The Streets Less Traveled

with Curtis Toler

CURTIS TOLER is a Chicago native and former leader of one of the city’s most notorious street gangs, Curtis serves as Director of Outreach for Chicago Cred. He is committed to impacting the culture of violence in Chicago by linking at-risk young men with chances to reset their lives through job training and permanent employment opportunities. Before joining CRED, Curtis was a gang intervention specialist and a spokesman for the peacemakers at the Faith Community of St. Sabastian’s Church. A member of the Community Justice Task Force and a Chicago Gang Historian, Curtis has received recognition from the State of Illinois Senate for his leadership efforts to bring peace to the streets, his commitment to improving the quality of life in the communities as well as for his commitment to advocating for positive changes to reduce violence in our neighborhoods. Curtis has been seen on HBO’s The CHI and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah as well as a contributor to Amanda Ripley’s book, High Conflict.

IN THIS EPISODE…Curtis shares his story with Joe; he came up in a high violent, high crime neighborhood. He was also the son of a prominent gang member. Curtis explains how he became involved with gang life and eventually moved up through the ranks to become a leader. He also shares how he decided to make a change, get out of the violence, and become an advocate for change within the inner city of Chicago, where most children and young adults are not given an opportunity at a life outside of crime and poverty.

Breakdown with Curtis Toler:

Chapter 1 (0:00) Intro
Joe introduces Curtis Toler

Chapter 2 (2:40) Curtis’ start
Curtis talks about his upbringing from when he was a child in the inner city of Chicago

Chapter 3 (12:53) Getting into the gang life
From being jumped into a gang at age 11, to what gang life was like including getting incarcerated

Chapter 4 (28:49) Series of horrible events
After finding his mother murdered, Curtis hit a low point and was violet. Meanwhile he was moving up the ranks within his gang

Chapter 5 (47:26) Deciding to Leave the Gang
The birth of his son left Curtis feeling the need to leave the gang and street life behind. He wasn’t able to quickly leave and had a series of setbacks

Chapter 6 (58:52) Starting Chicago CRED
Starting a program focused on helping young people who are involved in gangs or criminal activity and giving them opportunties they weren’t given before

Chapter 7 (1:02:30) Social media plays a part in gang conflict
Social media is now having an impact on street violence. When someone makes disrespectful comments online it can incite violence IRL

Chapter 8 (1:14:16) Programs starting in pre-school
Starting early intervention is key to letting kids know there is a different path for them

Chapter 9 (1:17:12) How to help
First is prayer, and second is if you care then you are there. You can mentor, tutor, financially or reach out to your local government

Chapter 10 (1:24:25) Wrapping up
Joe wraps up the episode and shares his takeaways

Material Referenced in this interview:
→https://www.chicagocred.org/
→https://www.amazon.com/High-Conflict-Why-Get-Trapped/dp/1982128569
→The Daily Show ft Curtis Toler

📞 Connecting with Curtis Toler:
→https://www.facebook.com/curtis.a.toler
→https://www.instagram.com/curtistoler/
→https://twitter.com/thecurtistoler

👊 To learn more about Not Almost There by visiting this link
→ Not Almost There http://notalmostthere.com/​

Connect with Joe on social here:
→Instagram https://www.instagram.com/joe_chura/​
→Facebook https://www.facebook.com/notalmostthere/​
→Twitter http://twitter.com/joechura

Curtis Toler:
You know, we could have been born in any century, in any time, but we were born in this particular time and what were we put on this earth to do in the time that we were born in? I believe once you find that out, then the sky is the limit. I think why I was put here in this particular time was to go through what I went through to be able to show people that you can go from that and still be okay.

Joe Chura:
Welcome, Curtis, to the Not Almost There Podcast.

Curtis Toler:
Thank you for having me.

Joe Chura:
It’s an honor to have you today. I think I was telling you off-air that I was introduced to you or your story by Amanda Ripley, who wrote the book High Conflict. She was a recent guest on my podcast on Not Almost There and I was completely intrigued in your story and wanted to get you on here. It’s an honor, again, to have you and really I think the listeners are going to get a lot out of this conversation.

Joe Chura:
First, though, I wanted to start with your story. I know it’s super powerful and you’ve done so much in your life for the community but you had an interesting beginning to it all and I just want to back up to where you came from and your upbringing and what happened in your adolescence.

Curtis Toler:
Sure. I think my upbringing, what I’ve grown to learn is there’s not a lot of differences between my upbringing and a lot of other folks who have come up in the urban ghettos, if you will.

Curtis Toler:
I’ll start by saying I moved around, like my family was in the military but we weren’t. My mom just moved to a lot of different communities for various reasons. That gave me this kind of outlook on the west and south and the east sides of Chicago, which are all in their own way dynamically unique.

Curtis Toler:
I always start off by saying you don’t get to choose who your parents are and your parents don’t really get the choice to choose who their kids are. It’s a two-way street there, right? For me, I think the term that good girls like bad boys was really something that I think my mom went through and I think a lot of people go through that. She had me at a really young age. She was probably about 15, going on 16, and at that time, my dad was one of the founders of a Chicago street gang. He was relatively young as well. He probably was 16.

Curtis Toler:
Just the dynamic of having really, really young parents and they were trying to find their way, but not find their way together. In just my opinion, my mom had this way of choosing guys that were a little rough around the edges, including my dad. Unfortunately, she chose guys who were really connected to the street life. I think that was really my introduction to what I call the other side or the underworld or gang life or whatever people may want to label [inaudible 00:04:02], first, my dad and then through some of the folks who my mom began to have relationships with.

Joe Chura:
Did you have siblings shortly thereafter or are you the oldest?

Curtis Toler:
I’m the oldest. I didn’t have siblings until further down the line. I’m probably about nine years older than my siblings. Yeah.

Joe Chura:
Got it. Your dad’s the leader of a street gang. What gang was that?

Curtis Toler:
The [inaudible 00:04:38] vice lords. I wouldn’t say he was the leader. He was one of the founding members of it.

Joe Chura:
Got it. He was the founding member. You’re born. You’re kind of born into that life then, right? Essentially.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. Yeah. Even though, at that particular time, I didn’t understand then but I understand more now, being a parent and being a father, who was deeply involved in the street life, what he was going through. Being a kid, I didn’t understand why my pops wasn’t in my life but, again, now I understand now that there’s this misnomer that when you don’t have anything to give your kids then you shy away or stay away from them, and that’s some of the things that my dad went through.

Curtis Toler:
Then, unfortunately, at a very young age, along with a lot of others, during that period, that ’70s period, you had a lot of folks coming from the Vietnam War. My dad wasn’t a war vet but, unfortunately, he got caught up in that thing where a lot of folks were coming back using heroin and he became a heroin addict.

Joe Chura:
Got it. How was your early life growing up? I mean, that in itself, that story you just told me is traumatic but you, as a kid, your father is not around, how was the relationship with your mother?

