South Shore Man Takes His “Kindness Campaign” to Mount Greenwood
Christopher Watts, a South Shore resident moved to action by recent racially charged clashes in Mount Greenwood, brought a small group of like-minded individuals to the corner of 111th Street and Kedzie Avenue two weekends ago to spread his message to the community.
Armed with a poster board sign and a bullhorn, Watts and his crew — most of whom are black — looked to some passing residents like protesters, but their message was one of rapprochement not resistance.
"At first people were looking at us funny," said Watts, a 32-year-old business services manager at the Woodlawn Resource Center. "So, I started yelling on my bullhorn, 'This is not a protest, this is a kindness demonstration.'"
His goal in gathering a group at the corner — the epicenter for recent protests sparked by the fatal police shooting of a black man on Nov. 5 — was to ease local tensions rather than inflame them.
"When something becomes sensational and there is ongoing hostility and frustration, we respond to de-escalate, to be nice, to be a friendly face," said Watts, who stood at the intersection two Saturdays ago waving a sign that read "Be Kind," and giving out stuffed animals, snacks and his signature "kindness cards."
The cards, which Watts designs and then has printed and cut at the Chicago Urban League, contain messages of empowerment and inspiration.
One card, for example, read, "Be the person that makes others feel special. Be known for your kindness and grace." Another contained the message, "Sometimes all a person needs is not a brilliant mind that speaks but a patient heart that listens."
Some passersby didn't take kindly to Watts' presence in the neighborhood, shouting at him to go home or hurling racial slurs — the sort of treatment black protesters have received recently from some in the predominantly white community — but the vast majority greeted him warmly, he said.
"We got a lot of support. Had quite a few people stop their cars to come out and talk, hug, take pictures, say thank you," Watts said. "We got very, very little negativity."
It was the first time Watts had taken his kindness campaign — which has had a regular presence in high-poverty, high-crime communities in the South and West Side for the past three years — to a more affluent, majority white community.
While some members of his core group feared their presence might threaten residents and incite physical confrontations, Watts said he was confident Mount Greenwood residents would welcome them.
He said that many had heard accounts of Mount Greenwood residents shouting racial epithets at black protesters and believed the community's residents were racist. He was convinced, however, that was not the case.
"I just know people are better than that," he said. "Sometimes we get upset, sometimes we say and do things that we don't necessarily mean, but you get caught up in the moment. The purpose of the kindness campaign is to de-escalate and cheer up.
"I wanted to show that even with a group of predominantly African-Americans in Mount Greenwood, you won't necessarily have that," he continued. "And for the most part, it went exactly how I wanted it to go."
Watts, who split his youth between East St. Louis and Chicago's Roseland neighborhood, said he's distributed more than 10,000 kindness cards since launching his campaign in 2014.
To carry out the campaign, he periodically assembles groups of 40 or so volunteers to perform acts of kindness in some of the city's most economically depressed and violence-plagued communities.
Kindness campaign events, which are advertised in advance on Watts' social media pages and typically occur in the spring and summer months, have been held recently in Englewood, where volunteers handed out book bags filled with school supplies, and Woodlawn, where guests passed out chilled water and juice on a humid August day. Volunteers also have visited sites of gang shootings in hopes of bringing comfort and cheer to grieving residents.
In addition to these random acts of kindness, Watts also organizes clean up events to beautify blighted communities; leads groups in the assembly of sleeping mats for the homeless using old plastic bags; and holds drives to collect clothing and toys for needy children during the holidays.
The kindness campaign came out of his work with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, where he helped women returning from jail find jobs.
As ex-offenders, many of the women had difficulty finding employment, so Watts took it upon himself to compile a list of job opportunities and hold job readiness workshops for them. Word of his efforts soon spread and the job list turned into a weekly newsletter, and then into an online job board that he continues to update to this day.
Five years since launching the job board on Facebook, "Christopher Watts Presents: The Chicagoland Jobs Board," boasts more than 37,000 followers.
Watts said he was inspired to launch the kindness campaign as an offshoot of his workforce development hobby because so many of the job seekers he met would lament the spiraling crime and lack of civic engagement in their communities.
"People would say, 'I don't feel safe,' or 'Why isn't this getting done?' and I'd be like, 'Well, why do we need the government or an organization? We can just do it ourselves,'" Watts said. "It's not necessarily that hard. The biggest cost is human capital."
So, Watts leveraged his job board contacts and connections with social service organizations across the city to begin performing acts of kindness wherever and whenever he saw fit.
In some cases, like with Mount Greenwood, he plans an event a few days or weeks in advance, gathers the necessary volunteers and in-kind donations, and hits the streets. Other times, he'll spontaneously pass out kindness cards or distribute job information while riding public transportation or standing on a street corner.
"For the most part, we're well embraced," he said. "Sometimes people say, 'Get out my face' or something. You ignore it. You just gotta know how to not focus on the very few that might be negative or don't necessarily go the way you want to go, and focus on all the things that do."
While there have been opportunities to formalize or monetize his campaign, Watts has thus far declined to do so because he believes its organic, grass roots nature attracts participation.
"It's a bit unique … in that it just pops up and it's not necessarily something done by an entity, church or government," he said of his efforts. "It's just a group of people."
Watts plans to continue spreading kindness in the Chicagoland community for years to come and hopes his work causes others to recognize they don't need the backing of an agency or organization to do the same.
"I hope to inspire more people to just do things," he said. "Just do it."
In Watts' vision of the future, "It'll be hard for anyone to make it from A to B being upset," he said. "Because along the way some kind person would have done something to make their day."