Rolling Out

What Darnell Buckner is doing to save the youth of Chicago

The community leader says his mother is the inspiration behind the nonprofit

Darnell Buckner’s need to create a better future came from a past of grief and pain.

The Chicago community leader recently spoke to rolling out about the John W. Buckner Youth Initiative.

What is the John W. Buckner Youth Initiative?

The initiative started about five years ago, in 2019. It came about as a result of my father being murdered in the endless cycle of violence by three teenagers who were just riding their bikes up and down the street, just looking to shoot at anybody that was outside.

When that happened, we felt the need to support youth in ways that will [protect] them from being in situations like … having to be in prison or having to be in shoot-outs and things of that nature. We want to give them some other opportunities within the community so that they can work themselves out of the community.

We started out with a scholarship weekend. We gave away three scholarships: one in horticulture, one in music and one in culinary arts. That’s how we got our start. Now, we have programs [in] all three of those fields.

Why was a solution your first reaction instead of vengeance after losing your father?

It was more so a decision made by the matriarch of the family, my mother.

She wanted to get a nonprofit up and running in honor of my father. I had been — and continue to be — a serial entrepreneur. When the task of starting a new business came that was associated with the family, I naturally stepped in to help with the grieving process as well as the process of starting up the business.

What does a reaction like that say about your mom?

She has a great vision, and my father was very passionate about youth and the fields we train the youth in.

She’s definitely stood solid and took a negative thing — that could have just gotten extremely negative — and started working it towards a positive perspective. She has been able to shed light on different things in our communities that are good, as well as some of the bad things.

What are some of the skills you all teach the children?

Our culinary arts program is the program with the most traction right now.

It’s 10 weeks of training. You [have] eight weeks in the kitchen. We have a bakery pastry chef come in; we have different types of chefs. [We also have] the knife instructors and different things just so folks can be prepared to go out and work in the culinary field.

In the last two weeks of the course, they take the certification [test]. That way, they can work in any hotel, any kitchen facilities, anything like that. After the 10 weeks, we do job placement.

In our music program, you get to [choose] between three instruments: keyboard, drums and lead guitar. Lead guitar was the instrument my dad played… We also have vocal recording, just in case somebody doesn’t have money for studio time. If they’re not rapping about drilling or killing, they’re more than welcome to come in and record a project for 10 weeks. I also instruct the music business class.

We have horticulture weekends — that’s basically gardening. We have food deserts in our city and communities nationwide. We’re just teaching the youth how to toil and tend to [the] land. They don’t get so much job placement as the other two programs, but they get to work with other community gardens and botanical gardens through partnerships.

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