Curtis Toler:
Oh, man. Me and my mom, by her being a young parent, it seemed like it was more of a, for lack of a better term, brother/sister type of relationship because she was trying to find her way being such a young parent.

Curtis Toler:
I think I alluded to that, I felt that she connected with a lot of bad guys and this one particular guy, who she was dealing with at that time, I’ve grown to find out that he was a pimp and a drug dealer. He was very abusive to my mom and also myself. That was really the first time that I ever saw a weapon. He had a Tommy gun under his bed. I saw it. Being a child, that makes you … You get intrigued by those things and then you also start to believe that seeing your mom or seeing other people violently beating up or all of these verbal insults, I felt that that may have been the norm, unfortunately, because that’s what I grew up around.

Joe Chura:
How old were you then when you saw the gun?

Curtis Toler:
I had to be about seven. Seven or eight. Yeah.

Joe Chura:
I imagine from there, she had various boyfriends or did she stick with that guy for a while?

Curtis Toler:
She was with that guy for a while and I guess sometimes you have to be careful for what you pray for because I prayed for his demise and he ended up dying.

Joe Chura:
How did he die?

Curtis Toler:
You know, some folks say from natural causes. I believe he probably had an overdose. I was so young and we never really talked about his death but he eventually died.

Joe Chura:
I imagine now just in the chronological order, now you’re 10 years old or so, so what happens then in your life?

Curtis Toler:
At this particular age, we’re living on the west side of Chicago, and it was this time where you have this racial divide, unfortunately, within your own community. What I mean by that is I was kind of picked on because I was light skinned with curly hair. I wasn’t a violent person at first because I didn’t have any older siblings so I used to take a lot of shit, right? People used to pick on me. Even jump on me.

Curtis Toler:
I would tell my mom, then I would talk to my cousins and even my grandmother, and unfortunately, as parents sometimes we give our children the wrong kind of information or concept so what they told me is is that if I couldn’t beat them then to pick up something because it was more than one. Unfortunately, that went for me picking up rocks to sticks to hammers to knives, then to guns.

Joe Chura:
Wow. Then from that point, when you were picking up guns, you weren’t even a teenager yet?

Curtis Toler:
No. I wasn’t a teenager. It’s ironic. It’s kind of funny now that the first gun that I picked up, it was a gun that my grandmother used to have in her dresser drawer. I took it out, just clowning around with some of the guys, and shooting it in the air. Then one of my friends was like, “Let me take a shot” so he took a shot [crosstalk 00:09:38].

Joe Chura:
You’re shooting it in the house or outside?

Curtis Toler:
Outside. Outside.

Joe Chura:
Okay.

Curtis Toler:
My friend was like, “Damn it. This is a starter pistol. This isn’t a real gun” so my first gun that I thought was a gun wasn’t really actually a gun. It was a starter pistol.

Joe Chura:
Wow. Then at that time, you guys are around playing with this gun, so how does it evolve from there into other things?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. Like a lot of folks do, I got into trouble that I really didn’t have to get into. It was more of me trying to prove myself to the guys that I was hanging out with. We were poor but we didn’t know it. My grandmother had a decent job. Some of the things that I wanted in life, she was able to give me. I started what we call snatch and grab on the west side of Chicago and that was taking the ball bearings out of skates and they would bust windows easily for some reason. Like when you throw the ball bearing, it would shatter a window and we would snatch purses. I think that was really my introduction to the crime life, if you will, was what we called snatch and grab.

Joe Chura:
You were just then a teenager, right? At the time.

Curtis Toler:
Still not a teenager. At this time, I was probably 11 and had joined my first street gang.

Joe Chura:
Got it. How do you go about joining a street gang at 11?

Curtis Toler:
At this particular time, they had this thing where they handcuffed me to a small tree, they beat my chest up pretty bad, and then they had me fight my friend, who was older than me. He got the best of me. Then I fought a couple more guys and then I was jumped in. Yeah.

Joe Chura:
Got it. What street gang was that at the time?

Curtis Toler:
It was the same street gang that my father was one of the founding members of.

Joe Chura:
Did you have street cred knowing that … People knew he was the founder of it and that it was your father?

Curtis Toler:
You know what? I didn’t mention that a lot back then. I really didn’t even mention who my dad was or what his position was coming up, probably because he wasn’t in my life like that, but one thing that I can say is that he kind of was in my life, kind of was in my life vicariously, like through my grandmother. She would buy me bikes and things and say it was from him. That was the connection that he kept with me. He would pop by every now and again.

Joe Chura:
Now in a street gang, it’s official, your snatch and grab … How does the crime or the series of things the gang does evolve?

Curtis Toler:
It took a while for things to evolve for me as it relates to really … When you think about the crime element of it. Just fast forward a few years, then my mom meets this other guy through her best friend at work. Ironically, he was serving time in a federal institution for bank robbery. When I first met him, he was this behemoth of a guy. He probably lifted everything on the weight pound. This really big guy. She eventually married him and he was my stepfather. I thought things would be different but, unfortunately, they weren’t. He was also violent towards her and myself as well.

Curtis Toler:
Now we’ve moved from the west side of Chicago to the south side of Chicago and I’m going through this physical and verbal abuse stuff all over again with a totally different guy. I had this misnomer in my mind that one day I could be bigger than him and to defeat this guy. I would collect cans and bottles and turn them in for money and I got enough money and I bought this really small weight set. Our apartment was small as well so I had to put the weight set in my kitchen so I would be lifting these weights in the kitchen, in my mind, thinking that one day I would be stronger than my stepdad.

Curtis Toler:
I was out with some friends out south and we were just riding our bikes and we rode past this place and it looked like a theater from the outside. I saw this man who was surrounded by other men and you could just tell the way that they were formed, that they were his security, and he was in front of this black Cadillac and he was huge as well, and so, in my mind, I’m like this guy here can defeat my stepdad, who is this guy?

Curtis Toler:
I wanted to learn more about him and so I just started asking people that were around who he was and he was a guy who eventually became the leader of another organization, who I became a part of, and his name was Jeff Fort, the founder of the Black Keystones, and at that particular time was the El Rukns. I joined the El Rukns at probably about 12 or 13 years old.

Joe Chura:
How does that work? Can you just switch from one gang to the next?

Curtis Toler:
Officially, me being so young, I probably was never a part of the other gang, right? It was like unofficial that I was a part of this other thing but this was an official thing. We had to attend meetings. That was a criteria.

Curtis Toler:
Another thing is that this group had a strong Islamic undertone or overtone to it as well. That was one of the things that drew me in. I think there’s this other misnomer that folks were thinking that the older guys were having us do these violent acts of crime but, for me, being a part of the El Rukns that was totally different. They made sure I went to school, they made sure I went to football practice, and all those kind of things. This became like my family, my second family, and then people all over knew the El Rukns didn’t take shit either, right? That was kind of like this environment of protection that I felt that I had with this organization.

Joe Chura:
Do you remember your first time meeting Jeff?

