Jackie Hoffman is from the Garfield Park neighborhood, on Chicago’s West Side. It’s only three miles from the trendy West Loop, but as Jackie says, it’s “the other side of America.” The West Loop is known for its restaurant scene, while Garfield Park doesn’t even have a grocery store. The average life expectancy for West Loop residents is 85; it’s 67 in Garfield Park.
That statistic is personal for Jackie. Worried by his mother’s unhealthy lifestyle as she approached that age, he created a diet and exercise plan for her. Then, encouraged by its success, he expanded his outreach. He founded Peace Runners 773, a non-profit that brings awareness to holistic health and wellbeing while creating safe spaces for movement in underserved communities.
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Jackie believes that “movement is medicine,” but running wasn’t always his movement of choice. He played football throughout high school, earned a scholarship to Bethune-Cookman University, an historically Black, Division I college, and played in the Arena Football League after graduating. “I was living in Daytona Beach, Florida, living near a beach and living a way better lifestyle than I had been living when I was a child,” he recalls. Growing up, he hadn’t been aware of the problems in his community, but returning after his time away, they were obvious.
His 65-year-old mother was suffering from obesity and high blood pressure, which, he says, “was just the culture.” He looked at the community’s average life expectancy, and thought, “Who wants to only have two years to live with their mom?” He tweaked her diet and challenged her to move more. She started by walking a mile a day, and from that simple beginning three years ago, her health has been transformed. She’s lost 60 pounds, gone from 13 medications to two, and sees her doctor twice a year instead of every two months.
As Jackie saw his mother’s health improve, he decided, “Why stop with my mom? Let’s change the community; let’s change Chicago; let’s change the world. Let’s create this blueprint and let’s make this work. So it’s been beautiful ever since then because now we have transformation stories every week.”
A key element of Peace Runners’ success is focusing on the “Young at Heart” members of the community, otherwise known as senior citizens. “That’s the heart and soul of our communities. So much of our funding for city and state or even globally is funded towards youth. But in all actuality, everything that we learn is from our grandparents, our mothers. Like it comes the other way. If a child was to come home and say ‘Mom, I don’t eat meat anymore’ and the mom has chicken on the stove, the kid is going to eat the meat. But if you can change the grandma’s methods or the mother’s methods, that passes down because now the mom is saying ‘Hey, we don’t eat meat anymore’ or ‘We’re gonna start moving. This Saturday we’re gonna go out for a two mile walk with the Peace Runners’ and that is how we create change.”
Jackie also recognized the importance of involving older people in the life of the community. “They are the ones that retire and then they lose themselves socially because they stay in the house. So if they don’t have a social group or a place to be, then that kind of takes them out of the whole picture of community. I noticed that that was a big gap in our communities, a big gap in how we move in the world. So that’s why we keep recruiting our elderly people, our young at heart. They inspire us because it brings that village back.”
The need for change might be obvious to someone on the outside looking in, but it isn’t always evident to the person who needs to make the change. Jackie has found that the best approach is to “bring it to a level that they can understand. I think that’s the biggest thing with empathy, knowing where people are at and then you coming to that level and just bring an awareness, because some people don’t know. So like coming up in the community, firstly I didn’t know it was a problem or I didn’t know the true problems. I just lived day to day and that’s how you go about it and you just live in survival mode.
“But once somebody brings it to your attention and it’s somebody that genuinely cares about you and loves you, I think that that’s when the transformation starts to happen. They see that we care and we want them to live a better quality of life or live a long life or have some more years or even just enjoy the time that they do have here from a holistic wellness point. So once they see that, that people care, then that’s when they will start to push themselves to it.”
Other people may recognize that they should be more active, but don’t feel that they have the time or energy to exercise. Jackie understands, but also recognizes how worthwhile it is to make the time. “That’s my peace of mind. I got a lot of stuff going on, running Peace Runners and also working a full-time job. So just to have that peace of mind and that space for just me is so important. And I think that’s how I continue to refill my cup and to proactively attack this movement and this nonprofit work to continue to show up for my people.”
The mindfulness aspect of running is one part of the “peace” in Peace Runners’ name. The other part, Jackie explains, is creating safe spaces. “When we talk about safety, it’s so easy for me to tell you that running is accessible and for you to put on a pair of shoes and you can go run, right? But if you don’t feel that you are safe outside, then that brings up a whole bigger problem because you won’t take that first step outside. And I know that Peace Runners showing up consistently in this community between Garfield, Lawndale, and Austin, people have told us, ‘You guys are our police because y’all run these streets and y’all bring people out of their houses,’ which creates visibility. And that’s the number one thing with community safety and safety plans is you gotta be visible in the community.
“So the people that are doing bad things, they see you and just because they see you and they know that you are around, then that automatically may deter crime. It might be a person that says, ‘I’m not doing that today because now we got a group of 60 people running around and they are a nice group of people. I talk to them every Saturday and I’m not doing it right now.’ So you stop crime; you stop violence.”
Last year Chicago Event Management inaugurated a half marathon that greatly increases the visibility of the West Side. The Bank of America Chicago 13.1 reimagines the run, getting runners out of the Loop and into neighborhoods that they most likely wouldn’t see otherwise.
“I feel that the race coming to our community makes people feel special in that community,” Jackie says. “People being involved in a race in our community, like us, Peace Runners in itself just having a strong showing of representation for our community and bringing a strong representation of diversity, inclusion and equity. Like having us show up to say these are the people of the community and we’re gonna run this race because we’re gonna show you the beautiful people of our community. It’s really important.
“It is so important and I think that everybody has to see it. I’m not a big talker on telling people to do things cause I can’t sell nothing, but I can show you. I can show you how it’s done. And if they see it, it’s tangible. Once it becomes tangible, then they can actually achieve it. And I think that the people that came out on their porches to see the race, they can see a Peace Runner in that race and say, ‘That person runs through here all the time’ or ‘I see them running and now they’re in this race, and now I wanna take a step for my health.I need to be running too.’
“I think that this run community and what run is doing for the world is gonna continue to grow. And five years from now, I can’t imagine how beautiful these races will be, and everybody showing up at races, regardless of race, gender and any type of manner is going to be amazing.”
Run clubs Jackie recommends following:
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