Building Bridges, Building Connections

A Racial Healing Initiative

Chicago police officer and communtiy member laugh together over lunch

Initially funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s multi-year Racial Healing Initiative, NLEN’s award-winning Building Bridges, Building Connections program was designed to focus on healing the experiences of racism among returning citizens and help address the institutionalized racism within the Chicago Police Department.

First developed in 2010, Building Bridges, Building Connections has since been institutionalized as a key component of NLEN’s U-Turn Permitted job readiness curriculum and the Chicago Police Department’s Procedural Justice training. Since 2011, the program has served more than 500 citizens returning from incarceration and touched 9,000 Chicago Police Officers through direct participation or police training that uses program components.

For an inside look at the program, please watch this short video:

This video was created by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) from footage filmed in 2013 during various Building Bridges, Building Connections exchanges. It has since been incorporated into CPD’S Education and Training Division’s Procedural Justice II Training

CPD and NLEN have each consistently demonstrated their open-mindedness to learning from one another and their excitement in sharing their stories, experiences, and results. These qualities make their collaboration unusually effective and creative.

Program Overview

The initiative has three primary goals:

  1. Promote racial healing among the formerly incarcerated African American men and women of North Lawndale;
  2. Promote racial healing among the individuals who work for law enforcement institutions (e.g., police, Illinois Department of Corrections, parole, etc.); and
  3. Help policymakers address the institutionalized racism that supports the over-incarceration of African Americans in the United States.

African-American U-Turn Permitted participant shares his experience during a Building Bridges, Building Connections exchange




 “I’m not that person that my rap sheet shows. I’m still a father. I’m still an uncle. I’m still somebody’s son. And I’m still a good person.”





The NLEN Racial Healing Initiative is composed of:

  1. A two-day Racial Healing workshop that challenges assumptions and beliefs about race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation; explores structural racism and its impact; and identifies racial barriers in the workplace and how to deal with them, and
  2. A one-and-a-half-hour Building Bridges, Building Connections exchange between police officers and returning citizens enrolled in U-Turn Permitted. The goal is to view policing from the other’s perspective and involves a team building activity, a debriefing, and an honest discussion about policing over lunch.

NLEN’s Racial Healing Initiative Community Advisory Group has branded the Building Bridges, Building Connections model in a way that sums up the partnership philosophy of NLEN and CPD:

  • Because we want everyone to come home, we create and foster strategies for positive interactions between community and police
  • Because we want everyone to come home, we show police and community a way to see the humanity in each other
  • Because we want everyone to come home, we give police and community an opportunity share with each other what they really need


Program Impact

We believe that providing opportunities for meaningful interaction between the formerly incarcerated and police officers will promote understanding of each other’s experiences to ultimately change perceptions of one another and positively influence future interactions.

NLEN continues to evaluate the effectiveness of this program through surveys, interviews and focus groups with U-Turn Permitted alumni and participating officers. A written, external evaluation was conducted in 2014. Key results include:

  • 74% of U-Turn Permitted participants and 79% of police officers said these visits will influence the way they interact with one another in the future. These behavior changes have been confirmed by anecdotes recounted by participants in interviews and focus groups.
  • 86% of U-Turn Permitted participants report the workshop was helpful in identifying and challenging their assumptions and beliefs around race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation
  • 100% of training officers share with their police officer peers who are not participating stories and lessons learned from their exchanges with returning citizens
  • The U-Turn Permitted recidivism rate remains below 8%, compared with the Illinois average of more than 55%

Since many returning citizens recidivate because of parole violations and other minor actions about which officers have some discretion, the impact of behavior changes and newly found respect when interacting with officers could result in significantly fewer arrests.

African-American U-Turn Permitted participant shares how her perceptions of police officers have changed after Building Bridges, Building Connections



“I saw them as officers, but when I interacted with them, and we got to know each other, I saw them as people…they just didn’t treat me like I was an ex-felon. They treated me like I was a human being… I’m going to be open-minded and know that I’m not going to hold every police officer accountable for what one or two bad police officers might have done.”




Building Bridges with Youth

NLEN has also conducted Building Bridges, Building Connections exchanges with youth as a standalone workshop. These workshops have successfully challenged participants’ beliefs about policing and about young people, teaching each group that they have more commonalities than they do differences. In post-workshop evaluations, participating youth stated:

  • “This workshop showed me how we are all humans and we go through the same things.”
  • “It will help me by learning how the officers feel.”
  • “I will not hold all police for the action of a few.”

Police also shared that at times they felt all young people hated them. In post-workshop evaluations, participating police officers shared what they had learned:

  • “There are great kids in our neighborhood.”
  • “Have more patience”
  • “Communication is key”
  • “Be mindful of other peoples’ perspectives”
  • “Inspire me to keep doing the work”

The evaluations proved that, as a result of these workshops:

  • 79% of youth and 57% of police better understand their own thinking or behavior
  • 80% of youth and 71% of police better understand the thinking or behavior of others
  • 75% of youth and 71% of police see what they have in common with others different from themselves.

Building Bridges, Building Connections is a scalable model of improving relationships between youth and police. At each of our workshops, young people expressed their intentions to share what they experienced and learned at these exchanges with their peers, demonstrating that the impact of these workshops extends beyond direct participants.

Future of the Initiative

NLEN, Chicago Police, and LISC accepting an award from the MetLife Foundation for their collaboration

NLEN, Chicago Police Department, and LISC Chicago honored with a Community-Police Partnership Award for Building Bridges, Building Connections

Building Bridges, Building Connections has been recognized as an exemplary national model for building trust between police and community and increasing neighborhood safety. In 2014, NLEN and the Chicago Police Department were honored by the MetLife Foundation with a Community-Police Partnership Award for their collaboration on Building Bridges, Building Connections.

In recognition of our partnership with the Chicago Police Department and the work we are doing, in July 2015 NLEN staff were invited to participate in the White House and Department of Justice Community Policing Forum in Washington DC. At this forum, local community leaders, elected officials, and police leadership met to discuss and share best practices on the implementation of the President’s Task force on 21st Century Policing recommendations.

NLEN Staff, Chicago Police Department Superintendent Alfonsa Wysinger, and White House staffers.

NLEN Staff, Chicago Police Department Superintendent Alfonsa Wysinger, and White House staffers.

This initiative continues to be a critical platform for influencing and launching advocacy efforts by addressing the often nebulous concepts of institutional and structural racism. We have learned that such efforts are significantly weakened without clear strategies to encourage dialogue between clients and law enforcement. Our work through this programming provides a platform through which clients find a voice and a means to express that voice as it relates to many social issues.

For more information, or to pilot Building Bridges, Building Connections at your organization, school, or community group, please contact Jose Wilson, Director of Workforce Programs and Clinical Services at or 773-638-8738.