Curtis Toler:
It was ironic because I never met him in person. Shortly thereafter, he was arrested for conspiracy against the United States of America.

Joe Chura:
He’s arrested for conspiracy that had to do something with the gang violence or drugs? What was it?

Curtis Toler:
I think it was a combination of all. It was not only conspiracy, it was conspiracy and terrorism against the United States of America. He was convicted and tried for having a deal with Muammar Gaddafi saying that our group would blow up downtown Chicago or something like that. One of the people who were affiliated with the El Rukns was caught buying a rocket launcher.

Joe Chura:
Wow. Is that anything you fathomed at the time or did you realize the scale of that when you were younger? I imagine you join this gang, you loop up to this guy, you’re joining it for reasons to protect yourself and your family from your now-stepfather so all good reasons and then all of a sudden, you find out that the leader of this gang is conspiring to be a terrorist. What was going through your mind then?

Curtis Toler:
You know, if that part of it was actually going on, they kept that away from us. What happened was that all of the leadership, I think it was about 30 plus guys were locked up in this conspiracy, in this terrorism act.

Curtis Toler:
What it did is something that’s happening that we see here in Chicago now is that it left us to be in leadership and we’re 16 year old kids, right? Now we’ve become the leaders of this organization, if you will, and that didn’t go so well. I mean, to a certain degree it was okay but now that I look back on it, I think that we are some of the reasons for a lot of the violence that’s going on today here in Chicago.

Joe Chura:
Before I ask how that changed, just out of curiosity, why were gangs different back then in the sense that the leadership wanted you to go to school, wanted you to be a good citizen? How has it morphed from what it was then to what it is today?

Curtis Toler:
When I look back, being like this “gang historian”, it seems like every time that drugs came into play, there was this shift. Even when you think about the El Rukns, when they were first the Black Stone Rangers, and then you had the group who eventually became our rivals were the Black Disciples or the Black Gangster Disciples. There was this … If you noticed in everything or every name that I gave, Black was in the front of it. There was this real sense of pride in the Black power movement.

Curtis Toler:
It was just a way, really, at first, that they were founded on really to protect their communities and then, like I said, in the ’70s when the heroin and stuff started to come in, I think that’s when some of the trajectory started coming in because there was money and stuff being brought in through the drug trade. Then with us, when I think about the late ’80s, early ’90s, when the crack epidemic hit, that’s when the ideology of what the organization was founded on kind of shifted.

Joe Chura:
Got it. Right around that time, you guys found yourself as leaders of the gang. How does the leadership mindset change? Is it now all about the drug trade and is it more violence? How is that different?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. I think it was some of all of that kind of wrapped up in everything, right? You’ve got to think that, first of all, we’re these young kids with all of this stuff thrown on top of us. Now there was always this kind of street or gang war between the folks and the People Nation, right? That’s the Five Points style, the Six Points style. There was always this kind of feud or this riot [inaudible 00:21:14] since the early ’60s, right?

Curtis Toler:
We took on that banner or we took on that war, on top of now we’re getting lump sums of money from the illegal drug trade and we also are able … Now we’re bringing weapons into this and now we’re fighting over drug turf, we’re fighting these crazy drug wars, and we’re still these young kids, right?

Curtis Toler:
That’s what happened in the ’90s. When you look at statistics, and it’s nothing that I’m bragging on, but that was one of the highest murder rates that we’ve ever seen in Chicago is when I was in leadership, part of leadership, of one of the Chicago street gangs here.

Joe Chura:
Just as the Chicago street gangs were emerging, was the organized crime, as far as the mob, was there any contact with those two groups or was that fading out? How did that work?

Curtis Toler:
That was fading out. Early on, there was a lot of contact when you think about that but by the time I started getting more deeper involved, our thing was more with the Colombian drug cartel.

Joe Chura:
Got it. You had direct ties with the cartel?

Curtis Toler:
Yes.

Joe Chura:
Then were other gangs emerging at that time?

Curtis Toler:
Yes. All of us were partaking in a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of drugs were coming into our communities.

Joe Chura:
But because of the drug trade, was that creating other gangs, like rival gangs?

Curtis Toler:
There were always rival gangs, right? It was always the People Nation versus the Folks Nation. At that time, it was probably 10 or 15 sub-groups in both that made this big collaborative, if that makes sense, on both sides. There was always this kind of tension and friction in Chicago between these two different super powers, which were the People and the Folks Nation but once more money began to get involved, it seems like the more violent all of us began to become.

Joe Chura:
When you hear something like the Crips and the Bloods and the Latin Kings, are they all sub-groups under one of those two, between the people and the Folks Nation? How does that work?

Curtis Toler:
No. The Crips and the Bloods never really made their way to Chicago because we were already organized here so we never let the Crips or the Bloods in. Now the Latin Kings is actually the first cousins. We call them our first cousins of the group that I was a part of. They were under the People Nation’s banner.

Joe Chura:
Got it. What other groups, what other cousins or sub-groups are under the People’s Nation?

Curtis Toler:
The People’s Nation was … You had Vicelords. You had different brackets of Vice Lords, the Travelers, the Unknowns, the Conservatives, the Black Keystone, Black Stone Rangers, the Latin Kings. Those were probably the biggest when you think about the People’s Nation. I hope I’m not forgetting anybody. The Vicelords, Stones, Latin Kings and then on the other side, you had the Disciples, the Black Gangsters. You had the Gangster Disciples, Spanish Disciples, and a few others.

Joe Chura:
Got it. This is just extremely … I’m extremely curious about this because in one sense, I didn’t grow up too far from this but it seems like another world, right?

Curtis Toler:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joe Chura:
Just the proximity of where I lived. The groups now … There are sub-groups. Was there ever a large meeting with all of the groups together that represented the People’s Nation? How does that work?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. Yeah. But they were more aligned in the prison system than on the streets because on the streets, we would have these feuds amongst each other a lot, sometimes. In the prison system, they were more aligned than on the streets.

Joe Chura:
What would cause the feuds?

Curtis Toler:
Turf. A lot of misunderstandings or women. You know, some of those were some of the major things that caused a lot of the feuds. Just ego a lot of times.

Joe Chura:
Right.

Curtis Toler:
A lot of bravado.

Joe Chura:
When you say turf, someone walking in the territory or selling drugs in the territory?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. You know, we call it set up shop. You have folks, people … When I say people and folks, I’m not referring to the actual gang alliance but you have people that would come into a different neighborhood and try to start selling drugs or come into a different neighborhood and start talking to some of the women that’s in that neighborhood or just having an argument with someone who was a part of another organization and those are some of the things that would cause these gang feuds.

Joe Chura:
Got it. You’re now emerging as this leader. The guy that you wanted to be your mentor is in prison or he’s, obviously, indicted [crosstalk 00:27:02].

Curtis Toler:
He’s in prison.

Joe Chura:
He’s doing his thing. Okay. Do you now find a different mentor? How do you evolve your leadership at that point?

