 to fund their intiatives. If you are interested in donating to their work, or just learning more about how you can get involved, visit their website.

Top photo by Evette Campbell, from the First Followers of Champaign-Urbana Facebook page.

Staff writer

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