In his prison photo, a 21-year-old young man stares out, his eyes dull and vacant, a little scruff on his chin.
Antwan’s vitals are there—born January 1984, brown eyes, 5 feet, 9 inches tall—and below that, the details of a life he once lived: criminal drug conspiracy convictions, prison sentence terms, custody dates, parole dates.
The record is no longer in the Illinois Department of Corrections database, as Antwan has been discharged from parole for more than seven
But still, Antwan keeps the rap sheet in his bag. To him, it’s a tangible, physical reminder of what could have happened had he not experienced a jolt in prison, the intrinsic call to turn his life in a different direction.
It’s what could have happened had he not found a ministry called Breaking Ground. Or a place that would employ him called Cleanstreet. Or a friend who
was also once incarcerated named Connie Milton, whom Antwan refers to as “Mr. Connie,” who leads the devotions at Breaking Ground and talks about a God who gives Antwan hope.
“I love talking to Mr. Connie,” he says. “If I’m going through something, I’ve just got to talk to him. He’s one of the reasons I stayed.”
Antwan grew up in Garfield Park, at Chicago and Ridgeway. His dad rarely came by, and the thin family structure he had disintegrated when he was 10 years old. That’s when his mother died of AIDS.
“I started rebelling when my Mama died,” Antwan says.
He used to play drums in church. He stopped going. He found the only stability he could, from the Conservative Vice Lords gang.
He bagged and sold heroin. He took PCP and Ecstasy. He went in and out of prison about eight times. In between, he became a father.
And then, one day, while he was incarcerated, his son came to visit.
“That kind of shook me up,” he says. Around the same time, he saw one of his friends shot in the ankle. And that was it.
“I was done,” says Antwan, who’s now 32. “I was just tired of prison. It was just making me feel stupid.”
He did a work release program, started working for Waste Management and decided “this is the path I needed to be going on.”
Through relatives, Antwan found out about Breaking Ground and Cleanstreet, ministries of The Navigators that give former inmates second chances. “It was a perfect place if you want to change your life,” he said. Now, nine years later, after educational classes and stints as a Cleanstreet crew member, crew leader, and assistant general manager, Antwan supervises the whole operation. Assisting him is Anthony Haymer, 42, who grew up in Old Town and who says his mom was so strict that he stayed clean, never accumulating a criminal record.
Doug Welliver, the chief operations officer at Cleanstreet, says Antwan is “tough, in a good kind of way, where he makes people adhere to the standards, but he also has the ability to listen to people.”
On a recent Wednesday, Anthony hopped into a white Cleanstreet van and drove to Humboldt Park.
He pulled up to one of those stately architectural school buildings that once housed hundreds of kids. School closings had shuttered the building, but on the outside, two Cleanstreet employees still whacked weeds and mowed grass.
It was one of several contracts Cleanstreet has with the City of Chicago to beautify its neighborhoods.
“There should be more places like Cleanstreet,” says Antwan, stretching his legs under his desk at Cleanstreet’s offices in North Lawndale. “Everybody deserves a second chance. I wish I could open a nonprofit like this, bring in people who’ve got records, who want to change.”
People like him. He looks up, smiles, and one can’t help but think, someday, maybe he will.
Written by Erin Chan Ding