Curtis Toler:
I need to step back for just a moment. I know you’ve probably read in the book that my stepfather ends up killing my mom and I find her in the garage. At this particular time, I always said no counselor or nobody showed up at my door to give me what I needed for that trauma that I was experiencing with the loss of my mom.

Joe Chura:
You were how old then, Curtis?

Curtis Toler:
Oh, probably 16.

Joe Chura:
I’m so sorry that happened, by the way. [crosstalk 00:27:49] get into it. I’m sorry.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. It changed … I was already going through a lot of this physical and verbal abuse and trauma, now my best friend is gone and she’s taken away from me violently. There was a period of time that I felt that I didn’t have anything to live for. I became extremely violent, to any and everyone. I just took on this whole different character and personality shift. With that being said, almost a year after my mom was killed, I was engaged in a street war, on the streets, and I was shot in the head. That was the third time I was shot, when I got shot in the head. I had been shot twice before that and this is my third time being shot. I was shot in the head and it was pretty bad at the time. I was able to overcome it.

Curtis Toler:
A lot of my friends gave me a lot of … They make these jokes and they call me shit faced and it’s because they took a skin graft from my ass to do plastic surgery and put it on my face. You know, I have to endure some of that a little bit.

Curtis Toler:
Then shortly thereafter, I went to a maximum penitentiary for what was that? I think it was first-degree attempted murder. Here I am, this young guy, now in a maximum penitentiary, which was [inaudible 00:29:52] at the time.

Joe Chura:
You’re how old at that time, 17?

Curtis Toler:
17. Yeah. 17, 18.

Joe Chura:
I can’t just gloss over the fact that you were shot three times and now this time in the head. Do you remember that or did you just black out for a period of time after that?

Curtis Toler:
No, I remember it.

Joe Chura:
You do?

Curtis Toler:
I remember it. Yeah. It’s crazy because I made it my business not to lose consciousness because I believe it was because I saw all these [inaudible 00:30:23] and they’re like, “Don’t go to sleep, don’t go to sleep”, slapping people in the face when they got shot so I can remember seeing that. In my mind, I was like, “I’m not going to lose consciousness.” I can remember laying on the porch and the officers came and when they came, I guess I was bleeding so badly that I just started to pass out a little bit. I could hear them talking, saying that we can write this guy off, and I immediately opened my eyes back up. I remember pretty much everything.

Curtis Toler:
I can also remember being an idiot and going to the hospital and arguing with some of the folks that were working on me because I had just bought a new outfit, so they were cutting my pants and I was like, “Damn it. I’m not shot down there. You don’t have to cut my pants.” Now I know that they were just trying to see did I have any other bullet wounds anywhere else.

Joe Chura:
Right. Were you just on your porch, walking outside? What time of the day was it when that happened?

Curtis Toler:
This had to be high noon. We had got into this conflict with this other gang, which I thought was resolved. I thought that we were meeting to advocate for this peace thing amongst us. What ended up happening was another young man who wasn’t privy to the meeting, who was a part of my organization saw us walking down the street and he wasn’t for no peace at that particular time. He started opening fire on the other group and they started opening fire on me because I was the closest to them.

Joe Chura:
Wow. Then when something like that happens, you’re in the hospital, you wake up. After you’re recovered, are you handcuffed to the bed?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. I was handcuffed for a moment. Then eventually, they didn’t have enough to keep me in custody. My friends actually came and broke me out of the hospital.

Joe Chura:
What?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. I mean, [crosstalk 00:32:28]. When I think about some of the dumb stuff that I was doing and that we were doing, they came and my head is all wrapped up and shit. I haven’t even had the surgery yet. They’re like, “Man, we got to get you up out of here before the police come back” and also there was this big party that was going on that I felt that I had an obligation to attend. I go to the party, bullet still in my head, and guess what? We get into a damn fight, man. I just think about how dumb that was now. You know?

Joe Chura:
Wow.

Curtis Toler:
My auntie was so mad at me because she was a nurse at the hospital at that particular time and she’s calling around like, “Where are you? You got a damn bullet in your head.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll be back.”

Joe Chura:
What happened after the fight? Did you end up going back to the hospital?

Curtis Toler:
I probably went back to … My aunt convinced me to come back to the hospital. It probably was about two or three days later, then they did the surgery. I mean, the ironic thing about it is that I found out one of the hardest parts on your body is your knee, your elbow, and then that part right over your eye is really, really hard, right? What happened is that the bullet entered there and it took away a lot of the velocity of it, by going through that really hard part right over the top of my eye so it just landed right behind there. They eventually took it out. They had to do plastic surgery. I think they did a good job, if I can say so myself.

Joe Chura:
Yeah. That’s an incredible story. I mean, we could spend all day just on that scene but I know we don’t have all day. What happens from there? Now you’re having surgery at the hospital. Is there a gap in time before you get arrested?

Curtis Toler:
Probably about 60 days. 60 days after that I’m arrested. I was supposed to be going to this medium institution because of my age at that time, but we end up having this big gang fight in what we call the chow hall, that’s like the lunch room in the penitentiary, and they remove me … This is when I know things started getting real because they put me in segregation and I had a cellie in seg and they would give out these bags and on the bag, it would have this letter and this number and that would represent where you’re going. I’m like, “Man, I’m going to a minimum institution.” They were like, “Let me see your bag” and I think the bag said K5 and he was like, “No. You’re going to the big house, buddy.” I’m like, “What? Why am I going there?”

Curtis Toler:
I went in front of the administration and they had this hearing and they said that I was being charged with inciting a riot and also being a leader of a street gang. I couldn’t go to a minimum institution. I had to go to a maximum.

Joe Chura:
Before you ended up in that place, did you know the police were looking for you? Were you hiding out? Did they catch you by surprise?

Curtis Toler:
I kind of knew they were looking for me but I end up catching another whole case. Yeah. I caught another case. They combined the two and then I did what you call a plea deal, which a lot of Black and brown folks do. We don’t go to trial. They bring us an offer, we take it, and that’s what ended up happening.

Joe Chura:
Wow. You’re brought in the station and then the detectives talk to you or a DA and then all of a sudden, you’re in jail? Is that how it [crosstalk 00:36:17].

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. In the county. Now I’m in the county jail with no bond. Then I’m shipped off.

Joe Chura:
What’s the significance now between medium security, the smaller penitentiary or the medium sized one, versus maximum? The one you’re going into.

Curtis Toler:
Just the amount of violence and the convictions and the people that are there. I can remember my mother telling me, “You’re crazier than Richard Speck, you do stuff that’s crazier than Richard Speck” and I had no idea who Richard Speck was, but I got a chance to see him in Stateville and that was one of the scariest people that I think I’ve ever saw in my life. I came up thinking that I was a tough guy but there was this look of just horror or terror when I got a chance to see him. [crosstalk 00:37:16].

Joe Chura:
For those that don’t know, what did he do?

