By Dena Goldstein
Angalia Bianca abused heroin for 36 years. She has been arrested 120 times and has been to prison seven times. She wanted to change, but did not know how. It wasn’t until a judge sentenced her to A Safe Haven that her life started to change.
“Without me realizing it, they changed the way I thought,” Bianca says. “They believed in me and finally I started to believe in myself.”
A Safe Haven, where I am serving this year, helps people break the cycle of homelessness, incarceration, and addiction. Founded in 1994, the organization employs a holistic model by offering housing, recovery management services, adult education, life skills courses, job skills and job training.
“I accepted the life I chose as the norm, I had no choice,” Bianca says. “At some point, the entire planet gave up on me. Now, I’m a community leader, I’m an activist.”
Bianca is one of the many A Safe Haven success stories. For the first time in her life she has a full-time job and an apartment to call her own. Not only did she find her way, but she found her purpose in life: to help people.
Bianca is the Supervisor of CeaseFire Rogers Park in Chicago, a violence prevention organization that treats violence as a public health issue. The organization works to reduce the numbers of shootings and killings in communities with high rates of murder and poverty. The 2011 critically acclaimed documentary “The Interrupters” follows three Ceasefire workers as they try to protect their Chicago communities from the violence they once used.
Bianca is one of the many “interrupters” that puts her life on the line to protect her community. She works with high-risk individuals by mediating conflict that could potentially turn into gun violence. She relies greatly on her past experience on the street. A black tear drop tattoo by her left eye gives her street credibility; the gang life used to be her world.
“I used to hang out with high-risk people,” Bianca says. “I’ve seen people get killed, I’ve ducked bullets.”
Bianca exudes a magnetic demeanor; her fast talking, honest approach draws you in. The young adults on the street respect her, and I do too.
Even though I’d heard Bianca’s story before, when my fifteen fellow AVODAH corps members and I piled into our west side common room one recent November afternoon, my jaw dropped for the full two hours.
Since AVODAH believes one of the most formative aspects of making change over the long haul is creating a just and nurturing community, we had a lot to learn from Angalia Bianca about conflict resolution. Forming a peaceful community provides the groundwork for many other social justice endeavors.
On a broad level, social injustices are all around us. Societal imbalances are something we grapple with on a daily basis. While our society at large is subject to social inequities, the intersection of identities in our AVODAH bayit (house) also creates shifting power imbalances. It is a microcosm of our broader community. As diverse perspectives assemble, conflict naturally arises in our shared living space. However, as emerging social change agents, how can we expect to fight for social change in Chicago’s urban landscape if we can’t create a peaceful, nurturing space in our own community?
Bianca says she uses conflict resolution tactics not only on the street, but also in her personal life. In both realms, she listens to each side, makes eye contact, and looks at perspectives openly. While Bianca’s conflict resolution strategies may be bolder out on the street than with her friends and family, she is living justice values in both arenas. She has the biggest heart and a thick skin, which is hard to find.
I hugged her goodbye as she left our house.
“I love you guys,” she said with a wide grin across her face.
Bianca’s transformative path sheds light on the importance of resolving conflict on a personal level before attempting to create change on a systemic level. Break down the complex, social issues. Start small. Look in the mirror. The first step in achieving a more balanced world starts with you. Finding peace from within lays the foundation for establishing balanced interpersonal and societal relationships. On behalf of AVODAH 2012-2013, I ask you to join us in starting small and starting at home.
As a journalism graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dena Goldstein is eager to explore her AVODAH experience through writing, discussion, and community outreach. She serves as A Safe Haven’s Communications and Social Enterprise Associate in an effort to increase funding, solidify the organization’s brand, and mentor residents in professional development. Goldstein has always loved writing and she sees the AVODAH blog as a perfect opportunity to polish up her writing and editing skills, while connecting with the greater AVODAH network.