Curtis Toler:
Richard Speck, he’s the one that killed a lot of nurses in Chicago. He was a serial killer.

Joe Chura:
That’s crazy. Now you find yourself in a prison, you’re 17 years old, you’re with one of the most notorious serial killers in that day.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah.

Joe Chura:
What’s going through your mind then?

Curtis Toler:
How did I end up here? I still couldn’t show that I was actually afraid. I ended up befriending a guy who was a part of my organization as well and his sentence was natural life and 25 years, so that meant they wanted him to die and if he came back to life, he would still have to do 25 years. He eventually became my mentor while I was in there. Kind of saved my life because I went in there with these really, really hardened guys as a young guy, coming off the street, saying that I was a shot caller. That didn’t go too well with the folks who were already in the prison system. You know what I mean?

Joe Chura:
Yeah. What’s a shot caller mean?

Curtis Toler:
Meaning a person … I was running my particular organization on the streets, right?

Joe Chura:
Right. You were calling the shots essentially.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. A lot of times, especially being as young as I was at that particular time, it doesn’t transfer over to the institution.

Joe Chura:
Right. Now you’re in there, there’s a whole other hierarchy in there?

Curtis Toler:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joe Chura:
Do you feel … Are people looking at you like you need to start over and prove yourself in there?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah.

Joe Chura:
How’s that work?

Curtis Toler:
Exactly that. Exactly that. I ended up being … The guy who I just referenced, I ended up being his personal security while I was there. Yeah. That was a little different.

Joe Chura:
What does that mean, that you’re just with him as much as you can be?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah.

Joe Chura:
Looking out?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. Yeah. I was his personal security so everywhere he went, I had to go. He had a job in the visiting room as the camera man so at that particular time, the inmates ran the jail, and so I would be allowed to take him to work and also come pick him up from work without being searched or anything. That was just how the system went at that particular time.

Joe Chura:
Was he trying to reform his life at the time? Was he giving you any sort of positivity in your life? Was he a mentor I guess in a good sense or a mentor in the sense of he was teaching you the ropes of how the prison system worked?

Curtis Toler:
I think both. I mean, I think one of the things that he did instill in me is that I didn’t have to be this wild, off the chain kind of kid to get stuff done, right? He would tell me that I didn’t have a whole lot of time to do and the best thing that I could do was leave and be alive. You know?

Curtis Toler:
He did give me a lot of instruction on that … He gave me a lot of good life lessons but he didn’t tell me not to be a part of the organization anymore. What eventually happened is that I ended up having some juice right from the street, not really sanctioned by anyone to a certain degree but sanctioned by some folks, going to the prison, kind of reclaiming my status in prison, and being released with more status than I had before I went in.

Joe Chura:
Then how does your time in prison evolve?

Curtis Toler:
I didn’t do that much time. I did about two years on that bid. It evolved and it also gave me a position that was backed by everyone that was a part of the organization, if that makes sense. Now I have the blessings, if you will, the hierarchy, to go out onto the streets with this power or this rank.

Joe Chura:
At that point, were you thinking at all about changing your life and doing something different and getting out?

Curtis Toler:
No. I was really thinking about trying to get to an institution where my stepdad was to kill him.

Joe Chura:
I was going to ask you about that.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. That really was my driving force. I never ran into him. I think he had a block that we couldn’t be in the same institution. Yeah. I thought a little bit about doing something different but at that particular time, being in the gang with the street culture was my identity.

Joe Chura:
So I don’t forget to ask, what ever happened to him?

Curtis Toler:
He was tried and convicted and given about 25 years for murder and robbery.

Joe Chura:
Is he still in prison today?

Curtis Toler:
No.

Joe Chura:
Then you get out. You’re trying to get back in to find him essentially. You’re now at an elevated position. What happens next?

Curtis Toler:
During the time that I was in, some of the guys who I knew or became really close friends with, were now heavy into the narcotics trade. He was kind of running this particular area, and I was kind of like his … In the mob terms, consignor or the under-boss when I got out. Then he was killed and I took over his position.

Joe Chura:
Wow. You’re rising the ranks and then was there any time at that point or was it that you thought like … I guess at what point then … Now you’re, what? Just under 20 or you’re around 20 years old?

Curtis Toler:
I’m around 20. Yeah. Yeah.

Joe Chura:
When do you … I imagine there’s an evolution of things that continue to happen around the same … Does anything different happen around that time or is it just more of the same?

Curtis Toler:
It’s more of the same. Really violent, I’m running this particular area, but then my son is born. That’s I think the first time that I actually started to think a little differently because I thought that he actually was coming to replace me because he looked so much like me. He looks so much like me that I thought he was my replacement. I actually thought that I was going to have an untimely death.

Joe Chura:
You’re 21 when you have him?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. 21. About 21.

Joe Chura:
Okay.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah.

Joe Chura:
Then at that point, you start to think about how to reform your life or when does that start?

Curtis Toler:
I start thinking about it a little bit. I think the things that I started to do was be less violent but then I end up getting a drug and a gun charge and I go back to jail, I go back to prison.

Joe Chura:
How did that feel? Do you recall at the time, knowing you were a new father and not being able to see your kid? Was that wearing on you?

Curtis Toler:
Oh man. Yeah. It felt terrible, man. I was like, “Shit.” I get another short bid, like three … I think they gave me like three and a half years. During that time, it’s one thing that being involved in narcotics and the street life, we knew that if we had money and we had a good lawyer, that, in our minds, we would be okay. I ended up only getting like three and a half years and doing about two years off of that bid and coming back home.

Curtis Toler:
When I came home on this particular time, I thought in my mind that I really wanted to do something different so I ended up getting a job at Aaronson Furniture, which is a furniture place. I was doing pretty good. I was doing okay. But then a group of young ladies came in … I remember it as if it were yesterday and they started laughing and cracking jokes and my pride was just shot. They were like, “You used to be running shit. Now you running furniture?” You know?

Curtis Toler:
I kind of let that get the best of me and I quit my job and went back to the drug trade.

Joe Chura:
Now when you had that job, were you still technically in the gang? How does that work?

Curtis Toler:
I was technically in by title, if that makes sense, but I was still going [inaudible 00:47:41] guys, hang out with them, give some sense of leadership. I wasn’t as involved, if that makes sense, at that particular time. Yeah. I was kind of distancing myself.

Joe Chura:
Is there a feeling at that time that it’s mandatory to be involved? Do you feel like there’s … Is there a way out? It almost seemed like there could have been a way out but because of what happened there wasn’t … Or because of what happened, you went back. Is that factual? Is it easy to get out of a gang in that regard? You can just start working and just fade out and not have to be a part of it anymore?

Curtis Toler:
For some, it is. For others, it’s a lot more intricate and a lot more difficult. For me, getting in the ranking position that I was in and knowing a lot of the guys who were in the hierarchy, a lot of them were okay with me doing something different. They were like, “Okay. We get it.” But then there was also this tug of war with me, feeling that if I left …

Curtis Toler:
I can be honest and candid with you, sometimes I still get that feeling to this day that I have this obligation to these folks who look up to me. I didn’t want to let them down. I saw the direction that they were going in. Like I said, there was this kind of pull between good and bad that was happening with me. I was still heavily involved in the drug trade. I shifted that a little bit and the folks around me were getting indicted. Here, again, I’m thinking that I had said in my mind that I’m about to go back to prison, I was always a studier of the law, so I figured that if I was indicted on what I felt that I would be indicted on, that I probably could cop a plea for about 10 years in the federal system and do about eight and a half.

Curtis Toler:
I had put my mind that this is what was going to happen. My son probably was graduating third or fourth grade. He was really young. He was singing a song by Chicago, “You’re the [inaudible 00:50:31] in my life. You’re the inspiration.”

Joe Chura:
He was singing that to you?

Curtis Toler:
No. They were onstage, the whole group of them were singing the song, and this thing just came over me. It was like, “What am I doing? I’m just going to keep repeating the cycle …” My grandfather was a convicted felon, my grandfather was a convicted felon, he was a gang leader. My grandfather had been shot. My father had been shot in the head before I’d been shot. I was just like, “When is this shit going to ever end? I don’t want this to be the outcome for my son.”

Curtis Toler:
I called my cousin, who was part of this thing with me, and I told him that I was done. He didn’t believe me. He asked me like, “What’s up?” He’s waiting for me to say this code. We had this kind of code that if any one of us was ever caught that we would give this code word and that meant to get rid of the stuff and get out of there, get little.

Curtis Toler:
He was like, “What’s the code?” I’m like, “No. I’m serious.” He’s like, “I can’t believe you set me up like this.” I was like, “No. There’s nobody on the other end. I’m not caught. I’m just done.” You know?

Curtis Toler:
I was never under investigation. This was all in my mind. I started trying to, would you say, do the right thing but it was extremely hard because I still was trying to keep up this different persona, I had all these cars and different properties that I owned but I wasn’t able to pay a bill so now all these cars are being repossessed, I’m getting eviction notices, and lo and behold, my cousin pops back up. He’s like, “Man, we miss you. We need you to come back.” He was like, “I got something for you in the truck” and he had just bought the new S550 Benz. I was like, “Shit, man.” I was like, “You know what, cuz? I’m done.” He was like, “Man, you’re a better man than I am.” I was like, “No, I’m just ready and you’re not.”

Curtis Toler:
That weekend, he was kidnapped and killed and from that point on, I knew that I had made the right decision.

Joe Chura:
Whoa. That’s incredible. Thank you for sharing and being so candid, Curtis. That’s incredible. Then at that point, do you just start continuing down the path until you get a job? How does that work?

Curtis Toler:
You know, being incarcerated and then having a little weight set in the kitchen from a little kid, I always kept in shape. A friend of mine said that we could start personal training so we started doing a lot of that. That was doing okay.

Curtis Toler:
Then I got a call from this agency called … It was Ceasefire at the time. They were this nonprofit group that was doing violence prevention and intervention. I started working with them and then I eventually got a call from Father Michael Pfleger because there was this big war going on between the organization that I used to be a leader of and a couple more organizations and they were in this four block radius of each other. It was like the Wild, Wild West. They were just shooting and killing each other.

Curtis Toler:
He said did I think that I could get my guys together? I said I believe I could. We came up with the idea to do this piece basketball league. We ended up getting Derek Rose, Isiah Thomas, and a few other people onboard. A lot of people didn’t think it would work but from that point on, I said to myself that there is a place for me in the world that I could take the experience and the background that I had doing bad things and convert that energy into others to try to convince them to do something different. Father Pfleger ended up giving me a job. From that point on, I’ve been in this violence prevention and intervention field.

Joe Chura:
Do you feel like that was the key? Like finding your purpose and finding your why, to turn it all around?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. That was it, right? Then being able to be the father instead of the gang leader, right? I was able to go into a whole different character, right? That felt good and then being able to have another mission that I was aligned to was really helpful in my growth and in my process out of the gang culture.

Joe Chura:
Then at that time, did you have any more children? I know you have, what? Four now?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. I have four now. Right after I had my son, I had my daughter. I was incarcerated, got out, then I had another daughter. All of them are by my wife, all my kids are by my wife. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:56:11].

Joe Chura:
Did it change having a girl, a little girl?

Curtis Toler:
It did, man, because I was like, man, this is the get back for all the wrong that I’ve been doing, not only to my own wife but to all the other girls in the process of me coming up. It changed and it was … Again, I was a father. I didn’t have to be a gang leader anymore. That felt really, really good.

Curtis Toler:
Then also doing the work and being able to try and help others do something different is very inspiring. Like you said, once you find your why then you’re not actually working anymore. You’re just doing what you believe you were put on earth to do.

Joe Chura:
Did that work that you did with Michael Pfleger, did that then move into the work you’re doing now with Chicago CRED or how did those two things merge?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. Arne Duncan at that particular time was still with the Obama administration as the Secretary of Education. Father Mike said he had someone who wanted to meet me and it was Arne and we were talking. At that particular time, I just thought it was another politician coming to talk to me and trying to get my guys in the community that I were in for a voter’s block, right? Because we had been let down before by other politicians.

Curtis Toler:
We had this conversation. He said that he would be back and that he wanted to do something around violence prevention and intervention, would I be interested in doing something like that? I said, yeah, sure but I didn’t think that he was actually going to come back and a year or so later, he came back and offered me a position with Chicago CRED.

Joe Chura:
That’s great. Do you spend a lot of your days now with talking to folks in gangs, trying to create peace, or is it people that are getting out and you’re helping them stay on the right path?

Curtis Toler:
No. I’m talking with those who are actually still heavily involved and trying to create what we call non-aggression agreements and hoping that a non-aggression agreement will lead to a peace treaty. What a non-aggression agreement is is just actually getting folks to agree on a set of terms, if you will, during a street war, right? Whether the terms be if anyone makes it to this park, they’re off-limits, if I’m walking with my son or my grandmother, we’re off-limits, or we’ll all just play defense instead of offense, meaning we’ll stay on our side and you guys stay on your side. Unfortunately, folks shouldn’t have to live like that but that’s some of the strategies that we have to use if we want to see a peaceful neighborhood.

Joe Chura:
Do you find those … When someone signs those agreements or agrees to them, are they abiding by them?

Curtis Toler:
Some do and some don’t and then some agreements get broken. I guess that’s the same thing with what happened with any kind of agreement. Unfortunately, with ours, people lose their lives. Yeah.

Joe Chura:
Yeah. I guess my question is more about do you find that … Does it become effective and then have created a change?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. Sometimes it does. I would be fooling myself if I said that all of them worked. We try to get guys and girls to come to some type of agreement or some type of resolution that they don’t have to coexist in the same space but they have to coexist, if that makes sense.

Curtis Toler:
When you think about … In a lot of these conflicts, there’s been a lot of bloodshed and a lot of death to get folks to that position, that they’ll take a defensive approach as opposed to an offensive approach sometimes really, really, really difficult. I think we’re doing an okay job at it here.

Joe Chura:
I thought I heard you say somewhere but I’m curious to get your thoughts on social media and how that’s affected things because you were saying back in the day, a lot of the reasons were either girls or ego but now I could see social being a big part of that.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. It’s, if not the biggest reason, one of the biggest reasons that a lot of these conflicts occur is because you can be really tough and be whoever you want to be and say whatever you want to say behind a keyboard, if you will. If folks don’t take real kindly, unfortunately, their mindset is at a place where they don’t take kindly to any kind of disrespect and so there’s the disrespect of the organization or the crew that they’re currently in but what really drives it is the disrespect of the dead, which we see a lot of unfortunately …

Curtis Toler:
Let me go back a little bit to give you a landscape of what’s happening here. When I was out doing my thing in the street life, there were about 20 groups or 20 groups that combined to make these super groups. Now there’s an estimated 2000 different groups here in Chicago, that really don’t have an alliance to anything. They’re all their own little clique. They have some alliances with some groups but there’s no structure there. Then they could easily become foes instead of allies. That’s what’s making this thing really, really complicated is just the amount of different crews and cliques on top of a lot of drug use, on top of a lot of them, big guns.

Joe Chura:
Yeah. That’s fascinating how much that has changed. How do you even create the strategies to evoke change then?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. That’s something that we ask each other and ourselves every day. When you think about it, a person is shot here in Chicago every two hours. This is not a new dilemma, right? We haven’t been under 400 homicides since 1965 here in Chicago, right? This is not new.

Curtis Toler:
Without the ability to go with a, per se, one or two people that’s actually in a leadership role to calm things down, makes it a lot more difficult. When there’s no, what we call, rules of engagement, it makes it a lot more difficult. Like I say, when I was around, I called it organized chaos. I call this unorganized chaos, right? Every day, we’re coming up, hopefully, with innovative and new strategies to help calm some of these street wears and all of them are different, all of them started from different reasons, some have been going on for generations, some are new, some are really, really petty and people are still losing their lives so you have to come up really for a strategy, a different strategy for each one of these conflicts.

Joe Chura:
Do you find the median age of the gang members has changed over time?

Curtis Toler:
Yes and no. Every group has a different makeup. Some groups are really, really young. I mean, from 10 … We’re working with a few groups now who the leader is 15 or 16. Then you still have some groups that still have some form of structure and those are some that are still holding onto some of the perimeters of the old gang culture. It varies. You know? It varies.

Joe Chura:
What is … At 10 years old, that’s so young. When I think back to your story, it almost feels like you didn’t have a chance. You were born into this and you were just doing what kids do but you were just around certain things that were influencing you in ways you didn’t know until it was too late, I mean, decades later, right? How soon should you be catching this or giving kids a chance or said differently, how do you break this cycle of … If it’s hitting someone at 10 years old, when do you have to get in front of it to be effective?

Curtis Toler:
Pre-school, right? Because it’s one thing that I think you and I can agree on is that behavior is learned, right?

Joe Chura:
Right.

Curtis Toler:
The quicker that you can unlearn a learned behavior, the easier it is, if that makes sense. Then when you think about … I talk to some of the young folks that I deal with all of the time and some of the other people that’s working with them is that being at such a young age, you haven’t even found the things that’s worth living for yet. Right? You haven’t really experienced anything so when you’re dealing with … No matter how old you are, when you’re dealing with someone that feels that they don’t have anything to lose, makes it a lot more different.

Curtis Toler:
What we have to do is instill to them that they’re worth living, that they are valuable and there are things that’s worth living for, the things that are worth living for are more valuable than what you think is worth dying for, if that makes sense.

Joe Chura:
Right.

Curtis Toler:
In their mind, they’re willing to die for their friend, for their block. You know? Because now we’re living in a world of popularity, right? Who is the most popular? Who gets the most likes on Instagram? Or Snapchat. Unfortunately, not only here in Chicago but in a lot of the other urban communities, the most popular people are the ones who have the most bodies under their belt. Instead of inspiring, like, for me, I had pimps, players, drug dealers, and gang leaders to look up to, whatever that consisted of, so now these young brothers and sisters look up to the people who are the most violent. That’s what they’re aspiring to be.

Joe Chura:
I can’t help but also think the people that do find themselves in a situation where they were like you in their early twenties thinking like, “How did I get here?”, how much of a part does hope play? The realistic view of there’s another alternative, do people feel like at that point …

Joe Chura:
I mean, you even said it, you had at the time, a path to mentor others and to create your why but if others found purpose, how would that change the current environment?

Curtis Toler:
Oh man. You hit it right on the head, right? That’s what I find myself doing and I know others that’s also doing the work, we’re trying to give hope to the hopeless. We’re trying to say that there’s another way, even though, it may not seem like that. I don’t come in saying, if I change, you can change but that is possible but there are different roads that people have to take within their journey and I tell people just because I bump my head and went to prison and did all that, hopefully, I can be an example that you don’t have to do the same thing, right? Like I said, you hit it right on the head, to give them a sense of hope when a lot of them feel hopeless.

Joe Chura:
How do you do that, though? How can you … It’s one thing to say to someone there’s another path but when they’re actually … That day one, when they go to work at the furniture store, and they feel this sense of, “I don’t have my crew anymore, I don’t have my people around me” and it’s hard, how have you seen that be successful with other people?

Curtis Toler:
The first thing that I feel you have to do is the self-differentiation, meaning how can I separate myself from the group dynamic, right? Some people are able to do that but then you have others that the separation of them from their group won’t work so then what I have to think of is how do I change the dynamic of the group, right? Being involved in a group organization or whatever you want to call it is not a bad thing. I think it’s inherently in our DNA to want to be a part of something, right?

Curtis Toler:
Now what I have to work on doing is change the dynamics of the entire group. How can I shift the thought process or the mindset of this entire group that they don’t have to be as violent as they are? If I can change the dynamic of the group, then that makes it a lot easier for me to then be able to start what we call a self-differentiation process.

Curtis Toler:
It’s one thing that we know is that … I don’t want to say unfortunately because, again, all groups are not bad. It’s just the people or the things that they’re doing are bad, right? Groups are not going anywhere. That’s just going to happen but what they’re doing inside of the group I think is the thing that we can change.

Joe Chura:
It seems like the group that is at most risk to me is, and I’m just guessing here by our conversation, the group around the 10 years old to 20, right? Where your brain is still developing and you don’t really see a way out. I think when you’re past 20, maybe you start maturing, you have other life things happen, like in your case, you had a child. Before then, you’re brought up, you have no control over your environment, who your parents are, and all those things that you mentioned so I guess starting from before 10, pre 10, so pre-school, like you mentioned, are there programs right now that you’re a part of or that you know are going on to help those kids?

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. Yeah. A friend of mine who is doing a phenomenal job … I can’t even think of the name of the program but they’re actually starting to work with pre-schoolers and their families, right? Again, what we’re talking about is generations of folks who have been involved in the street culture. That’s another approach that we also take is that we have to do this family structure and what I mean by that is that just by working with a child doesn’t work if you’re going to send them into the same environment every day [crosstalk 01:13:25].

Joe Chura:
… it’s a pre-schooler.

Curtis Toler:
Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I’m not only talking about pre-school. I’m talking about even the young men and women that we’re working with now, we’ve found that we have to work with the whole family systems and their whole social network if we really want to see sustainable change.

Joe Chura:
That makes sense. Then going back to what I was saying, is that true? The biggest at-risk group right now, the hardest to change is between that 10 to 20 year old range? Is that a thing?

Curtis Toler:
Oh, yeah. Yeah. That is definitely a thing. Right now, we think that one of the, if not the, most violent groups that we work with is the youngest group. When we do these analyses … What we’ll do is we’ll go into a community and we’ll find all of the groups that’s in that community. I’ll just take [inaudible 01:14:24] as one community. [inaudible 01:14:26], there’s 15 different groups that are in various conflicts. You have some that may have five conflicts going on. You have others that may have only one.

Curtis Toler:
But the younger group that we’re working with, a couple of them here are in conflict with probably 30 other groups, right? Every time we go into these non-aggression agreements, the first thing they say is can you get a hold of the younger group? If you can get a hold of them, then we think that we could possibly come to the table.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. We’re finding that the younger the group is, the more riskier, the more risks they are willing to take.

Joe Chura:
Right. Yeah. I mean, I see that even with crime that you see now with a lot of the carjackings going on and more of the violent crimes. It seems like 15 year olds, 14 year olds …

Joe Chura:
What can others do to help this?

Curtis Toler:
Other than pray? You know, I have this saying, when I say if you care, then you’re there. Right? Everybody could help in their own different ways, whether it be mentoring, whether it be tutoring, whether it’s financial, whether it’s trying to help change the policies that create the conditions in these communities. I think everybody that has a vested interest in seeing not only a better Chicago but a better world, there’s something out there that we can do and it don’t have to be a whole lot. Just do something.

Joe Chura:
Yeah. No. That makes a lot of sense. Create opportunities, diversity and inclusion in organizations, try to have reform programs, I imagine the more you can create hope and opportunities, the more I would think chance that you have for people to take advantage of them.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. You’re from Chicago, you’ve been here. I tell people all the time, until we can make Fuller Park or Ogden Park look like Wicker Park and Lincoln Park, then we’re going to continue to be fighting backwards, right?

Curtis Toler:
They asked me how can we make the communities better? I say just go look at the communities that you feel are doing well and what made those communities thriving and then come to those communities that aren’t doing that well and provide those same opportunities and then the closer that we can get to one Chicago or one community, the better off we’ll be.

Joe Chura:
That’s right on. That’s great advice. I want to end on another lighter note because I think, well, one is I don’t want to not say thank you for everything that you’re doing for the Chicago community, I know I started this off-air by saying that as well but your story, Curtis, is incredible and I give you a ton of kudos for changing your life and for taking the path less traveled and being an inspiration to others to give them a path and to give them hope.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. I’m under the real belief that when you do good things, good things happen for you. We didn’t really talk about it, I don’t know if you saw it, but I’ve never been an actor or writer or consultant. I’m acting and writing on the shy, being a consultant for a Showtime series. [crosstalk 01:18:19].

Joe Chura:
I was going to ask you about Chiraq and about some of that stuff to close off. Yeah. It’s amazing.

Curtis Toler:
I was able to meet Spike Lee. He’s one of my good friends and we’re always in contact with each other. I sit around the table sometimes with [inaudible 01:18:33] also a friend of mine. I just think when you do good things, good things happen for you. You know?

Joe Chura:
Yeah.

Curtis Toler:
That’s one of my mottoes.

Joe Chura:
I was watching Chiraq yesterday. I saw you in it.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. Have you watched The Chi?

Joe Chura:
Yeah. Yeah. I watched The Chi a bit too.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. I’m also in there. You probably didn’t notice me. I was a lot bigger, a lot bigger then. Yeah, man. I think I have an obligation to give back. It’s a thing that I ask myself and I ask a lot of people when I’m having these conversations is that we could have been born in any century, in any time but we were born in this particular time and what were we put on this earth to do in the time that we were born in?

Curtis Toler:
I believe that once you find that out, then the sky is the limit and I think that why I was put here in this particular time was to go through what I went through to be able to show people that you can go from that and still be okay. A lot of times, what you earn instead of what you learn or what you earn as well as what you learn, when you combine them, I think people are able to really benefit from those kind of lessons.

Joe Chura:
Yeah. Amen, man. That’s so true. Again, I just give you a ton of kudos. I, too, am under that belief and I’ve had good things happen in my life for trying to be a good human being. I think that goes a lot further than people think.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah.

Joe Chura:
Yeah. I’d love to meet you in person at some point. I know we’re not too far from one another.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. We got to meet, man. I’m thinking about starting my own podcast down the line so, hopefully, you can give me some help with that.

Joe Chura:
Yeah. I was going to say, you got to do a podcast, your book. I mean, your stories are incredible. I was looking for your book. I couldn’t find it anywhere.

Curtis Toler:
Yeah. Again, like I say, when you do good things, good things happen for you. When I tell people that I’m represented by William Morris Endeavor, they’re like, “Wait a minute, how are they your … We’re not even represented by them but we’re this big to-do.” It’s not even like a formal partnership. It’s just me and one of the founders had a conversation and she said that she would be willing to help me in any way possible and don’t want to take any money. She just want to help me to do better. It just happened like that.

Joe Chura:
Yeah. That’s great, man. You are a good person and you deserve the good things [crosstalk 01:21:23].

Curtis Toler:
I’m trying to be.

Joe Chura:
Just one more question as we wrap, how old are your kids now?

Curtis Toler:
Oh man. You put me on the spot. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. Their headshot made me … 24, 23, 21, and 18.

Joe Chura:
Okay. Do they still all live around the area?

Curtis Toler:
I can’t get rid of them, man. Other than the one that’s in college, I have my youngest, she’s going to college this year but they’re still around, man. I love having them. I love having them. They keep me grounded.

Joe Chura:
Good deal. No. That’s fantastic. Well, Curtis, thanks again, man, for the story, the lessons, and just you being an inspiration to the community. I can’t thank you enough, my friend.

Curtis Toler:
Thank you for having me. I believe that you’re doing a great thing. I saw some of your other episodes on Not Almost There, man. You just keep doing your thing and keep helping folks and keep getting these stories out to hopefully inspire others.

Joe Chura:
Definitely. Definitely. Thank you.

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